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This Writing Life: Setting the Tone in World-Building

1 September, 2014

I’ve been posting these Writing Life entries for some time now, and they typically reflect whichever stage of the writing process I’m currently at. However, my topics are nearly always something related to actually writing or editing – the early stages of planning novels and creating worlds I tend to keep to myself. Why? I suppose, in the past, there’s been a little part of me that’s worried about people ‘stealing my ideas’ – which is patently ridiculous, but is one of those little foibles all writers go through at one stage or another. I’m also aware that my process for world-building and starting novels is a) completely unsystematic, and b) different every time I do it.

Still, I’ll soon be writing the first draft of a new novel in an entirely new world, so I wanted to talk about how I got started with its creation. For me, concrete research comes later: at this stage, I’m focused entirely on developing the tone of my world in very broad strokes. That might include what rough, real-world time period the world will be based on; whether the setting is analogous to a real-world country or region; what the magic system might comprise in very general terms; whether the story will delve into the religion, or politics, or economy of the world I’m creating (I may well develop all three, but that doesn’t mean the plot will ever touch on them).

Now, it’s virtually impossible for me to start developing a novel with no idea of setting at all. The world, or at least some vague conception of it, usually comes to me before character, plot, or anything else. This stage of my world-building, then, involves taking that ‘vague conception’ and turning it into something concrete enough that I can start researching specifics. There are two main aspects to this: lots of notes, and lots of pictures.

The former means scribbling down every idea that occurs to me, no matter how ridiculous. Ideas for character, for plot, for details of the world – at this stage, all go down together, and each concept tends to strengthen others (deciding a character is going to use a certain type of magic means I have to find a place for that magic in my world, for example; and yes, character does often force the world in a certain direction at this point).

As I mentioned above, I often have a real-world time period or region in mind when pulling together my very early world-building ideas, and this is where pictures come in. A quick Google search will instantly give me images to help set the tone of my world. My latest novel, for example, started life with a sort of faux-Medieval Spain, so searching for images associated with ‘Medieval Spain’ instantly gives my world grounding. Will the finished setting be anything like the real Medieval Spain? Probably not, but at this point I’m just feeding my brain, giving it related information from which it can start building all the really juicy details.

As I write this post, I realise how hazy this process sounds (and why I haven’t blogged about it before!). It is hazy, even for me, but the key concept is simply this: gathering together as many inspirations as possible, then letting them swirl around together until more concrete ideas emerge. Additionally, it’s important not to discount anything at this stage. Trying to force your story and world in a certain direction can easily turn them into something stale and probably something you’ve seen done before, whilst letting your subconscious throw up ideas that feel completely disconnected can sometimes lead your story down avenues you’d never have considered otherwise.

Review of ‘Fragments: Alora’s Tear, Volume 1′ by Nathan Barham

21 August, 2014

I don’t tend to do in-depth reviews of books very often, but I was very kindly provided with an advance review copy of ‘Fragments’ by the author, and as I’ve posted this on Goodreads and Amazon, thought it might as well have a page of its own here on the blog.

It’s fair to say that there are a few tropes in fantasy – often those that entered the genre via Tolkien – that have fallen out of favour in recent years. Reading ‘Fragments’, however, you start to wonder why.

The story begins with a particularly important moment in the formative years of our protagonist, the half-elf Askon. However, ‘Fragments’ is not a coming-of-age story, for which I was glad – instead, when we rejoin Askon after the prologue, he’s already an adult and a military commander, respected enough in his community to be considered to take over the helm of its leadership. First, though, he has one last assignment to undertake, and it’s fair to say it doesn’t run smoothly.

That assignment gives Barham a chance to really show off what I considered the novel’s two main strengths: its combat scenes and its world-building descriptions. For the latter, we get skilfully described landscapes and a real sense of place that does an excellent job of contrasting Askon’s idyllic home with the locations he later finds himself in; the former are even stronger, with tense, fast-paced fight scenes.

My only two real gripes with ‘Fragments’ are, as much as anything, my personal bugbears with a lot of traditional fantasy. First of all, there’s a bit too much travelling for my liking, and whilst Barham handles this well – with those strong descriptions and some interesting conversations taking place along the route – I still felt there were moments in the first half of the book when the plot was stalling for the sake of getting the characters from place to place. Secondly, there were a lack of female characters in the novel, but as ‘Fragments’ is really only the opening chapter in a series and features a fairly limited cast at this stage, I’m willing to give Barham the benefit of the doubt here.

That limited cast has expanded, too, by the end of the novel, as apparently disparate plot strands start to knit together. ‘Fragments’ continues to throw unexpected twists into the mix right until the end, providing a sense of mystery throughout, yet without resorting to a cliff-hanger. Instead, we get both closure and a sense that the story is just about to open up, widening the scope of both the world and its dangers in later volumes. That’s not to suggest there’s anything unsatisfying either about the conclusion or the rest of the novel, however. Instead, this is an excellent début that that simply hints at even better things to come.

Resurrecting An Indie Adventure

21 August, 2014

Back in the spring of last year, my partner and I started a new blog – An Indie Adventure – dedicated to reviewing the puzzle, adventure and RPG games that we both so love to play. Unfortunately, after the first few posts, we ran out of steam; or, more precisely, our lives kicked into a completely different gear, leaving us with very little gaming time (my own writing and this blog also suffered as a result).

Now, however, as you might be able to tell from my increased posting here, we’ve got a lot more time on our hands, and felt it was time to resurrect our neglected gaming blog. An Indie Adventure, therefore, is getting back on its feet, with the first new review appearing this week. If you’re at all interested in video games – particularly indie titles in the adventure and RPG genres – we hope you’ll check it out.

Summer Reading 2014

18 August, 2014

I’ve been talking a lot about writing recently, and I haven’t come to the end of my music-related posts either. However, it’s time for a break in all that, for one of my regularly scheduled reading updates – and as my reading time has been boosted immensely lately (one of the hazards of owning a new business that hasn’t yet got off the ground), I’ve been charging through books as quickly as I can choose them. Here are a few of my favourites.

Umbral – Antony Johnston & Christopher Mitten     Let’s break with tradition and start with a graphic novel. It’s fair to say I don’t read much in the way of comics – I’ve always found myself daunted by the back catalogues of the big publishers, Marvel and DC, and also fairly uninterested in their endless revamps of the same characters. However, I’ve recently dipped into indie comics for the first time and found a much more appealing selection awaiting me. Umbral is, actually, the perfect starting point for a reader like me: the sort of well-developed fantasy world I’d expect from a novel, a headstrong female protagonist, and smart, snappy dialogue. The story is intriguing and sinister in equal measure, the artwork appropriately moody, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Prince of Thorns – Mark Lawrence     Prince of Thorns is one of those books that has received a huge amount of hype ever since its release. It also falls fairly firmly into the ‘grimdark’ category, which is a section of the fantasy genre I find myself frequently drawn to, without ever actually liking the books I find there. I’m still not entirely sure I liked Prince of Thorns either, which might make its inclusion in this list a little odd – except I raced through it in less than a week and will probably pick up the rest of the series. In truth, I suspect Jorg, the central character, isn’t exactly supposed to be likeable, but Lawrence’s writing is so strong and compelling that I couldn’t help but enjoy this one.

Pantomime – Laura Lam     I picked up Pantomime following the implosion of its publishing imprint, Strange Chemistry. Now, I feel I should get one confession out of the way: Pantomime is a book set almost entirely in a circus, and I really hate circuses. I find them deeply creepy, and clowns even more so. It’s amazing, then, that I enjoyed Pantomime so much, a fact I attribute solely to the characters. Micah, in particular, is such a wonderful character, determined and vulnerable in equal measure. There are all sorts of mysteries scattered throughout the book, too, which feel appropriately placed rather than there simply to tease the reader – we discover aspects of the world as Micah does – yet Pantomime always puts the characters first, and rightly so.

A Natural History of Dragons – Marie Brennan     Finally, we come to one of my most recent reads. By the fact that I finished A Natural History of Dragons in less than three days, it would be fair to surmise I adored it. Female character fighting against the conventions of her day (Victorian era, at a guess, or Brennan’s equivalent of it), not to marry an inappropriate suitor, but to pursue her scientific fascination with dragons? What’s not to love?! Brennan also writes Victorian-style prose effortlessly, evoking a time and place without ever being stuffy, and making the whole book a joy to read. I almost ran out and bought the sequel as soon as I’d finished A Natural History, but managed to contain myself. Just (and probably not for much longer)!

This Writing Life: Music and Writing, Part 2

14 August, 2014

In my last post, I talked about music as a means of helping you to write, using it as a distraction, to improve concentration, or as a timer. Today, I’m looking at the other side of the equation: using specific music to help in the writing of specific projects.

It’s not uncommon to come across authors, particularly those writing series, who use music as inspiration or mood-setting. Certain songs will be associated with certain scenes, characters or locations – playing those songs immediately sets the tone and mood for writing about those things.

Now, I can’t tell you how to go out and pick a specific song for your protagonist, say. I’m not even sure you should. This is one of those situations where a song is much more likely to come to you at random, either because it gets stuck in your head while you’re writing said character, or reminds you of them when you hear it. Once you’ve found that song, though, listening to it can help you return to that character’s personality and thoughts, particularly when you’re struggling to capture them.

In the same way, music is a great tool for setting a mood more generally. I talked about Spotify playlists in my last post, and whilst I was referring to improving concentration for writing in general, there are several that set a much more specific mood. Perhaps your characters are going to a party and you want to hear what they’d be hearing and feel the same surge of adrenaline; perhaps you simply need to write a scene that’s joyful, or melancholic, or dark and angry. Finding music that evokes these emotions can be one of the quickest ways to translate that same emotion onto the page.

And then there are songs that are an inspiration in themselves. Songs often tell a story of their own (more on than in a future post!), and sometimes that story can spark ideas for your writing. As an example, the music and song titles from MONO’s ‘Hymn to the Immortal Wind’ album inspired me to write a short story filled with angry ghosts and snow-bound peaks; for some reason, those images simply popped into my head whilst listening to it (and it’s an entirely instrumental album, so that really was images conveyed through music). Other songs tell stories through their lyrics: certain lines from Vienna Teng’s ‘Blue Caravan’ send a shiver through me at every listen, and frequently make me imagine the world in which the featured character lives.

Music is just as personal a form of creativity as writing, and the same goes for listening to it. The emotions created in one listener will be entirely absent in another, or will call to mind something completely different. Learning which songs or artists trigger particular moods for you, or evoke certain characters, or simply tell stories that move you, can be invaluable for writers – they can be windows into worlds we wouldn’t otherwise have visited, and ways to revisit them when they otherwise seem lost.

This Writing Life: Writing and Music, Part 1

12 August, 2014

It’s fair to say that I’m a big fan of music. I’ve never played an instrument, but since my early teenage years I must have spent thousands of pounds on CDs, attending concerts, and various other music paraphernalia. (I did once do a rough estimate on what my CD collection had cost me up to that point; I think it came out at over £1000, and that was years ago, before I’d even left school.) I’ve been a semi-stalker/groupie of my favourite metal bands, I’ve travelled all over the country to see them play I’ve been to a festival in Germany twice, and there was a time when I was never out of a band t-shirt.

These days, I still attend gigs, still buy CDs and – most importantly for the purposes of this post – still glue myself to Spotify whenever I sit down to write. (Incidentally, if you want to know what I’ve been listening to recently, follow the link in the sidebar to my Last.fm page.) I’ve discovered, over time, that I can use music in a number of ways to actually make myself write, to improve my concentration, and to make myself write for longer.

Now, I know there are plenty of writers out there who need (or at least think they need) perfect silence in which to write. I might once have been one of them. However, by the time I was at university, I’d discovered that the rest of the world (a.k.a. everywhere that wasn’t the very rural landscape I grew up in) wasn’t very good at providing perfect silence. Music, then, became a way to block out other distractions and allow me to focus on my writing.

There’s one method, then: music as distraction. If the world around you is busy and frantic, putting on a pair of headphones with something soothing in them can be the perfect way to improve your mood and concentration. I’ve found Spotify particularly invaluable here, as they provide a number of ever-changing playlists designed specifically for these purposes (I’m listening to one called ‘Deep Focus’ right now – it’s almost entirely instrumental). Nothing lets me shut out the world quite like music, and with these playlists I can simply sit down at the computer, put one on, and think about nothing save the words on my page.

However, there are times when choosing a specific song or album can be equally invaluable. Sometimes that can be a means of providing a specific mood for a piece of writing, about which I’ll say more in my next post. When any music will do, though, I find putting on a full album particularly helpful when I’m struggling to focus on writing. This album is just 50 minutes long, I tell myself. All you have to do is sit here for 50 minutes and try to write something. No walking away from the computer until the album has finished.

Nearly always, by the time the music has finished, I’ll have written, and frequently find myself putting on more music to push myself for, say, another 50 minutes. You could use a timer in the same way, but I’m a bit of a stickler for listening to a whole album once I’ve started, so music works far better to keep me in my seat than a simple timer ever could.

So, I’ve talked about music as distraction, to improve your frame of mind, and to keep you in your seat. In my next post, I’ll be looking at specific music for specific projects: as a means of creating mood, getting into the heads of your characters, and even inspiring whole stories.

This Writing Life: Writing From Dreams

9 August, 2014

It’s fair to say that a lot of my writing attention has gone into a single world recently, namely the city of Ardom Wave which features so heavily in my first Ark & Fable novella (and in the sequel). Whilst considering writing a post about the creation of that setting, I started thinking about where the seeds for that particular idea grew from. When I remembered, I had to laugh: Ardom Wave came to me, quite literally, in a dream.

Now, I don’t usually pay much attention to dreams. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious what your brain is trying to tell you, and at other times it’s not worth trying to decipher the gibberish. Add to that the fact I rarely remember my dreams anyway, and you’ll realise I’m not about to suggest you start keeping a dream diary and mining it for every story you commit to the page. However, just occasionally, my sleeping mind provides me with something quite different, something I can quite clearly identify as a story, and something I might have come up with whilst awake.

These very rare dreams are, I find, like watching a film, start to finish. If I could write them down, I think they’d have a fairly coherent plot and be put together in the same way I’d usually plot a novel (I’m very visual when it comes to imagining scenes anyway, and I can usually describe the setting as though it were a film set). Of course, remembering that plot once awake is the tricky part, but I still tend to recall enough to build a story around what remains.

A couple of specific instances come to mind, here. One very much falls into that dreaming-an-entire-story category, and though I could only remember the last ‘scene’ once I woke, it left an incredibly striking image that I’ve been trying to work into a novel ever since. (In this particular instance, just that final scene provides both the entire setting and much of the plot leading up to it, and although I’ve written a nearly full draft of the story, it somehow didn’t work out as satisfactorily as I would have liked.)

And then we come to Ardom Wave. This time, there was no story, just a very clear image of a valley filled with pillars, attached to that name. I spent a good week convinced it was a setting I’d lifted from elsewhere, name and all, but Google revealed nothing and I came to the conclusion that the setting was one I’d imagined myself. Whilst the Ardom in the dream was an entirely natural landscape, turning it into a city for the Ark & Fable series seemed to come naturally, and has provided the perfect location to build those stories around.

As I said before, developing stories from dreams can be a haphazard business, and I certainly wouldn’t trust them to provide more than an occasional flash of inspiration. However, even that can be just what you need to spark an entire plot, character or world, so when your unconscious mind provides you with a helping hand, sometimes it’s wise to listen!

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