7 Deadly Sins of SFF World-Building

Writing science fiction and fantasy is fun, and in my opinion, world-building is the bestest most funnest part. Whether you’re writing urban, historical, or alt-world fantasy, or a science fiction set in a galaxy far far away, world-building is a crucial part of the story-telling process. The world (or universe!) you create must be complex and multi-layered; it must be a place your characters operate in and interact with; and it must set the stage for your plot. It’s no easy task, and there are countless pitfalls at every stage of the process of creating a world.

Read to jump in? Here are my top cliches and tropes to avoid, listed in no particular order.

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Basing your other world TOO much on Earth

This is one of the biggest and easiest traps to fall into. Earth’s history and many cultures are far-reaching and complex, and it can be tempting to borrow elements whole-sale without bothering to do much work creatively. Think of how many famous fantasy worlds resemble Medieval-era Earth completely, right on down to the rampant sexism and casual racism (*cough* Westeros *cough*). There’s nothing wrong with using our world’s history and cultures to inspire your made-up world, but make sure it doesn’t become a lazy short-cut. If there’s sexism or lack of diversity in your world, you need a better reason than “that’s how things were back then.” You’re writing fantasy, not historical fiction. Get creative!

Over-use of common nouns

You know what I’m talking about…

The Keeper of the Shadow Throne awaits the Birth of the Kindred.

A Rim-born Elder must name the Crystal Celebrant on the Day of Undoing.

Don’t get me wrong–naming things is half the fun of writing fantasy and science fiction. And capitalizing a regular old word or concept can definitely lend it a sort of otherworldly gravitas. Just be careful not to over-use this trope, or your world will quickly begin to feel lazy and unoriginal.

perfect_planet-626x1024Making your races/cultures/societies too homogenous

So the indigo-skinned Topworlders enslaved the ruby-eyed Burrow Folk a hundred years ago, and now they hate each other with a vengeance. That’s fine, but does every Topworlder relish owning a Burrow slave? And do all Burrow Folk agree with the politics of the Burrow Queen who surrendered to the Topworlders’ superior technology instead of fighting for their land?

Here’s where taking cues from humanity is a good thing. I could strike up a conversation with the person sitting beside me on the bus and within ten minutes we’d be able to think of at least a few things we disagreed on–politics, religion, whether cilantro tastes like soap. Races, cultures, even sub-cultures don’t have monolithic beliefs that trump individuality. Make sure the individuals in your alien races or fantasy societies reflect this diversity.

Introducing a world-changing technology/magic without taking into account all its ramifications

“It’s like our world, but everyone can teleport!”

Yikes. The minute you start talking about wide-spread teleportation, it ceases to be anything like our world. How could it be? Something as potentially life-changing as that would have first-order, second-order, and third-order effects on the way a world was structured and the way its citizens operated within it. Do your world the service of thinking through massive changes in technology or magical power, and what kind of structural changes might arise from that.

Language that doesn’t reflect the world

Contextual short-hands and idioms are rife in the English language (or whatever language you’re writing in!) and they can really trip you up if you’re not careful. This is something I’m constantly correcting in my own worlds–if a concept or idea doesn’t exist in the world you’re creating, why would the character make any kind of reference to it? Good examples of this might be “inching along” if the unit of measurement isn’t inches, or “red as a rose” when there aren’t roses in space.

paperback04Not thinking about minutiae

Do you ever have that moment when you’re watching an intense adventure movie and you think to yourself “Good thing none of them have had to poop this whole time.”?

Worlds, at their core, are pretty boring. Your character may be battling the Dark Overlord of Doom, but the rest of the world isn’t. There’s waste removal and food service and communication infrastructure and architecture and the menial jobs that hold a society together. While your novel doesn’t have to focus inordinately on these things, it helps if you as an author have a basic understanding of how these processes work in your world, so there’s a seamless backdrop for the story to play out against.

Unless you’ve created a magical and majestic world were people literally just don’t poop.

Basing one-dimensional fictional ethnic groups on real-life ethnic groups

Okay, this is basically a continuation of the very first point, but it’s kind of a biggie. Rule of thumb, if you want to have Italians (or Native Americans, or the Irish, or Nigerians) in your fantasy or science fiction novel, you’re going to have to do your utmost to create an accurate and nuanced view of Italian culture. What you cannot do–please please don’t–is name them Etolians and have them running around shouting “Mamma Mia!” while they stuff their faces with spaghetti.

Any cultural or ethnic group within your novel should have multiple dimensions and a believable culture regardless of whether your main character comes from this culture or sees it as “other.” And this is where it gets tricky–the more your fictional group resembles the real-world group, the more you’re going to have to worry about being respectful and true to life. This becomes especially true when dealing with marginalized groups, but should really be implemented across the board. When in doubt, find a sensitivity reader, but that should be your back-up plan. Do your homework, and make sure you’re not basing a fictional ethnic group on a real-world ethnic group just because it’s easy.

Well, that’s world-building in a very large nutshell. Any questions? At the end of the day, creating a made-up world as complex, multi-faceted, and often nonsensical as our own world isn’t something that happens overnight. Take your time, be creative, and don’t rely on short-hand to make your point.

What are your favorite/least favorite SFF world-building tropes? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

 

Back to Basics

Here at Spellbound Scribes, most of us are old pros when it comes to writing. Whether we’ve published several books and stories or have just been at the grind for years, the mechanics and spirit of writing have been ingrained upon our lives, etched in black ink for all to see. Which can make it easy to forget that not all writers have gotten so far in the process. Some writers are still at the very beginning, grappling with questions of how to write, and perhaps even more importantly, why.

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Be inspired

Sometimes I dabble in answering questions at the community-sourced Q&A site Quora. I recently stumbled upon a question from a young writer who reveled in the simple pleasures of putting language to paper, but wondered whether that was enough. Should one have a literary voice that came through on paper? And did it count as writing if there was no deep meaning or profound content? The questions shook me, and I realized it’s been so long since I thought about the simple but deep-seated questions at the very heart of being a writer.

Here are my thoughts:

Writing for writing’s sake, whether poetry or prose, is enough. I strongly advise any young/new/inexperienced writers to unburden themselves of any expectations or assumptions about what writing is, what it looks and feels like, or what it’s supposed to accomplish. Words have power—feel them thunder through your veins, hungry for freedom. Then let them tumble forth, unbridled. Enjoying yourself while putting words to paper is wonderful, and not something everyone is lucky enough to experience.

In fact, after years and more manuscripts—finished and unfinished—than I care to mention, this purity of feeling arising from the act of creation has changed in many complex, indefinable ways. My relationship to setting words to paper has altered irrevocably, and I linger with occasional envy on the memory of what it was like to write before I was a writer. Never for long—after all, that impulse is what brought me to this point. Still, no one should ever apologize for writing for the joy of writing.

Personality comes from practice. In writing, having personality bleed through into your writing is called voice. Some writers have very strong internal voices that inform their writing (think Chuck Palahniuk, Ernest Hemingway, or Maya Angelou) and leap off the page, as recognizable as faces or names. Developing your voice as a writer is a process that can take years, and the Spellbound Scribes have discussed it at length in various blog posts throughout the years. Here’s the TL;DR on the basics:

Read widely. Non-fiction, fiction, magazines, novels, blogs—read everything you can get your hands on. Exposing yourself to a broad variety of voices will allow you to begin to grasp what appeals to you, or clenches your jaw, or echoes in your bones with a feeling you can’t name.

Be sure you grasp the basics of grammar, syntax, diction, and punctuation. Some of the most well-known authors bend these rules in pursuit of voice, but intention is key. You have to understand a rule before you can effectively break it.

Let your real voice shine through into your literary voice. Do you swear a lot in real life? Swear in your writing. Do you use slang? Figures of speech? Are you brusque and to the point, or do you prefer poetic turns of phrase and flowery descriptions? Identifying your real-world voice can help you define your literary voice.

Be true to yourself, but also don’t be afraid to experiment. As Steven King says in On Writing (a book I highly recommend for any writer, new or experienced):

“You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury—everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine. I wrote stories in my teenage years where all these styles merged, creating a kind of hilarious stew.”

There is no Platonic ideal of “meaning” in writing, nor should there be. Meaning arises from two areas in the practice of writing: what an author means or intends in their writing, and how any given reader interprets that meaning upon reading what the author has written. A writer are responsible for only one of those areas—the first.

Nietzsche wrote: “Thus the man who is responsive to artistic stimuli reacts to the reality of dreams as does the philosopher to the reality of existence; he observes closely, and he enjoys his observation: for it is out of these images that he interprets life, out of these processes that he trains himself for life.”

Watch, listen, read, write, repeat. Live a life rich with adventure, and emotion, and intention. Fill the well of creativity with beautiful, strange, incomprehensible things. Be present in your life, fly on magic carpets to faraway lands, cavort through dreams and night-time fancies. Everything else will grow naturally on its own. In the meantime, enjoy the wild ride!

“I have to be rent and pulled apart and live according to the demons and the imagination in me. I’m restless. Things are calling me away. My hair is being pulled by the stars again.”

Anais Nin

Write With Your Nose

A fellow writer recently shared a pretty hilarious online word generator, called “What Does Your Hero Smell Like?” When you enter the name of a protagonist or love interest, it automatically generates a unique smell just for them. Some gems for my characters included Sunder, who smelled like “meat and luck” (ewwww), and Rogan, “clean sheets and wreckage” (I…kind of…like that one). The generator is obviously supposed to be humorous, but it got me thinking a little more critically about how I use the sense of smell in my writing.

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If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably heard advice about how to write with all five senses. But in my experience, not all senses get top billing. Sight is the obvious leader, with hearing, touch, taste and smell trailing somewhere behind. Every sense deserves to be explored to fully paint a picture of whatever story you’re trying to tell, but in my opinion, the olfactory senses hold a special place in a writer’s arsenal.

Due to the anatomy of the human brain, smell is actually closely linked to memory, more so than any other sense. (Here’s an interesting article in Psychology Today about the effect, if you’re interested to know more!) Smells are basically encoded onto our memories, so that revisiting certain smells can directly trigger those precise memories. “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” author, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes in her book, A Natural History of the Senses. And, for better or for worse, odors also elicit the emotions buried within those specific memories. A smell can just as easily bring back a happy memory as it can trigger something traumatic.

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So, how can you use this in your writing? The possibilities are endless, so be creative! On a  basic level–and in conjunction with the other four senses–observing ambient smells in a story can flesh out the setting. But go a little deeper. Smells can be a fantastic way to introduce flashbacks for character development–anything from the whiff of an old lover’s cologne to the scent of wood-smoke on the air to a grandmother’s dryer sheets can bring back important memories. Smells can also evoke different places and different times for POV characters, introducing the possibility of foreshadowing and/or parallel structure. When employing the objective correlative, the odors noticed by a character in a certain situation can reflect how they themselves are perceiving the world around them.

And finally, although most of us modern humans go out of our way to cover up our natural scents with deodorant, perfume, and cologne, individuals do have individual physical scents. And whatever that odor might be–nasty or nice, pungent or pleasant–finding a way to describe your fictional character’s personal smell can go a long way towards accentuating their personality, and defining their place in the world.

Please, just don’t let it be “meat and luck!”

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It’s My Birthday, I’ll Blog If I Want To

Happy Imbolc/Candlemas/Groundhog Day, folks! And guess what? It also happens to be the anniversary of the day I, uh, drifted peacefully into this wide, weird, wonderful world! So I thought I’d take a few minutes away from stuffing my face full of cake and screaming my head off obsessively reading the news to share a little of what’s been going on with me!

giphy1Birthdays for me are always a time of reflection, and sometimes I get moody when I think of all the things I didn’t manage to do in the past calendar year. But today, I’d like to celebrate the things I have done. It’s been a pretty full year of working and writing and reading, but I’ve also managed to squeeze in some fun trips, pursue some health and fitness goals, and even carve out some headspace when necessary. (Recently, that’s been a lot.)

One of the highlights of my year was definitely a vacation to Scotland. The husband and I rented a rustic cottage on the Isle of Mull, way out in the Inner Hebrides, just across the bay from Iona, where Dark Age monks famously protected the Book of Kells from the Vikings. The landscape was absolutely stunning, with iron-dark tors draped in purple heather and grey fog. When the sun peeked from behind clouds the ocean sparkled blue as a sapphire. We hiked and rambled, visited a few distilleries, and ate our collective weight in shortbread. Leaving was like saying goodbye to an old friend you never knew you had, and we hope to visit again as soon as we can. *rustles around in the couch cushions for spare change*

16466223_10110227003544731_104815964_oOn the writing front, in early Autumn of last year I completed the millionth final draft of my latest YA fantasy novel, AMBER & DUSK. Set in a world where the sun never sets, a young woman with a mysterious bloodline wagers for a place at court, only to be tangled in a courtly web of cunning courtiers and predatory royals. Sylvie struggles to master her magical gift while dodging cruel pranks, vicious insults, and possible disgrace. And as beautiful as the palais seems, its mirrored hallways, winter gardens, and gilded marble are nothing more than a mirage to hide a brutal past and deadly secrets.

photofunkyMy agent loved it! …And we’ve been in query hell ever since. But it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and I really hope I’ll be able to share it with the world soon. If you’re curious to know more, I hope you’ll check out my Pinterest inspo board for a feel of the world’s aesthetic.

Since then, I’ve been working on a YA standalone romance that I’m tentatively billing as a Celtic fairytale retelling of Swan Lake. It’s pretty different from anything I’ve written before, with a moody vibe, a contemplative pace, and a very small cast. It’s been excruciating snail-like slow going these past few months, but I’m hoping to hit my stride again soon and crank out the first draft!

giphyAnd the rest is just little things! I’ve finished a few short stories, cobbled together from the odds and ends of books I never ended up writing. I’m hoping to shop them around soon. I’m contemplating a complete facelift of my main author website, Lyra Selene, but am utterly terrified since I can’t computer. If you or anyone you know is a regular programming whiz kid drop me a line…I’ll make you an offer you will probably refuse. And finally, I have some exciting–but still nascent–news I hope to share soon, so keep your eyes peeled and I promise to keep you posted…before my next birthday!

Holidays Are For Reading

christmasbooksI was always a voracious reader. As a kid, most of my free time was spent reading. Picture books, chapter books, horse magazines, fairy tales; pretty much anything I could get my grubby little hands on. But as I got older, school and friends and extracurricular activities started taking up more of my free time, and my reading time was more and more often confined to bedtime and weekends (heavens forbid). And that’s when I discovered the magical time known as the winter holidays.

Just think–two glorious weeks empty of schoolwork and extracurriculars! Friends off to visit relatives or tied up with family obligations. Shorter days. The winter break was, for me, a series of long, beautiful hours just asking to be filled up with reading. Plus, for Christmas I was guaranteed a pile of new and exciting books just waiting to be cracked open and devoured.

In middle school, my grandmother sent me Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. I sat curled up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire for hours and hours and hours. I did not come up for air until I had read every wonderful word of that book, and when I finally dragged myself off the couch it was to insist that my mom drive me to the bookstore to buy the next two installments (The Goblet of Fire wouldn’t come out for two years yet.)

Even though I’m older and the winter holidays are no longer completely free of obligations, this time of year still provides a special opportunity to curl up and read. Some of my happiest memories involve Christmas lights, a cozy blanket, and a great book. No matter where in the world I am, or who I spend the holidays with, I can always count on ample opportunities to stick my nose firmly in my novel of choice  and keep it there until I choose.

I’ve devoured a lot of books in my life, but some of my favorite and most memorable reading experiences have happened over the holidays. The first Harry Potter book. Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell. I had my heart broken by The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. One Christmas, I even burned through both The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. And those are not short books. 

In short, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas for me without a healthy dose of binge-reading. So if you’ve been busy with gifts and cooking and entertaining, maybe take a minute (or hour) to sit down with that book you’ve been meaning to read. Or check out my list of Favorite Holiday Reads from a few years ago if your TBR (To-Be-Read) list is looking a little thin! You deserve it.

Do you love reading over the holiday season? Do any books feature in special holiday memories? Share your thoughts below!

*This post originally appeared at LyraSelene.com

Doppelgängers

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Mirror, mirror

Picture this: you’re standing in front of the mirror, brushing your teeth. Your reflection stares placidly back. A whistle from the kitchen startles you–you turn to look into the kitchen, and you see the noise is just the kettle going off. You turn your gaze back to the mirror, and in that instant, out of the corner of your eye, you are certain that your reflection has not moved. You lock eyes with yourself, but your reflection seems suddenly wrong. Are your eyes really so dark? Your chin so sharp?

But no. You tell yourself you’re just being stupid. Of course that’s what your reflection looks like–it’s you, after all. Isn’t it?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s your doppelgänger.

Although the German word doppelgänger, translating literally to “double-goer,” is a relatively recent addition to the vernacular, the concept of an alter-ego or shadow self appears frequently in the mythology and folk-lore of many world cultures. Although a physical lookalike or double of the person in question, a doppelgänger often takes the role of a darker counterpart to the self. In many cultures, it is said that to catch a glimpse of one’s doppelgänger is a harbinger of bad luck, and potentially an omen of one’s own death.

How They Met Themselves, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
How They Met Themselves,
by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ka was a tangible “spirit double” possessing the same memories and feelings as the physical counterpart. In some myths, the shadow double could be manipulated to perform tasks or duties while acting as their physical counterpart. In Norse mythology, a vardøger was a spirit predecessor, a shadowy double preceding a living person in location or activity, resulting in witnesses seeing or hearing a person before they actually arrived. And in Celtic mythology, a fetch was an exact, spectral double of a person, whose appearance was ominous in nature, often foretelling a person’s imminent death. The fetch could also act as a psychopomp, stealing away the soul of their living double and transporting them to the realm of the dead.

The concept of a dark double appears frequently in literature and pop culture as well. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” explores the idea of a doppelgängers with a reversal on the traditional “evil twin” story–one of the doubles is amoral and debauched, yet his wicked schemes are always being unmasked by his virtuous identical. Charlie Chaplin’s seminal film “The Great Dictator” also explores the idea of evil twins, where Chaplin plays both the good, simple barber and the megalomaniacal, Hitler-esque dictator. Even the modern show “The Vampire Diaries” has a doppelgänger story-line; Elena Gilbert’s vampire double Katerina is everything spice to Elena’s nice. Katerina is sexy where Elena is pretty, violent where Elena is gentle, and traitorous where Elena is loyal.

But why is the doppelgänger myth so prevalent in folklore and modern culture? What makes us so frightened of our shadowy doubles?

Myself, my shadow self
Myself, my shadow self

In Jungian psychology, the “shadow self” refers to the unconscious or less desirable aspects of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself. In other words, the shadow self is a vehicle and receptacle for our deepest secrets and darkest fears, living in the darkest corners of our souls. And, no matter how much we reject them, these dark doubles are ultimately our own worst selves reflected back at us.

Perhaps the myth of the doppelgänger arose from this sense of shadow and darkness lurking within everyone. We are our own evil twins, spectral doubles confined to one body. Perhaps that is why, when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a darkened mirror or a pane of glass, we feel unsettled, reverberating with the echoes of familiarity and yet, unfamiliarity.

Perhaps, in the end, we are all haunted by the ghosts of ourselves.

Do you have a favorite doppelgänger or evil twin story? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

BTAF ’16 Panels

The Boston Teen Author Festival (BTAF) is a yearly event that celebrates YA fiction in the Boston area, aimed at connecting the Boston-area YA fanbase with the best authors in the industry. This is the second year I’ve attended, and for me, it’s a great opportunity to keep abreast of interesting ideas and trends in my industry, meet authors whom I’ve either only met online or who write books I admire, and come home with a bunch of book swag! (Because you can never have enough books, right? RIGHT?)

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Michael Buckley, Malinda Lo, Victoria Schwab

The first panel I attended was titled “Speculative Fiction Reflecting Our World,” and consisted of Victoria/V.E. Schwab, Malinda Lo, and Michael Buckley. First, the authors spoke about what drew them to speculative fiction. Schwab spoke about always wanting the world to be a little stranger than it was, and wanting to explore the notion that magic is just out of reach, accessible if only you knew how to reach behind the curtain. Lo noted the ability of fantastical elements in contemporary settings to allow for use of metaphor, which heightens the experience of the story. Buckley spoke about growing up as “basically one of those kids in Stranger Things” and loving the iconic battle between good and evil.

The authors then spoke about how speculative fiction, without being “supposed to” do anything, has the ability to reflect the real world through a fresh lens. Fantastical elements, whether they are science fiction or fantasy, challenge the reader to think about things they think they know in a different way. And while Schwab particularly noted that for her stories, escapism comes first, tragedies, pains, and issues, when presented in new worlds, take on new meaning. And while Lo pointed out that there are “no new ideas,” taking what’s been done in and presenting it in new ways offers a base of familiarity when including “alien” elements. Buckley wrapped up the discussion by saying that ultimately, speculative fiction is about being human, and these stories show you yourself in one way or another. Love, hate, war; all aspects of the human experience are reflected through a lens in speculative fiction.

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Roshani Chokshi, Zoraida Cordova, Daniel Jose Older

Later, I attended a panel entitled “Magic Beyond the Grave,” with panelists Roshani Chokshi, Zoraida Cordova, and Daniel Jose Older. The authors began by discussing the role of Death in teen fiction. Cordova noted how this common thread relates to young adults’ often complicated relationships with their ancestors and families, coupled with the burgeoning realization of their own mortality. Older spoke more specifically about how the presence of underworlds and death in his book took its power from the counter-narrative, specifically relating to his POC characters. For him, a traditional ghost story was too simplistic, and allowing his characters to embody a more complex relationship with the dead explored notions of power and ancestry in non-White narratives.

Chokshi then pointed out how reactions to and celebrations regarding death differ across the cultural spectrum. In Hindu belief, for example, death is a door to a new life, and the final release is an escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. For her, this opened up interesting avenues in her own fiction, as she explored notions of shadows, memories, and who we might have been before. She also spoke about how in so many underworld narratives, female characters are the closest to death and other aspects of the supernatural, and wanting to explore female power with regards to this; what if Persephone was not tricked, but had chosen to rule over the dead instead of living a mortal life with no power? Cordova expanded this point by mentioning that often, that which is forbidden to women in mythology, fiction, and even reality, is power, and denying it is a kind of internalized misogyny. Older agreed, saying that in his book, the patriarchy denies ancestral magic to women, thereby denying them links to both the supernatural and, via their ancestors, death itself.

The authors wrapped up the session speaking about their writing processes. While Cordova is a die-hard outliner, and relies on lots of planning to keep her on track, Chokshi  stressed the importance of flow; “remember the Orpheus myth, and never look back.” Older emphasized that regardless of your process, you should honor your work, trust yourself, LOVE your writing, and give yourself permission to create art.

Overall, the festival was another great experience and I came away with a lot to think about regarding the stories I want to tell! Have you been to any great panels recently? Let me know in the comments!