Pre-Writing

Fantasy Tropes and Cliches – Beginning with the World

When someone says “epic fantasy” there is a general idea of what it will entail: woods and forests, elves and dwarves, adventurers and magicians and fighting and quests. All in a medieval-style setting. Possibly with dragons. 🙂 Tolkien is much to blame for this. But he isn’t alone.  Book after book after book falls into these same cliche’d storylines. Often, it is the plot that we blame.  We say it is poor storytelling.  But beyond plot, another way that we promote fantasy tropes and cliches is in our very worldbuilding.  Medieval setting? Elf land, dwarven mountains, major port city, a desert land occupied by nomads…all are things we have seen over and over. So perhaps, the best place to start when addressing cliches isn’t in the story, but the world itself.

🙂 Sarithus on Deviant Art says this all in a very simple, very amusing, and very true map. We give you the “Map of Clichea.”

Map of Clichea by Sarithus

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(Non) Video Saturday: #HarryPotter Plot Spreadsheet

When writing, we all have different ways of organizing our thoughts and ideas. Below is a fun little piece of history from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  This page (you can click to view it in a larger format) covers chapters 13 through 24.

You can find more details at Endpaper but I’ll quote just a little from there:

Part of this page’s charm, of course, is it’s roughness. It’s handwritten in cursive on loose leaf paper; the column lines weren’t done with a ruler; many words and paragraphs are scratched out or re-written. She may be J.K. Rowling, brilliant best-selling author of the Harry Potter series, but a document like this can be created by anyone…

…Note that some columns have nothing written in them and others vary from having complex to simple details. (The initial “Order of the Phoenix” columns have very simple details: Chapter 13 is called “Recruiting”, chapter 14 says “first meeting”; chapter 20, on the other hand, just says “big meeting”.)

JK-Rowlings-Phoenix-Plot-Outline

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No Outlining Involved! 5 Pre-Story Time Saving Tips for Pantsers

If you’re a pantser, which is a writer who doesn’t outline, you know how hard it is to find any kind of tips that work for the way you write.  Just about every time saving tip either involves some form of outlining or tells us we should be outlining, and frankly, it doesn’t help!

Bria Quinlan says,  “To people outside pantsing, sometimes it looks easy. You just sit down and write and the words flow. Um, yeah. No.”

Maybe this is why there’s a lack of anything much out there for us.  So try these ideas out, see what works, and make up some of your own.  This is some stuff you can do before you write the story that doesn’t involve any kind of outlining and might be kind of fun.

1. Researching when you don’t know what the story is yet

Now I don’t know if you’re one of the people who likes research or not, but as a pantser, research to me has always been a barrier to getting started on the fun part: writing the story.  I also don’t like research.  It reminds me too much of school homework, and the way writers act about digging out obscure details makes me feel like everyone is grading me.  But as a pantser, I have the additional challenge that I don’t actually know what I need for the story!

The result is that when I research, I end up doing it while I am writing the story (story stoppage!), and I’m often grabbing everything I find so I don’t have to do it again.  And I still don’t get enough of the right things and have to go back and do more.  Grrr!

So I decided I had to do it differently so I could focus on the writing part. I looked around for a topic list for setting.  Finding the right list was hard — most of the people making the lists really love research, so there’s a lot more than what I needed.  I found a list I liked and pasted it into Evernote.  Then I scanned through it and eliminated questions I wasn’t going to need for the setting, and any that I knew I would never use.

Then I did two a day, which took two weeks.  For questions like “What kind of animals are in the area?” I looked for ten animals.  That way, I would not only get enough and not too much, but I’d also think about which animals I was choosing.  What might I actively use in the story?  What would be an animal everyone would associate with the location?  I also added two categories of my own because the setting was a town with a beach, so I needed animals characters might see in the waters, as well as what they would find on the beach.

2. Setting up characters for your novel the pantser way

One of the things I’ve always done is start writing, and then I’ll toss in a character that I had no idea I would need until I got there. I dash off online somewhere and find a name.  Plop!  It goes into the story.  And the process repeats itself.  Then I realize I have three characters with very similar sounding names, and now I have to change them.

Aarrgghhh!

Before writing the story, come up with a list of ten names of characters who might be in the story.  Make sure you have a first name and a last name.  Also try coming up with a short paragraph about what this character might do in the story.  When I tried this, it started out as a chore, but as I finished the list, I started getting excited about the story and the characters that might populate it.  I even took one of the character names and plopped him in a short story.

As I started to write, I added to the list because there were always more characters who came in that I didn’t think of.  Then this list becomes a reference when I couldn’t remember a name.  That usually takes me about half the book before I start connecting the names to the characters.

Don’t spend a lot of time on this, though.  Just an hour or an afternoon.  It’s just meant to help you once you start writing.

Why not a character worksheet?

Character worksheets are an outliner’s tool; in this case, outlining the character.  It’s a very mechanical way to characterize, and it didn’t make sense to me to identify things like this when I could write the story and find out who the character is.

3. Setting for Pantsers

The reason I started doing these “10 of” lists is because of setting.  I like characterization when I read; setting doesn’t do much for me.  The result though is I tend to focus on the characters and not pay enough attention to the setting.  Kate Paulk (who I met a Virgina convention) says this is a common problem for pantsers:

“Most of the pantsers I know – me included – have a tendency to include only the setting information that their characters notice. This isn’t enough. When you think about it, you mostly don’t pay much attention to familiar surroundings: it becomes background and not worthy of mention. I’d describe my workplace environment as “a cube”, for instance, and not think to mention the Demotivator poster I have on the wall, the way I use color coded highlighters on a large planner to give me a month-at-a-glance view of what’s happening, the assorted notes stuck to the cube wall.”

So this list was a way of making sure I paid attention to the places those characters would inhabit.  For my cozy novel, I started with one of the primary places, the bookstore the character inhabited.  What did it look like?  How had the character changed it from when her grandmother owned it (a name on the character list)?  This ended up requiring a little research into Art Deco and looking at some pictures of the style.   Then I figured my character needed a house, so I spent a little time on that.  I added eight more settings, including one for a meeting hall that I changed in the story to a church with a fellowship hall.

For each one, I tried to associate a character from my 10 character list who would be at this place so that it wouldn’t just be a vague “place” to me.

4. Make a map of the most important story settings

This was a next step from the settings, so I could get a picture in my head of some of the locations.  That way I didn’t have to stop and figure it out while I was writing and toss some random thing in (which I am very good at doing).  I just did two to start with because I knew I was going to use those settings and later added a third.  Graph paper and pens will work.  In my case, I used PowerPoint.  I found a floor plan of a bookstore online and traced it. I’m a PowerPoint speed demon, so this took probably an hour.

For the third one, I was writing a scene and having a hard time with the picture of the fellowship hall.  I went to Google Earth and found the church I went to when I was a kid and used the overhead view to build it in PowerPoint.  I also explored as much of the building as I could with Google, so I noted some windows that were in hall.

If you’re saying “But I’m not an artist,” neither am I.  In her maps workshop, Holly Lisle notes:

“This doesn’t have to be pretty. You do not get extra points for artistry. I’m showing you a technique for generating ideas and creating a story where you didn’t have anything before, not trying to turn you into an illustrator. If you can’t draw a straight line, no problem. You aren’t going to need any straight lines. Wobbles are part of the process. Nobody but you ever has to see this map. Nobody but you ever has to know it even exists.”

Why spend time on maps for your story?  

We get a lot of people saying things like this aren’t writing; therefore we shouldn’t do it.  As a pantser though, I’ve discovered how easy to fly through a scene and not think about basic things like what the inside of a room looks like.  Surprisingly, it does work.  I found myself incorporating in the room elements as I wrote and mentioning specifics like the “science fiction bookshelf.”

5. Use Ten of for anything else needed in the story

If you have anything else you might need for the story, such as made up place names, create a list of ten of those items.  I have a 1.5K dog walk in mine and a character who is a dog, so I came up with the names for dogs.

Do just make lists for things that you will use in the story, and do reuse them for other stories.  I could easily reuse my list of dog names if I write a short story that has another dog in it.  But don’t spend valuable time on “might needs.”  In this case, err on the side of under doing it, and make another list during the writing if you realize you need it.

Why ten?  

I’ve used ten here four times, and there’s a good reason for that number.  As a pantser, I want to jump in and get started on the story.  As a result, if I don’t like doing something, I simply won’t do enough of it, and I won’t pay enough attention to it.  Ten’s not too many that I’ll start getting impatient.  It’s also a number I can easily finish with an evening of work.  And, most important, it’s enough that I can’t dash through it to get to the story.

But these lists are really about having the information already available while you create the story, and have enough that you can pick what appeals to your muse at the time.

Writing without an outline has its own special problems.  So it’s important to try out new techniques and see what works for you and not just assume that what works for outliners will work for you.  Are there any additional pre-writing tools you’ve used that have worked?
Post-writing and services for proofreading help online coming in another post.

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When Inspiration Strikes, are You Ready?

One of the reasons I try to always have my little notebook (or at least something to write on) with me is you never can tell where inspiration is going to come from. And with me at least, sometimes it’s a multi-step process. Here’s a recent case in point.

I got really interested when I saw the trailers for “Now You See Me.” It looked like a fun heist movie with a great cast. It was a lot of fun, and no, I didn’t steal anything from it. In fact, it’s such a good movie that I was wrong on what they were doing several times. But I liked what I was wrong about. So I wrote it down. Right after the movie, we went to grab some food, and one of my friends ended up completely butchering a word he was trying to say. But I liked that, too. Still later, I was chatting with a different friend, and mentioned I’d always wanted to some kind of heist/con job story, but I’d never had a decent idea about it.

In the course of the conversation, I used a turn of phrase that she seized on. As I sat there gaping like a fool, she elaborated on how the phrase I had used could be the basis of a story. And it was a pretty damn good idea. This friend of mine, despite some amazing ideas, has no interest in being a writer. So, I took her ideas, and the ones I got from the movie, and my friend’s mispronunciation. With a little work, it’s going to be, I think, a decent story. Quite possibly my NaNoWriMo project for this year.

I’m pretty sure I would have lost at least some of that if I didn’t have a way to write it down. And I think the story is stronger with all three pieces from the different places. So, while I’m lucky to have friends that give me ideas, I made a part of my own luck by having a way to take notes.

I’d recommend keeping a way to take notes around. Sure, it can be a pain to make sure it’s with you. But better that than lose that spark that may be a good story. Or take a good story to great.

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WWW: Let’s Worldbuild

I’ve done an exercise like this at a CVS meeting, and I figured I’d give it a try here to see how it works.

Here in the DC area it’s been constantly overcast since Saturday. During that time we’ve had periods of fog, rain, we’ve got some snow predicted for tomorrow, and in between those it’s just been a mottled grey overcast sky. The only break is night, though the nights are without stars or moon. So let’s use that as our starting point for a planet. Ignoring the underlying science behind why the sky is constantly overcast, we’ll take it as a given that the sky is constantly overcast. That part we’re not concerned about.

So one planet. During the day the sky is overcast heavily enough that the sun cannot be pinpointed. The cloud layer uniformly illuminates during the day. There’s a single sun (though this scenario would be interesting in a binary system) so there’s an even day night cycle with some seasonal drift.

Let’s put on this planet an intelligent race and advance them to, roughly, the atomic age. They can understand and utilize the power of the atom, for better or for worse.

Now that we’ve got a planet, and we’ve got people on it, perhaps a few questions.

  1. What is their view of time?
  2. What is their view of their place in the cosmos?
  3. How might they react to a visitor from above the clouds?
  4. How might they react to traveling about the cloud layer?

I’m going to start with the second question, even though I numbered them myself and could have made that question the first question. I’ve seen a similar set-up in science fiction where a planetary system is placed inside a nebular cloud with no view of the outside cosmos. The conceit is always that the species feels alone in the universe. But within the nebular cloud the species would at least be aware of their sun, their satellites, and any other planets in their system. With this constant overcast the planet is more thoroughly isolated. Instead of feeling that their solar system is all that there is, a species growing up on this planet would likely feel the planet is all that is. To the point that the question “is there something out there?” is meaningless in a way we can’t really grasp.

Think about it this way. The broadest cosmological question that we ask as a species right now is whether ours is the only universe. It’s not something that a lot of people think about, and it requires a lot of theoretical notions of the nature of reality, but at least the question flows from a series of abstractions. We know we’re on a planet, we know it is part of a larger collection of planets called a solar system, which is part of a collection of solar systems called a galaxy, which is part of a collection of galaxies called a universe. So is there a collection of universes called a multiverse? And what would a collection of multiverses be? We ask these questions, but that’s because we have a series of intermediate steps to build on. So this clouded planet might not ask “is there something out there” because “out there” is a concept completely foreign. There’s nothing to abstract from.

So we’ve created a completely insular planet. No general concept of “out there,” viewing itself as all and everything. I wonder if such a society would develop space travel, just because there’s no clear place to travel to. Or would there be those who abstract from city to country to continent to planet to…is there something out there bigger than a planet?

I’m going to stop here, because I intended this as an interactive sort of thing. So what would you add to the culture of this planet? How did society evolve? And if you want to tackle the question of space travel, either to or from the planet, what does it look like? What are the repercussions? Let’s build something up in the comments, and see where it goes.

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WWW: Troping The Generations

I’ve been thinking about generation ships lately. Not because I have any interest in setting off across the stars, then dying, so that my great great great great great great great great great great great *deep breath* great great grandchildren can land on a new planet and have to scramble together creating a meager existence on a hostile rock dozens of light years away from a planet they never knew. Largely because there’s not one in the works. Unless you know something I don’t know. Do you?

Sorry, got distracted there. No, I’m thinking about generation ships because I’ve got some plot ideas. Three that I think are the foundation of a trilogy of novels, and a few stray ideas that might work their ways into short stories. But this isn’t about my ideas for generation ships, this is about ideas others have had. Looking at the stories out there, two tropes stand out.

Trope the first. Passengers on a generation ship forget they’re on a generation ship. The original Star Trek did it in “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” an episode title so long that it was quicker to look it up and copy-and-paste the title. Heinlein used the trope in two novellas that became Orphans of the Sky. It’s the central theme behind the novels Non-Stop and Captive Universe. This is, in shot, your go-to story when creating a generation ship plot.

And I understand it. There’s a built in twist, at least when the story is being told from inside rather than from outside. There’s the internal conflict of what to do with this information. There’s the potential external conflict if a small number of people are the holders of this knowledge. There’s the potential for plots where the ship that no one knows is a ship is disastrously off course, so you get the one-two discovery punch. There are fascinating stories to be told within this structure. However, entirely because of these stories, it strikes me that the first essential thing anyone on a generation ship would learn is the nature of their ship. Because widespread ignorance of this fact leads only to troubles several generations down the road. 2001 isn’t about a generation ship, but it did teach me one thing: don’t trust the ship’s computer to do everything.

Trope the second. Monocultural generation ships. Really, within science fiction there’s a wider monocultural trope. It can be a generation ship, an off-earth colony, a starship. Anywhere that a writer can put a community that starts with a small seed has that opportunity to be a monoculture. In the above mentioned Captive Universe, the culture is Aztec (thus giving us the one-two punch of tropes). In The Dazzle of Day, recommended to me by several Twitter users when I asked about generation ship stories that don’t use the forgetting plot, the generation ship is populated entirely by Quakers. In the Doctor Who episode “The Beast Below” it’s a generation ship entirely populated by the Welch and English, with another ship of Scotsmen existing somewhere never seen on-screen.

Again, this is a great trope. Ideas like these are reused because there’s a lot of story-telling potential. It’s an opportunity to examine what is typically an isolated minority on Earth and see how that culture responds to being at least dominant, and often all-encompassing. What becomes of that culture when allowed to purify itself down to the roots? What happens when someone speaks out against that culture?

I’m not saying that every generation ship story falls into one of these two categories. The starliner Axiom in Pixar’s WALL•E has a hell of a lot of problems, but it’s not monocultural (unless “fat American slobs” is a monoculture) and the passengers clearly know they’re on a generation ship, even if they treat it more as a cruise ship. They know they came from a place called Earth, and they expect to go back there one day. In its own way the Axiom is an odd version of a generation ship, as it’s going out and back. Clearly it can and will return to Earth at any time, just as soon as the planet is no longer toxic to human life. It’s a fascinating set-up, and while I like the story told in WALL•E, there are other stories that could be set on the Axiom.

And I think that’s what’s drawing me to generation ships, and to the idea of setting multiple stories on a single generation ship. It’s easy to take a story out of a moment of time within a generation ship. The moment of departure. The moment of arrival. The moment of someone discovers the nature of the ship. The moment the cute little robot brings a plant in a boot to the ship. By coming up with several stories, I hope to have some fun looking at the ship and the society therein evolves over the journey. But…wow, does that make for a lot of world building.

I’m going to close out by asking for recommendations! I’d like to see what other people have done with generation ships, specifically looking at generation ship, or intergalactic ark stories that don’t conform to trope the first above. I asked this on Twitter and already got the recommendations of The Dazzle of Day, Journey Into Space, and the Jacob’s Ladder trilogy. Any others I should be reading? Any that I should absolutely still read even though they do trip trope the first? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

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