Tuesday, May 31, 2016

World Blip – Creatures

A few weeks ago I had a blip on creating races for your fantasy or sci-fi novel and then using them to create diversity in your novel.

Today, I’m here to look at a slightly different topic, but one that is related nonetheless. Today, we’re going to talk creatures.
I mean, who doesn’t love a good monster?

Unfortunately, that seems to be the only way we look at the creation of creatures: to make monsters. Why? After all, there are so many other ways to use creatures in your story.
Before we talk about that, let’s consider a few things:

New World, New Fauna

Remember back in elementary botany when you learned the word “flora”? It’s basically a fancy, sciency way of saying “plants”. Yup. The study of plants wanted to be special so it came up with its own word for plants. Yay.
Then along came elementary zoology and what does it decide to do? Well, if plant-scientists get to make up a word, then why not animal-scientists?
Thus “fauna”.

Yes, I realize these words do have legitimate uses and meanings. I’m here to make fun of science because I love it, okay?
Anyway. “Fauna” is a fancy way of grouping all the animals that live in a given area under one word. The fauna of England, for instance, is super diverse and interesting. The fauna of Ireland includes very few snakes (thank you very much, St. Patrick).
Each continent has a massive fauna and flora diversity. Even simple lines drawn on a map to represent countries can create huge boxes of natural diversity.
It’s kind of awesome.

So why does your novel need creatures?
It’s realistic.

Now, it’s nearly impossible and far too time-consuming to create every single animal that will ever come up in your story, and fully impossible to create enough creatures to sustain life in your world. Good luck creating a few thousand species of insects.

What can you do, then?

The Importance of Cameos

One of the worst ways to create diversity through creatures is to reference names and do nothing else.
Please don’t.
I don’t often condone the phrase “show, don’t tell”, but I do with this case. Telling us about creatures you’ve supposedly invented is not equal to diversity.
And it’s not equal to good worldbuilding.

If you create a creature, it should be shown in your novel in real-time. You can’t just warn us of the dangers of the Pither Snake and then never have this creature show up.
No. We need to see it, hear it, and feel it. Our senses need to be overloaded by your description so that we can feel the right emotion when this creature shows up.

There are many ways you can show creatures in your novel, but I would suggest these:
-The shorter your novel, the less creatures you should put in it. Too many creatures create a sense of “the author is trying too hard.” Be content with two or three of your own, and then borrow freely from our world.
-Don’t contrive meetings with these creatures. A walk in the forest is sometimes just that. I’ve walked through dozens of wooded areas and never met up with wild animals, so why are all these novels portraying simple walks in the woods as being super dangerous and full of fluffy and potentially evil creatures? The scene has to truly fit in your story.
-Describe them with the senses, not the facts. In just a minute, I’ll give you tips to creating creatures, and one of those is to create a fact list.
This list is NOT for the reader. Your descriptions of the creature should rarely come from this list of facts.
Don’t do it. This list is for you. It tells you exactly what you need to know about the animal. But your reader doesn’t care about the exact length of the creature, they care about relative size. They don’t care about how many teeth it has, they care about how carnivorous they look.
The reader wants to feel these creatures, not read about them in a zoology textbook.

Developing Creatures

How do you make a creature that’s unique?
There are hundreds and thousands of novels out there with their own monsters and creatures and diverse fauna. How do you keep yours from just borrowing from others?

First, try not using a dragon.
Yup. I said it. Of all the dragon loving people out there, I had to be the one to say it.
Thing is, everyone uses dragons. For good reason: dragons are the most awe-inspiring fantasy creatures out there. Everyone loves a good dragon.

Unfortunately, this also means your reader has a thousand cliché formats of dragon encounters that your novel has to combat with. You’ve got to stand out so far from the crowd that your story gets remember.
And it can be hard.

What do you do when you create a creature?

Well, there are dozens of sites out there on the internet with “checklists” for developing creatures. I’d suggest you use one as a guideline, at least as first. These are those fact lists I mentioned earlier.
They include things like eye color, height, weight, life span, body proportion, living environment, maternal/paternal instinct, predator/prey instincts, place on the food chain, skin type, fur/scale type, number of eyes, mouths, heads, ears, tongues, toes, legs, arms, and more. I’ll link to one or two down below.

Now what?
Some of the good lists will have you consider the environment, but I want you to really, really think about it. Where the creature lives can tell you a lot about the creature.
Does it live underground? It probably has poor eyesight and instead depends on other senses to live.
In the water? It’s probably not (but can be) a mammal.
In the tropics? The creature can probably climb trees really well.

Environment plays an important role in the way a creature lives and develops.

Places for Creatures

A lot of adventure stories use creatures as a kind of “side villain”. You know, while the hero is traveling to fight the villain, they encounter wild beasts that have an unnatural hate of humans.
These creatures are often feared above all others, yet the hero also dispatches them with ease.

Okay fine I’ll stop being passive aggressive and just say it: this is a strange and often silly conflict. In my mind, these creatures would a) run at the sight of humans and instead search out easier prey or b) slaughter the humans because they are, after all feared and supposedly the most evil creatures on the planet.
My experience and knowledge of our world’s predators tends to confirm this. A predator will ignore you if you act the right way (some will ignore you if you play dead or climb a tree – do your research), and others will run at other actions (again, research is your friend). And others will kill you because they’re hungry and you’re not smart enough to react properly.
In nature, predators are looking for the easy kill. They’re not malicious and conniving, they’re clever and resourceful. Rather like humans, but with less wasted time talking.

But in books? The wolves always hunt the main character for an excessive amount of time without provocation. A bear will chase them hundreds of leagues.
Of course, this is not problem for the hero and/or the mentor character. Despite, you know, the hundreds of skulls that this creature has been… collecting?

Basically, I suggest you not do this. Don’t use random predator attacks to show your worldbuilding. Sometimes, it will make sense. Such as when your story is about hunting a very specific creature (AKA The Hobbit can have a dragon because the dragon is the point).

How else do you show off your creatures?
Well, look at the ways you see creatures today:
-In the zoo. Is your world advanced enough to have zoos? Are there people who will pay to see them? It’s easy to have exotic animals when people want to see them.

-At the circus. A traveling menagerie is an excellent way to showcase the expanse of your world by showing creatures and hinting at the far-off places they come from. (The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan does this very, very well.)

-House pets. People in our world love pets, but you hardly ever see people in other worlds with pets. Sure they have a dog. Or maybe a cat or hamster. But what about otherworldly creatures? Cats and dogs don’t have to be the only domesticated animals on your planet. (The Stormlight Archives series by Brandon Sanderson is an excellent example.)

-Hunters pelts and the butcher’s shop. Yes, this is less “animal friendly”, but it gets the job done. People don’t just eat venison and boar in fantasy novels, do they? And sci-fi worlds have more options open for diversity, too. When the hunter sells his pelts to the merchant, he won’t just have fox and minx. He’ll probably have some unearthly pelts, too.
And the butcher’s shop? A sci-fi shop could have hunks of meat belonging to a space-dwelling snake that’s considered a delicacy. Boom, a fantastic creature that I really want to see someday. (Looking at you, NASA, where’s my picture from Hubble?)

-Far off in the forest walk. Not every walk in the forest has to end badly, as I’ve mentioned. But on my walks, I’ve still seen some nature. Dozens of rabbits, a handful of dear, that one random fox, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, chipmunks, otters, fish of many kinds, countless birds, snails, insects, and that one really cool spider with the massive web I might have walked into… whoops.
None of these creatures are horribly violent. Your creatures don’t have to be violent.
And your characters don’t have to fight them to the death to show the worldbuilding you’ve done.

Creatures are a great way to show depth and diversity in your world, if you do it right.
A vibrant world is diverse and full of beautiful things. And ugly things.
Depends on how many teeth that octopus-fox hybrid has.

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(NOTE: do pardon the lateness of this post... it was unintentional, I assure you.)

Friday, May 27, 2016

You Need Encouragement

Sometimes artists feel alone.

It’s the plain and simple truth. If you don’t know other artists you can begin to feel lonely, like no one else is like you. Even when you know better.

I’ve already blogged about why writers need writers, and why they need a flow of critiques.
But what about encouragement?

Sure, some critiques can be encouraging. Other times, however, an honest critique can create as much doubt and worry as it creates a feeling of worth.
That’s okay.
If you never doubted your writing, you would never improve.

However, doubt and worry can only take you so far. You need encouragement. And here’s why:

1. Honest encouragement is just as worthwhile as an honest critique. When someone is willing to tell you “hey, this part of your novel is really, really good and here’s why:”, you get this feeling of elation. You feel like your face is going to break because you can’t stop smiling.
Someone has given you hope

2. When encouragement is meaningful, it can strengthen your writing. If someone takes the time to not only encourage but to explain it, your writing will benefit. I’ve talked before about excessive positive feedback is little more than “fluff”. If someone just goes around screaming “AHHHHH I LUV THIS SO MUUUUUCHHHHH”, you haven’t benefited at all. You probably blushed and went “pff you’re too kind” and moved on.
However, when someone says “you did a really good job here” and then explains why they think you did well, you will grow as a writer.
When you know what you’re doing write, you know what to keep doing. Learning what you do write is just as important as learning what you do wrong. You need both.

3. Encouragement keeps you from judging yourself. It’s never a good idea to hate your own work. It’s okay to be critical, but it’s NOT okay to be your worst critic.
If someone encourages you, they open your eyes to the good things about your writing.

I recently had someone comment on a chapter of Agram Awakens in which they said (and I paraphrase) “I really like how you can convey so much emotion with these two simple words”.
And I realized… I do that a lot. I take two words and use them (sometimes as a repeated enforcer) to create a much larger emotion, something that usually takes more than two words.
This simple comment (I think it was two sentences) made me realize “oh… I’m not that bad at this writing thing”. Just prior to reading that comment, I’d been re-reading a passage of that book and wondering to myself “wow how bad is this, I’m not in this character’s head at all”.
Sure, there are a few rough spots. There always are, especially in rough drafts.
But you know what?
There are also good spots, even when I (or you) can’t see them at first glance.

4. Starving artists don’t deserve to starve.
I don’t mean starving in the literal sense, but in the sense that they’re alone. No artist deserves to be alone.
Actually, no one deserves to be alone, but that’s a post for another time.
Being an artist is hard. You create something that you feel deep down in your soul and then you reveal it to others. It’s setting out a piece of yourself for the world to see. Sometimes people will dislike it and it hurts because it feels like that piece of art is part of you.
How do you keep it from hurting? Well, you could just never show the world what you’ve created. That works. No one will ever be able to judge your creation and choose to dislike it. That’s an option, right?
Yes, but… what is the point of that creation?
You should write for yourself, true. Don’t write for others, write for you. Write what you want to read.
At the same time however, don’t just write for yourself. If all you do is create things and then stuff them deep inside your closet… what have you accomplished?
Scary thing is… you’ve really done nothing.

But when you put your art out there – even just for one person – there is a chance for encouragement. For every person who will dislike what you’ve created, there is a person who will love it. Quite often, more people will love it than not.
When you are encouraged, you’re no longer starving. Your soul has been nurtured. The only way to be encouraged is to put your art – your writing – on display. Take the chance. Let others see that little piece of your soul.
Someone will find it beautiful.

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Monday, May 23, 2016

Prose Blip – Symbolic Meaning

What is the meaning of a rosebush?

Better yet, what is the meaning of one particular rosebush: the one that grows outside the jail in The Scarlet Letter? My dad likes to tell the story of the time he had to read that book in school. One of the first things he had to do related to it was write a short report on the meaning of that rosebush.
Now, my dad isn’t a subtle person. He prefers it straightforward (and is straightforward himself… it’s amusing sometimes how much people don’t understand his lack of passive aggressiveness). This rosebush gave him a hard time.

Because the rosebush is symbolic. It’s allegorical.
I dunno, your guess is as good as mine. I’ve read the book (and that opening with the rosebush half a dozen times) and still don’t have more than a guess.
Perhaps it’s ironic. Does it show how something beautiful can grow in a place of harsh judgement and punishment?

Or… what if it’s just a rosebush? Nathaniel Hawthorne isn’t around anymore to tell us, so the literature “experts” get to decide that this bush with thorns and flowers represents something.

Many writers use symbolism in their writing. “This sigil represents despair and darkness because it’s the villain’s sign.” Or “the sunrise represents hope” and “this rosebush represents purity and the jail represents the loss of it”.

We even use symbols to represent our characters (something I’ll talk about later when I prose blip about character masks and handles).

Some of us, however, don’t really get it. How do you create symbolism and – most importantly – how do you make sure your reader understands that symbolism?


One of the best ways to make a symbol is to keep it simple. Nobody wants to spend half their reading time trying to decipher your symbolic oak tree. In fact, if your symbol is too obscure or complicated, your readers will never understand.
There comes a point where I – as a reader – am not going to have the time or brain capacity to notice your symbol. Even critics and literature experts will have a “maximum” symbol intake. They will notice it the most, to be sure, but your average readers won’t.

Here’s why: we read quickly. Even the slowest reader turns the page after a minute or two. Those of us who read very fast will be turning that page every quarter minute or less.
You have thirty seconds to a minute to make us understand your symbol (unless you’re like Hawthorne and spend a whole chapter describing the symbol… please don’t).
Even recurring symbols have very little time available to them.

Therefore, keep it simple. Don’t let yourself be caught up in poetic and deep symbolism unless that is the style of your book. If everything in your story is poetic and deep, then that’s okay.
Chances are, however, that your story is not. Poetically deep stories – unfortunately, in many ways – aren’t what people read. You’ll notice The Scarlet Letter is not on very many people’s favorite book list. A miniscule number.

How simple?
I’d suggest keeping your symbolism within the scale of Tolkien’s Ring of Power and J. K. Rowling’s Hedwig. “The Ring to Hedwig” scale, as it were.
The first is a very obvious symbol. So obvious, in fact, that we’re told right-out what it represents: it represents power and greed and filth and temptation and darkness and evil.
Perhaps the most important thing that makes this obvious symbol a symbol is this: it means something different to every person. Even when we’re told what it is by Gandalf, people can draw their own conclusion and observations.

And there’s Hedwig.
“Wait a minute, Aidan, Hedwig? Hedwig is a symbol?”
I think so, yes.
To me, Hedwig represents loyalty and friendship. Especially loyalty through the hardest of times. Hedwig stays with Harry even when she’s made to spend her summer in a cage because Harry’s uncle is a vile person. She doesn’t forsake Harry, even when he “betrays” her and uses other owls (yes, he uses other owls as messengers for good reasons, but it would still feel like betrayal to Hedwig).
This symbolism of hers, however, is rather subtle. Rowling never explicitly states it. She may not have even intended it, for that matter. But it’s what I draw from Hedwig as a character.

However, Hedwig is not a complicated symbol. I drew those ideas of her symbolism from one reading of the Harry Potter books. Actually, from one reading of the first book and second books.
When in doubt, keep it simple.
Your readers thank you.

Abstract and Concrete

One of the easiest ways to categorize symbols is to assign them “Abstract” or “Concrete”.
An Abstract symbol points to something outside itself. This can be one of the harder symbols to understand. Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia can be a difficult symbol to interpret, especially if you don’t come at him from the correct standpoint/worldview. Hedwig can also be a hard symbol to approach, because she’s what I’d call a personal symbol. She means something to ME, even if she doesn’t mean that to YOU.

On the other hand, Concrete symbols point to themselves or their physical surroundings. Tolkien’s Ring points to itself. It is the evil and power and temptation. If it had none of its own power (none of the soul of Sauron), then it would be a symbol at all.
Other Concrete symbols can point to something directly and physically related to them. In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, the currency used by the peoples of his worlds is made up if little glass spheres with gems inside them. These gems are filled with Stormlight, which in turn generates the “magic” of this world.
These spheres are symbolic of money (actually, all money is symbolic of some form of worth). And, in turn, they are a physical symbol of power and strength and influence and the magic of this world.

Concrete symbols are always easier to understand. Very few people will miss a Concrete symbol. It’s often spoken of outright by the character, explained in the narrative or dialogue, and is very important to the plot of the novel.
Abstract symbols are likely to be missed. Your reader has to know what they’re looking for. They have to be expecting it. Abstract symbols – like the rosebush and Hedwig – are often personal. They mean different things to different people. Some of them have multiple layers, and can be so deep that no one will ever fully understand them except the author.
But that’s okay.

Choosing a Symbol

What is a symbol?
Anything you want.
That twig, this piece of lint I found in my pocket, the stack of graduation cards sitting on my desk, an oak tree in your backyard.
However, not all of these things are realistic symbols.
If you pick out your symbols willy-nilly, your reader will miss them. Every. Single. Time.
A symbol has to mean something by itself. First to the reader, then to the story, then to its meaning.
How does this work?
Simple: it has to mean something to the reader in one way or another. A random piece of lint means nothing. But graduation cards? Those mean something to people.

Next, the symbol has to mean something to the story. Is the story about a graduation, or a graduate?
If not, then the cards have no meaning to the story and are a worthless symbol. If so, then they can have deep and emotional meanings without very much work.

And finally, it has to mean something to its symbolic meaning. What are you trying to convey? If you’re trying to symbolize loneliness, a stack of cards from others wishing you well on your graduation won’t convey that at all. But if you’re attempting to symbolize happiness through social interaction, then you have a start.

Symbols can be powerful tools. Used right, with the right proportion and subtly to fit your story, they can bring deep themes and deep thoughts to your reader.
Used wrong, they mean… nothing.

Use them right, yeah?

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Friday, May 20, 2016

A Review – The Scorpio Races

And now it’s time for review time with me.
You’re welcome.

I just read a book called “The Scorpio Races”, and I figured I may as well spread the word:
You need to read this book.

The Idea

The Scorpio Races is a book from back in 2011, written by Maggie Stiefvater. She’s also known for Shiver and – most recently – the Raven Boys Cycle.
I heard of her – and this book in particular – from a good friend, and decided to give it a read.

Well. That was fast.

(Found at Maggie's Website)

Rather than sum up the book in my own words (ew), I’ll just give you the text that’s in the dust jacket:

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.
At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.
Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

Sounds kind of… odd. At first glance, it doesn’t sound like my kind of book. It’s very character-based (AKA not my type), and the plot is a series of Man Who Learned Better experiences.

So basically there are these “water horses”. The capaill uisce (CAP-ple ISH-ka). They’re based off of half a dozen different legends, which you can learn all about if you read the Author’s Note at the end of the book, and they live in the sea.
And not.

Basically, there’s this island where they have this custom: every year, they host a race. People from all over the world come to watch the horses race.
The water horses. The carnivorous beasts that turn near-wild every November. So of course, the race is held at the beach on November first.
People are smart that way.

A Lesson in Worldbuilding

In a few months, I’ll be doing a series of World Blips on magic systems (after a rather important announcement in July). This book, however, gives me an excellent opportunity to showcase a kind of magic that is a little at odds with my general belief that fiction should be close to reality.

Reality can be explained. Whether it’s gravity or magnetism or instinct or neural patterns or social-biological interaction, everything can be explained.
In fiction, we need to be able to explain things. To a certain extent, of course. Your magic system can’t be explained fully because it’s… well, magic. It’s supposed to create a certain amount of wonderment in your reader.

The Scorpio Races has a form of magic. It’s obvious from the start that these horses (which naturally live in the water but can also survive on land) are not natural. They’re magical, mythical beasts that feast on the flesh of anything and are drawn to the sea. They can even capture their riders in this magic, in some cases.
How is this explained?
It’s not.

We don’t learn why the water horses come on shore only on this island. We don’t learn why the humans started this custom of the Scorpio Races. No one attempts to explain how the water horses live on land and in the sea. We don’t get to understand why iron affects the horses and copper doesn’t.

And that’s okay.
These magical creatures – these awe-inspiring, fearsome creatures – are treated as completely natural.
The characters act as if the water horses “always have been, just like gravity”. People don’t stop to explain gravity, so why stop to explain water horses?

It’s such an interesting idea. I had (and still have) so many questions about these horses. Where do they come from? Where in the ocean do they live? Why does iron affect these animals? What sort of instinct drives these horses to come on shore? Why does a November sea drive them more crazy than any other kind of sea?

I don’t know the answers. And I never will.

… Then… why do I really like this book?

It teaches me that it’s okay to not know all the answers.
I learn to be content. Much like “gravity is the attraction between two objects” doesn’t really explain what in the world gravity is, telling me that a November sea is the most dangerous kind when around water horses doesn’t explain why.
However, I can still accept it.
You’ve brought me into a world where water horses are normal. Everything about them is “normal”. Even though they’re different from other horses, they’re still “natural”.
I am brought into a world and made to accept it, therefore I can enjoy it.

It reminds me of a technique used in theatre. When putting on a production, you need to give your audience immediate hints about what you will and will not do.
Will your play break the fourth wall? Will characters speak directly to the audience? If so, it needs to be introduced in the first moments of the play.
Will the set change behind the scene? Will the stagehands come and go without black-outs? Introduce it early.
Will people be used to portray animals or clocks or lampstands or doorknockers? Introduce it early.

The same idea – introduce it early – can be applied to writing. And Maggie Stiefvater carries it off excellently. The very first thing you learn when you read the book, on the very first page of the prologue, is this idea that water horses are dangerous.
People die during the Scorpio Races.
The November sea is dangerous.
Water horses are dangerous.
People are stupid and ride water horses.

All on the first page or two.
She introduced the inexplicable early. Even though she never explained all of the magic, she gave it to us so early and gave it to us so matter-of-factly that we begin to stop caring that it’s not explained.
We’re content with how awesome it is.

The Thing about Characters

The plot of this book is character-driven. If it weren’t for the conflicts between Puck and her siblings, there would be no reason for her to be a character in the book at all. If she wasn’t stubborn (and slightly dense, at times), the plot would unravel quickly.

If Sean hadn’t won the races before, his situation would be different. He’d probably be dead.

I’m not always a fan of character-driven books. Not because I don’t like them but because I love plots. I love the intricacies and balance of plot arcs and plot twists. When a book uses them in tasteful and artful ways, it makes me happy.
This book isn’t so focused on those sorts of things.

Instead, it teaches me to care for these characters. Within the first two chapters, I already care for the two main characters. They’re so interesting and so relatable. Empathy flows from reader to page and back again.

That’s the only way a character-driven book works. If there is no empathy flow, there is no reason to read.
If you’re a wordsmith, if you’re a character writer, then this book is an excellent example for you. Write your characters to be this relatable.
If you’re a storyteller, if you’re a plot writer, then I encourage you to read this book. Try it. Learn how to carry stories in different ways. Expand your horizons. Trust me, it’s worth it.

And readers?
Read this book.

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