World building for junior planetary engineers

Sharon Ashwood
April 25, 2012  •  No Comments

I’ve seen lots of information on world building that helps an author lay out the rules of their universe. There are tons of things to consider: climate, currency, social castes, political systems, and on and on. One can draw maps and list all kinds of flora and fauna and cuisine. It’s all good.

What I rarely see is information on how any of that contributes to the story beyond setting, such as why or how, let alone how much.

I had a lively discussion recently about just this thing. I’d given some chapters of a fantasy to a beta reader (poor thing) who came back with a recommendation for more world building details. Piqued that my genius would be questioned—after all I had tons of just such info in mind—I reread to see what I had (or had not) done. She was right. I’d fallen to the low end of the world building spectrum because I hadn’t used my ideas effectively.

· Low end of spectrum: the Stingy Approach. Don’t introduce anything unless you absolutely need to.
· Gone crazy end: the Victorian Bordello Approach. Don’t bother with the plot, the fun is in the gizmos and webbed feet.

Needless to say, there is a happy medium. However, the underlying problem in my story was that I had not thoroughly examined what role the world building elements in my book played.

Example: let’s say our fantasy society has an economy based on solar power. That could translate into: their jobs, where their family money came from, do they live above ground or under it, are there medical consequences, what crops do they have, can anybody access the power, has it affected population migration or birth rate, do they sell the power somehow? Why did they go to solar power and how did they learn the technology? Does it have spiritual or religious implications? What about the rest of the ecology?

Once the author has deeply pondered this squirmy mass of connecting ideas, the trick is then to drop in just the right details, as if in passing, to imply all of the above. Reference it as a fait accompli the way we talk about catching the city bus. After all, one’s point of view character probably lives in that world.

Example: They wouldn’t ponder the caste system of their planet. They’d simply kick the scum into the gutter and move on. Show, don’t tell.

It’s a casual slight-of-hand that makes the difference between the plodding obviousness of bad sci-fi and the opportunity to draw a reader deep, deep into the playground of your imagination.

To take this one step further, one has to ask why a certain element is pertinent. How do the two-headed dog packs on planet x affect the choices available to the protagonist? Where does it impact the central story conflict? Does it say something important about the state of society?

Example: planet x is a mining planet digging up a dangerous mineral. The resource conglomerates are telling the inhabitants the two-headed dogs with five tails are a naturally occurring species, but really their ancestors were cute little boxer pups and these are a mutation caused by the mining operation. Our hero discovers this secret just after his wife conceives. Cue plot motivation.

So, that is the worldbuilding lesson I learned. If I had done my homework, I would have known when and where to use my fantasy elements with the precision of a master chef seasoning a dish. Scrap that. They would have been essential ingredients to the meal, driving my characters and their actions.

Now let’s see if I can take my own advice 😳

When they said to hang the Canucks …

Sharon Ashwood
April 19, 2012  •  No Comments

Okay, so I’m not a big sports fan, but I thought these skaters were cute. Saw them dangling from the ceiling of a tiny but lovely Vancouver bistro called Aphrodite’s just down from Banyen Books. They’re actually quite large, and had pirates and mermaids to keep them company.

hockey mobile

Step away from the keyboard …

Sharon Ashwood
April 18, 2012  •  2 Comments

Once upon a time they used to torture people into confession by tying them down, putting a plank of wood over them, and then piling rocks on top until the victim was squished. I know, not a really attractive image, but a useful metaphor #1 for this discussion.

Metaphor #2: I had a really excellent story idea last night. It was still with me this morning, fluttering around like a colourful butterfly, bonking against my nose once in a while just to make sure I’m paying attention. Like most really good ideas, it is slowly coming into focus, showing more and more of its pretty patterns as I, all unwilling, try my best to ignore it.

Ignore it?? Why ever would I do that? Well, gentle reader, because I have absolutely no time to deal with it right now. Back to the guy under the rocks—or rather, me under my rocks. If I make it through to the end of June, I’m golden, but right now I have three impressive deadlines a few weeks apart. Completely doable, as long as I don’t drop any balls. What less convenient time for my muse to send a butterfly?

But that’s just the thing. The more pressure I’m under, the more I’m suffocating from workload, the more effectively my brain pops out excellent ideas. When I’m kicking back and watching the grass grow, I get nothing.

I’m not sure why it works this way. My theory is that new ideas are very delicate things and, like butterflies, not meant to be handled. If we try to pin them down too soon, they become specimens rather than living creatures. Therefore, the most logical thing for the muse to do is to send them along when I can’t mess with them.

Right now, all I can do is look and appreciate and wait till they grow up. Then, during the slow moments when I’m rock-free, they’ll be robust enough for me to coax to my hand without doing damage.

Thursday photo

Sharon Ashwood
April 12, 2012  •  No Comments

Duck love in a romantic setting. Took this photo last Thursday at VanDusen Botanical Gardens in Vancouver. The ducks are a little hard to see, but they were having a great time at the bottom of the waterfall. (you can see them if you click on the photo)

Spreading my writerly charm

Sharon Ashwood
April 11, 2012  •  1 Comment

One of the odd parts of being an author is that sooner or later one has to do public speaking. Yes, take those engaged in the most introverted, ivory-tower occupation possible and shove them in front of a mic. Counter-intuitive? Oh, just a bit—but it turns out I had a great time!

Last week saw me visiting two libraries in the Fraser Valley Regional Library system : the Ladner Pioneer and White Rock branches. Both were lovely facilities with lovely librarians and well-appointed rooms for holding readings and lectures.

My assignment was to read a bit from one of my books (I picked Frostbound) and then give a short writing workshop. The total time allowed was just over an hour. I’ve done a handful of writing workshops over time, but this one was the best organized so far. I think the fact that I had to be very focused and brief helped me.

Things I learned:
• Think about how you’re going to read the dialogue in your story to differentiate the voices
• When computers go into sleep mode, they totally mess up your PowerPoint and need to be rebooted
• If you plan to sell books, bring a float
• Always bring an extension cord

Things I loved:
• People taking notes.
• People asking real questions about writing.
• Getting so excited by talking writing that I forget I’m talking in front of strangers
• The excuse to visit with friends.


Sharon Ashwood
April 5, 2012  •  No Comments

In anticipation of the Easter weekend, it looks like spring arrived in the front yard!

Alphas are in, but can we pick them out of a line-up?

Sharon Ashwood
April 4, 2012  •  No Comments

Just about every protagonist in romance these days is supposed to be an alpha—and this often means a dominating male who prefers action to words and is never so happy as when there is a damsel to save. At his best, he’s a true knight in shining armor. At his worst, he’s a big swaggering guy who drinks the milk without replacing it, drags the girl off to his cave, and never lets anyone else use the remote.

But how do we draw an accurate portrait of an alpha in our books? We’ve all seen people trying to fill that role, with varying degrees of success. Which ones are the real deal?

There are leaders who are all about hoarding information and power like dragons, not trusting anyone to do anything themselves. That might be mistaken for alpha, but I think that’s not leading staff so much as keeping it like slightly dimwitted pets.

There are leaders who cheer loudly, have a lot of rah-rah sessions, and talk teamwork all the time. I’m okay with this as long as there is substance underneath the hype. However, I’m not sure real alphas need to work that hard to inspire loyalty.

Then are leaders who invite the opinions of their team, give them what they need, and then get out of the way so their trusted workers can do their thing. They understand the details of the work almost as well as the workers. They’ll step in if needed, but the measure of their success is if everyone gets to go home on time with the work done and minimal drama. They’re not necessarily flamboyant leaders, but they tend to attract the best talent.

In my opinion, the last example is the closest to a real alpha. They’re thoughtful about their decisions and confident once those are made. They put the team’s needs first and will defend them tooth and nail. They’ll often pick ambitious, almost impossible, projects because they know how to get excellence from their staff. They inspire trust, but largely because they give it.

It’s something to remember when creating an alpha character—they’re first and foremost hard workers and good decision-makers. They may or may not be the ones with the power suits and expensive cars, but they will have a lot of people looking up to them. Responsibility is their watchword, and they never delegate a task they wouldn’t do themselves. Rather than being a party animal, it’s tough to get them to stop pushing themselves and cut loose.

Boring? No, not when it’s time to make them fall in love. They may be all about trusting their hand-picked lieutenants to patrol a boundary or design a bridge, but the one type of control they never share (remote control notwithstanding) is self-control. Strip them of that, and their identity goes to pieces. And what tests self-control like a steamy romance?

Finishing touches

Sharon Ashwood
April 3, 2012  •  No Comments

Historical novels are all about the details, and there is nothing so easy to get wrong or bypass altogether as accessories of dress. Part of the problem is that things like shawls and reticules are not as abundantly “written up” in costuming books as entire dresses. Instead, they’re consigned to footnotes or collector’s catalogues where price at auction is more relevant than how they were worn. A shame, because how and when such items were used are an easy touchstone for the writer when getting into a character’s physical presence. Your heroine is going to feel very different wearing a knitted shawl versus a silk mantelette versus a foxfur stole.

Hence I was thrilled to find Ladies Vintage Accessories: Identification & Value Guide (Laree Johnson Bruton) at the library. I took it to my hairdressing appointment and nearly lost it to the staff, who loved the elegant hats and bags from the Forties and Fifties. The book focuses on the author’s collection, which dates from late Victorian and through the Twentieth Century with a lot of North American content. Many of the illustrations are from period advertising and give excellent social context for the accessories. If you’re writing Dieselpunk, there’s some nice pieces here.

My favourite tidbit from the book:

Glove length is measured by button lengths, which equals about one button per inch. The measure starts from the base of the thumb and goes up toward the elbow. Wrist-length gloves are one-button gloves. Eight buttons are for a deep gauntlet. Twelve get you to the elbow. Sixteen buttons are over the elbow and up the arm.

Things I wish someone had said to me

Sharon Ashwood
March 28, 2012  •  2 Comments

Oh, joy, it’s teaching time again! How do you take what I’ve learned over decades and boil it down into a half-hour presentation? That’s the hard part of preparing a workshop for beginning writers. I’m not saying that I know everything, or even a lot, but I have been at this for a while and I’ve picked up a fair bit of information about how to write well. Whether I follow it or not is a topic for another day.

However … I have to come up with something for next week. I’ll be reading at the Ladner Pioneer (April 3) and White Rock (April 4) libraries at around 7:00 pm, so come on out if you’re in the area.

bluehorse_canstockphoto1486380So what can I say? I may as well start with a few tidbits I wish I’d had under my belt at the beginning. This would be tidbit number one.

As I see it, if you’re going to sit down and write your first book, just go for it. However, it’s a bit like hiking. If you take along a bit of equipment, you’ll enjoy the experience a whole lot more.

The fact that you’ve got some nugget of inspiration is a given, or you wouldn’t be edging up the keyboard with that glint your eye. I’m not going to talk about inspiration, because it’s unique and precious and it can never be wrong. My only advice here is to hold it tight.

However, there are a couple of things to check into at the same time that you’re writing. Note that I say at the same time and not instead of. Lots of times it’s more fun to talk about writing than to actually do it. Bad author, no cookie. Your first job as a writer is to set a schedule and to actually put words on paper. The rest, including laundry and your day job and maintaining healthy relationships with your friends and family, is secondary to that, at least when you’re on deadline.

So when you’re not writing your pages for the day, think about this: How important is it to you to get published with a conventional publisher? Are you writing for yourself and maybe a few friends? Are you writing for the self-published market? All of these are legitimate goals, but keep in mind that the wider an audience you’d like for your work, the more attention you’ll need to pay to the publishing marketplace and how it works. An author actively pursuing commercial success—whether they’re self-published or writing for a big New York house—has to do a lot of thinking about where their book fits with current trends. That’s not to say it has to be exactly on trend, but you should know what makes your baby the same as or different from everyone else’s baby. Once you know where you fit in among all the genres and sub-genres, you can decide whether or not you’re happy with that choice.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you whether it’s you’ll be more commercially successful if you are original or stick to a tried and true formula. I can say that traditional publishing is usually more comfortable with something they know has appealed to book buyers in the past.

So, it’s never too early to start looking around at what other writers are doing to appeal to the kind of reader you want. Find writers whose work is kinda sorta like what you want to do. They are a great jumping-off point for your research. As well as reading their books, you can go look at their web sites, read magazines like Publishers Weekly or Romantic Times, and get involved with discussion groups on places like Goodreads. When you go to pitch your book to an editor or agent, one of the first questions they’ll ask is, “Who do you write like?” This is how you start getting ready for that moment.

Because, trust me, if you keep at it and do your homework, that pitch appointment will come.

Splat and Splatter

Sharon Ashwood
March 27, 2012  •  No Comments

It’s research Tuesday! Yup, today I had to confront my complete lack of science cred when dealing with the WIP. Not only am I dealing with science, but nineteenth century science—and physics to boot, which I never took in school. We got to choose between Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. I picked the first two and did very well, but never dealt with catapults or nerf balls or whatever it was the hard core science guys did.

Ergo, I am confronted with the fact that I know an object dropped from a height goes splat, but am ignorant of the rate of splattage—or, more precisely, how to calculate it. Research to the rescue!

Sir Isaac Newton came up with three physical laws relating to the forces acting on a body and the motion that causes.

First law: The velocity of a body remains constant unless an external force acts on the body (witness a cat sleeping in your chair).

Second law: There is an equation: F = ma. The acceleration (a) of a body is parallel and in proportion to force (F) and inversely proportional to mass (m). This could also be written very loosely as aka splat = mass x speed. And there is probably a reason I shouldn’t write it that way, but that’s how I can get my head around it.

Third law: Action and reaction between two bodies are equal and opposite (smush!)

And that, kiddies, is our lesson for today!

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