If you’re writing fantasy, whether it’s urban, epic, far-future, alternate dimension, there’s likely to be some magic in it. The thing with magic is that it can do anything, right? Well, yes, but a better answer is ‘no, it can’t do everything (and here’s why)’.
An undefined magic system that can do anything is the sign of lazy worldbuilding and is often used as a ‘get out of jail’ free card when the plot gets stuck. It’s a symptom of bad writing.
Let’s be better than that. To be a system, it has to be defined, have rules of some kind, and make internal sense. Yes, it might be magic, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t make logical sense! It can be kick-ass and consistent.
But where to start? Let’s see if we can narrow down what we’re going for here.
What type of magic is it?
The term ‘magic’ covers a whole spectrum of fantastical possibilities. Here’s a list that is probably far from exhaustive:
- Elemental (fire, water, air, earth, metal, etc)
- Psionic (mind manipulation: illusions, control, communication)
- Telekinesis (manipulation of matter or energy by the brain: physical objects, fire, electricity, etc)
- Wards, enchantments, and curses (places or objects imbued with power, temporary or permanent)
- Alchemy (concoctions of awesome, transmutation)
- Shapeshifting (manipulating one’s own matter to take another shape, voluntarily or otherwise)
- Necromancy (raising the dead, spirit talking, spirit wielding)
- Clairvoyance (visions across time, divining)
- Science (if it’s fantastical enough, it’s just like magic!)
Okay, I’m not going to talk about the last one so much, but you get the idea.
You’re not restricted to any one of these types; mix and match at will. You might even want all of them, but be aware that everything you include needs to have the mechanics figured out, one way or another.
Where does the power come from?
Magical effects have to be driven by some kind of power. It’s worth thinking about what kind of power or energy this is, and where it might have come from. Some options are:
- Life (or death, or both)
- Deities (singular or plural)
- Mystical or magical energy (sometimes magic is a power in itself)
- The caster or user’s own self
Some of these can easily cross over with each other: a blood sacrifice; the magic user’s own life force; the use of a holy talisman that draws power from the deity that blessed it.
What is required to use this magic?
This can be closely linked to the previous question: what does someone have to do in order to cast a spell or activate a magical effect? Think about all the different ways that magic is cast. Here are a few ideas:
- Words (chanting, magical words, commands)
- Gestures (by hands, wands, or any body part; maybe even a dance)
- Physical ingredients or components
- Actions (more than just a gesture, like the spilling of blood, the taking of a life, breaking an object, etc)
- Patterns (alignment of stars, seasons, planets, the position of the moon, or something created manually, like the positioning of the four elements at the four compass points)
- Symbols or runes
- Talismen or objects imbued with power
These might be required to unlock the power already identified, or they might be used to shape that power into the desired effect, or both. Many magical systems combine several of these elements; for example, the style of magic in the Supernatural TV show can involve physical components, words, gestures, and runes drawn on the ground, all to perform a single spell.
Who can use magic?
Restricting the use of magic is not unusual, but there must be some rhyme and reason to it. This is where you’ll be able to spin out its effects on the people of the world most directly, as access to power tends to has a lot of impacts.
Those who use magic could be:
- Anyone. Maybe it’s common enough that everyone is able to do it. Can everyone use it to the same extent?
- Born with it (it’s probably not Mabeline). Is it genetic? Inherited in some way? Passed from one bearer to the next, or multiplied by having many children?
- Adults. A certain level of physical or emotional maturity is required to access it. Linking it to puberty and coming of age is not unusual and tends to work well.
- Children. It can be something lost at puberty, instead of gained. This is often linked to the loss of innocence (but doesn’t have to be).
- Ritually imbued. A person has to go through some kind of rite to gain access to the power, like a spirit quest, a ritual, or a challenge.
- Educated. It’s a learned skill that requires study, usually many years of intense activity and training.
- Pure. Spiritual, emotional, or physical purity could be linked to the ability to use magic. Sin or sex could cost someone their ability to wield true magic.
- Divine or pious. Magic might require devotion to a deity or religion.
- Mutilated or mutated. Having a certain physical attribute or physically changing the body might be the way to gain access to magic. It could be natural or fabrication, like losing a finger, castration, a third eye, or symbiosis with another entity.
- Bearer of a gift. Perhaps it’s an object or ability bestowed by a person or entity. It could be a physical object, a mark, or something less obvious.
The definition of the group who can use magic (and its related power) tends to be important to a world’s society and political setup. Think about all the ways that the restrictions around who can use magic might impact the power balance in a particular type of society. Think about their relationship with those who cannot use magic. Are they equal? Are they blessed or cursed?
Who controls magic and its use?
The answer to this may seem obvious, given the previous question, but it isn’t always straightforward. Do the magic users govern themselves, or is there an external party? A caste system? Rules and laws they must follow? Are the magic-users slaves to a group, god, or system (for example, in the Dragon Age games)? Do they serve the government? Do they sit outside of it? Do they run their own state or country, independent of the magicless ones entirely (like in the Harry Potter world)? Who pulls their strings, and how?
Think back over your answers to the above questions and consider how someone might have control over the magic-users. If certain substances are required to use magic, the source or trade of those substances becomes an essential link in the chain. Access to specific locations or objects could be controlled to leash users.
Consider also how magic users interact with other parts of society. Are they well-thought-of? Feared? Despised? Envied?
The answers to these questions will pick out how magic shapes this world you’re building, as well as how the world shapes the use of magic.
What are the limits of this magic?
Magic can, potentially, do anything. However, it really shouldn’t be able to do everything. To avoid it becoming over-powered and swamping your world and story with too many implausibilities, and to make it fundamentally more interesting, give it some limits. Having a character have to figure out how to best use a small amount of magic to solve a problem is far more interesting than a character who can fix any issue with the wave of the hand.
There are lots of ways to put limits on magic. Think about things like:
- What’s required to use it. Things like components, blood, and even life tend to be limited sources.
- The source of the energy. If drawing from something like nature or a mystical energy, local sources might need some time to recharge.
- Fatigue of the user. If the user is a conduit for the magic, mental or physical fatigue (or other cost) could be a natural limit.
- Natural laws. Magic’s limits could simply be defined by the physical laws of your world.
There are lots of other options. Be creative! And be clear.
What are its weaknesses?
Balance is important. If something is powerful, it should also have a weakness somewhere.
Is there a way to protect against magic? Tinfoil hats, cold iron, a pentagram drawn the right way up? Is there something a non-user can do or use against magic?
Protection against magic is only part of it; what advantages do non-magic users have against magic users? Do magic users have an Achilles heel? Think about ways to destabilise magic or its use, and things that magic users might be susceptible to. For example, cold iron often burns magical creatures in some mythologies (for example, some faerie magic systems) and they cannot defend against it at all.
Weaknesses add interesting and fun complications to a world, and your story. Embrace them, play with them, and they’ll do great things for you.
Got all that? Good. Now you should have a defined magic system and lots of elements to throw into your story.
Go crazy, do fantastical things, and most of all: have fun.
Lately, I’ve been doing a series of worldbuilding sessions with my writing group. Building a fictional world is a big job and huge amounts of fun. I thought I’d start sharing my notes and approach here, too.
Now, I’m not going to tell you what world you should build, or how your world should work. Your world is your own. What I’m going to do is present some questions, some common wisdoms, and some things for you to think about. What choices you make, how you choose to apply certain techniques or facets of worldbuilding, are completely up to you.
There are so many things to think about when building a world that it’s not possible to do it any kind of justice in a single blog post or writing group meeting. So I’m going to break it down into focussed areas, such as:
- Creating a magic system
- Building a space station
- Creating a colony
Many of these areas will bleed into each other; they can’t be considered in isolation. Influences will flow back and forth between them and that’s up to you to balance. These are starting points, thinking points, and hopefully something you can have a bit of fun with.
Before we get started, it’s probably a good idea to go over my high-level philosophy when it comes to world-building.
Your world needs to make sense.
It doesn’t matter what genre or type of world you’re building, whether it’s fantastical, far future, alien, historical, or an alternate dimension where gravity is a repelling force instead of an attracting one. Internal logic and consistency are key if readers are going to buy into it and travel through it with you.
It’s not just window dressing.
Worldbuilding is more than scenery or description. It’s a lot more than just a map; geography is part of it, but you have so many more tools to use than that. It’s all those things that make it different from the world we experience every day. It’s a place in history (even if that history is our future). It’s laws and rules, it’s society and people, it’s belief and purpose. Go nuts!
Elements in your world can conflict with each other, as long as the logic remains true.
You can mix magic and science, you can have the laws of physics and break them. In fact, you can get a lot of story elements out of these things! Harmony is nice but it’s not required (and sometimes it’s downright boring!). It’s okay if things clash or contradict, as long as it makes sense that they would exist in the same world. Just be aware that you might need to explain why the contradiction isn’t impossible.
Don’t get lost in your worldbuilding.
It’s so easy: worlds are fascinating places, and we pour so much creative energy into building them that it can suck up all of our time and inspiration before we realise what has happened. I know writers who spend so much time building their worlds that they never get to the actual story the world is for. If building the world is what you’re really interested in, that’s fine! But if you want to write a story, be careful of tumbling all the way down the rabbit-hole without your characters along for the ride.
You don’t have to build the whole world before you start your story.
Just like any kind of research, you don’t need to know everything before you start: you just need enough. How much is enough? That depends on a lot of things, such as how different your world is from our reality, and how crucial the elements are to how your story will go. You need to be confident that you know the world well enough to write in it without stumbling.
It’s also okay to pause in your writing to work out more things about the world. You’re going to end up in places in your story that you probably didn’t expect, and you’ll need to fill in gaps as you go. Keep your world consistent (build it out, rather than rebuilding it at will), and you’ll be fine. No-one will notice! If you’re not writing a live serial like I am, you have the freedom to go back and rework things if you do have to rebuild something. Make sure you keep your story straight!
Keep an eye out for story elements.
I can’t recommend this enough. Worldbuilding is such a great source of things a story can play with: character facets; plot elements; conflict; obstacles; motivation… the list is endless. If you’re feeling that a story idea is too thin, it’s worth having a go at some worldbuilding around it; you might be surprised by some of the things that rise up and deepen your idea into something fat and juicy.
Have fun with it!
If worldbuilding is a chore, you’re not doing it right. If you’re bored, then maybe your readers will be, too. Build a world that excites you, build a world you can’t wait to delve into. It might be a place you’d never want to walk yourself, but it can still be a great setting for a story.
Hopefully, that gives you an idea of what I go for with my worldbuilding (and worldbuilding advice). More posts on this coming up. Keep an eye on the worldbuilding tag!
Writing is a solitary activity. We build worlds in our heads, make up characters that make sense only to us, imagine stories, and then put fingers to the page, pushing it all out into a story or poem. We shut ourselves up in garrets, or sit alone in cafes, or close the door to our room or office. We put in our headphones and tune out the world.
We struggle, we strive, all in the privacy of the writer. We get used to not speaking to anyone about it. We get used to not trying to explain this strange, wondrous, draining, hard thing we do.
We’re also pretty damned stupid.
Writing does not have to be a solitary activity. There are people just like you, all around you. They might not be your family, your colleagues, or your friends – yet. If you look for them, you’ll find them everywhere.
So reach out. See if you can find some like-minded people in your area. Online works, too, but try closer to home, too. You’ll be surprised!
You can join writing groups, or if there aren’t any that suit what you’re looking for, start your own. You can join NaNoWriMo. You can hold your own write-ins. Join forums and boards and Twitter conversations.
You don’t have to get together for formal meetings. You don’t have to read each other’s work (or share your own). You could do all of that, or you just get together to sit in companionable silence in a cafe or someone’s lounge, typing and scribbling down words. What you do is completely up to you, but make sure you do.
Everyone needs a support network, and we shouldn’t underestimate the value of those who understand those voices in your head, the plot point you’re struggling with, or the word you just can’t think of. It’s startling how productive a session of writing with a bunch of people can be, when common sense says that you’d probably be too distracted.
It’s not about writing the same piece, or collaborating, or comparing notes, or who can write the most in ten minutes. Writers are the least competitive group I’ve ever come across (though word wars (writing sprints) do work!). It’s about people who get you. It’s about sharing something and feeling supported. It’s about knowing that you’re not really alone, even when you’re writing something deeply personal and private.
So reach out. Find those other writers who are just brimming to talk about that thing they’re working on, to someone who just gets it. Revel in the wondrous feeling of an awesome community. Call each other by internet handles, or pen-names, or random nicknames. Laugh about wayward characters who won’t behave. Bounce ideas off each other. Be lifted up by the enthusiasm of the group. Be inspired.
I did. I’ll never look back. Best decision for my life and my writing I’ve ever made.
I recently read an interesting article about how the shortening of our attention spans was causing the rise of short stories. The internet’s easily-consumable morsels mean that our attention spans are shortening, and therefore short stories are becoming a lot more popular.
It sounds so very logical, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple.
Now, I can completely believe that the internet and the vast array of content that is begging for digital consumption is changing the way we approach and digest information. Items online, whether text, image, or video, have a very short window with which to grab our attention, but I don’t think this is ADHD-related, and I don’t think that we get bored and wander off, unable to maintain focus for more than- SQUIRREL.
Online, people are becoming increasingly savvy in making quick judgements about whether or not a piece of content is worth their time. It’s not possible to absorb the whole internet and it’s actually pretty hard to find the good stuff. If you’re looking for something new, you have to dip your toe in and try the water, before you find what you want to dive into.
In that way, online content is its own advert, and the same kind of snap-judgement methodology applies: grab them quick or lose them forever.
So how does this all apply to fiction?
It means that the opening to your story is crucial. If you don’t have a kick-ass hook in the first paragraph – preferably the first sentence – then readers are less likely to read your story.
Is this new? No, this is advice that I have been hearing my whole life, and wasn’t new when it was first given to me (I am, sadly, old enough for this to have been before the internet became a Thing). It’s good advice whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, and whether you’re going to sell/distribute on paper or electronically. The old-fashioned version of clicking away is putting the book back on the shelf, or flipping the page to a different short story.
What about the rising popularity of short fiction online? Personally, I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘people prefer bite-sized fiction’. That might be a factor, but the truth is, short fiction has always been popular. Anthologies have always existed, and magazines and newspapers have hosted short stories for centuries. They are a mainstay because people like and read them.
However, it has never been lucrative nor easy to publish short stories. An author couldn’t publish individual short stories, because they were too small to form a viable print run (usually due to cost but sometimes also on physical or practical level). They were forced to combine stories into anthologies to make it worth putting them through the printing press, or submitting to newspapers and magazines. (There’s nothing wrong with any of this!)
With the rise of the ebook, however, things changed. ‘Book’ length was no longer an issue, because ebooks don’t go through printing presses. The reliance on ‘preferred novel length’ for a published book fell away and authors can freely publish ebooks containing individual short stories. Add to that the ease of being able to post a short story on a website, and you have two very fundamental changes to the way that short stories have been made available to readers.
Similarly, novellas are now much easier to make available to readers, for the same reasons. Printing a novella was always tricky (unless you’re writing for Mills and Boon), but digital copies are much easier and less restricted.
Side note: let’s also not attribute any of this to Kindle Singles as the article linked above does; it may have helped, but it was only jumping on the bandwagon that was already in motion and picking up speed. Ebooks have been flexible in their length since their inception and Amazon haven’t pioneered any of this (my short prequel ebook, approximately 7,000 words, was out before Kindle Singles was announced).
Long story short (ha ha), it’s much easier for authors to provide and for readers to find short stories online than it was when they were on paper. Is it a surprise that readers are consuming more short fiction now than they were pre-internet? Not really.
What about a rising preference for short stories? I haven’t seen any evidence that this is happening. Yes, readers may be consuming more short stories than in the past, but not to the detriment of longer fiction. In fact, the sales statistics suggest the opposite is true: ebook consumers prefer longer books, according to the statistics that Smashwords analyses annually. This has been the case for the past few years.
So what does this all mean? TL;DR version:
- Fiction is now more accessible in all of its forms, including short(er than novels)*.
- Readers love bite-sized stuff
- Readers prefer long (100,000+ words) fiction overall
- There is a healthy, rich market for short stories and novellas, and authors should go out and make the most of it!
* And poetry, flash fiction, epics, serials, etc.
(Warning: inappropriate unicorns below)
Writers are always striving to write better. (Or at least, the good ones are, and that’s who I’m writing these tips for, so let’s stick with that assumption, okay?)
We take classes, read blog posts, buy numerous books on writing by writers, read at least some of those books, write stuff, cry over feedback, write more stuff, entrust our precious work to editors, write more stuff. We are always chasing that better phrasing, the more fitting word, the image crafted so finely that it shines. We try to pin down a character in ways that will really reach people. We search for ways to twist the knife that will make people ask for more.
In short, we are always, always trying to perfect what it is that we do.
This is absolutely the right thing to do. We will never learn or grow if we aren’t constantly reaching for something better.
But there is no such thing as perfect writing. It is a myth, the unicorn at the end of a rainbow we can’t even see. That unicorn is laughing at us.
Why is it laughing? Because we know our work isn’t perfect. We sit and squint at it, and poke, and prod, change a word here, a phrase there, throw our hands up and switch tense in the whole piece, cut a paragraph out there, add another page in here. We primp and stroke and preen. We tear it up because it’ll never be any good. Our hands hover over the Delete key. We tuck it in a drawer because the next one, that’ll be the one that works. It’ll be right. But this one, this piece right here, it’s not good enough, and it’ll never be good enough. We just need to keep working at it, at our craft, at the next four pieces, until we’re good enough.
The thing is, we’re our own worst critics and the whole notion of ‘good enough’ means, for most of us, ‘perfection’. And like I said, there is no such thing as perfect writing. We’re sitting there, brushing and brushing a Shetland pony in the hopes that it’ll magically turn into a unicorn. In the meantime, the poor pony’s going bald and has probably started to eat our shoes.
Magic. Unicorn. You see where I’m going here.
So should we stop trying? No, we should not. Self-improvement is the lifeblood of good writing. But there’s trying to improve something and there’s going beyond all need and reason.
Because too much editing and rewriting can suck the life out of a piece. In chasing perfection, you can write away all the spark and passion it had when it was fresh and raw. Just like with cooking, at some point you need to stop stirring and poking and adjusting, or you’ll overcook it and then no-one will enjoy it. Or like whittling, paring and paring away at a carving until there’s only a nub of wood left.
More than that, it can stop you ever feeling like you’ve finished something. You miss that feeling of achievement.
This is where it becomes counter-productive. This is where it damages more than helps.
If you’re never submitting because that piece ‘isn’t quite right’? If you never show anyone your work because you’ve just re-written the first paragraph for the fifth time? If you never get to the end because you’ve been working on the first chapter for three months? If you tinker until you hate the sight of a piece? You’re chasing unicorns and you need to stop. Right now. Put that pen down; step away from the keyboard.
Because perfection is the enemy of done. Perfection is the enemy of looking at a piece and thinking ‘I’ve done something great here’ or ‘this is ready to go’. Perfection is the enemy of pressing ‘send’. Perfection is the enemy of saying ‘look at what I did’ and being proud of it.
That unicorn is not your friend. I’m telling you, it’s laughing at you.
Do you want to know a secret? The definition of what’s ‘good enough’ is mutable. It’s a line you can move, completely at your own choice. And if your line is pushed right up against your desirable perfection, then you need to move it.
It’s a learning process. Don’t expect to get it right every time. But learn to recognise when you’re starting to beat the horse because it’s not a unicorn and you’re about to end up with a dead horse no-one wants to play with any more. Learn when it’s time to put the tools down.
Take a deep breath. Accept that there is no such thing as perfection. Be brave. Let your writing grow wings and fly to wherever you aim it to go. Let it go.
Treat every submission or publication as a learning experience. Know that you’ll take what you learn from one into the writing of the next, and that each piece brings you closer to really good writing. Share your journey and your stories, because it’s good to be human and imperfect.
Know that, in that one way at least, you’re like every other writer on the planet, and that’s okay.
Aim high, my friends. Aim higher. But don’t be afraid to pull the trigger.
Often when we write, we see the story like a movie in our heads. Sometimes the picture is complete; sometimes it’s not. Sometimes only certain elements are in focus. Sometimes it all rolls by in a technicolor wave we can’t hope to do justice to with our meagre writer’s hands.
Whatever that picture is, it’s one of our challenges as writers to transplant it into the mind of our readers. We have to write in such a way that they see what we do. Words are the film and the book is the projector, whether it be electronic or paper.
Actually building an image in someone else’s mind is impossible (at least it is with current, non-invasive technology, so let’s go with it as fact for now). So how do we do it?
Easy: we cheat. We make the reader build the image themselves.
One writer described it as ‘renting space in your reader’s imagination’. It’s your reader’s imagination that you need to speak to, because this is what will do all the heavy lifting for you. All you need to do is give it the right prompts.
When you’re describing something, less is more.
Building an image in a reader’s mind isn’t about describing every single little detail, every tiny shift, and all the spaces in between. The brain is an amazing machine and can operate well on shockingly little information. It’s about giving the reader the right details so that they’ll fill in the rest for you. It’s about giving them enough to understand the scene. It’s about clues and nudges and those key things that you need to bring into focus.
Your reader has a hungry brain, ripe and empty, and it’ll slather all over itself to work for you, so use it shamelessly. Don’t waste a single word.
But where do flowery language and florid descriptions fit in? Readers enjoy those too (or some do!). They have their place and the same rule applies: you don’t need to describe absolutely everything. Describing one perfect plant in a garden might take half a page (or four pages), and that might be all you need for the entire garden; you don’t have to describe each and every plant the same way. Again, with the right cues, the reader will do it without thinking.
This rule of thumb doesn’t just apply to descriptions, either. Action can be picked out in its key moments (do we need to hear about every jarring step, or the angle at which the protagonist slid around three different corners, or just that last slither to a stop when the quarry is within reach?) and the reader will assume the whole journey; reactions can be hinted at (especially when the reader knows the characters well); and background information can be inferred from many sources (avoiding the infodump).
Focus on what’s truly important to your story: that’s what should appear in your words. You are renting space in someone else’s head and setting up spotlights. Your reader will come in and turn all the other lights on. They’ll join all of those dots while you’re busy doing something bigger, and they won’t even realise they’re doing it. They’ll paint the walls and tile the floor. They’ll figure out how to get from one spotlight to the other and sort out the plumbing. They’ll draw patterns and pitch the lighting at just the right level. They’ll know how long the character’s hair is without being told, and know what that curl of the lips means. They’ll hear voices in their head without any aural input. They’ll be dazzled by your stars and colour the sky in between them at the same time.
So don’t worry about putting every detail into your piece: worry about putting in the right details. And trust your readers to do the rest.
After reading a list by Chuck Wendig of 25 gifts for writer, (and his additional 10 ideas, omg!) and seeing as it’s my birthday soon, I thought I’d put together my own list of irresistible shinies for those who like to spin stories in their brains.
#1: Things that mark words on other things
You can’t go wrong with a simple, beautiful implement filled with inky possibilities. The options are endless: ballpoints, fineliners, mechanical pencils, wooden pencils, fountain pens, clicky pens, twisty pens, novelty pens, felt-tip pens, pens with fancy barrels engraved with our (pen)name. Us writer-types will grip it and use it and doodle with it. We’ll chew on it and noodle out nuances on napkins. We might even write words down in a story-like format.
A writer can never have too many pens or pencils. Okay, I might have a pencil case or two brimming full enough to prove otherwise, but the sight of a new pen always makes me happy. It makes me want to create an excuse to use it. I might do all of my actual fiction-writing on a keyboard, but I take notes the old-fashioned way; all of my planning is done on paper or notecard. So pens are always welcome.
#2: Things that make coloured marks on other things
Coloured ink. Coloured pencils. Glitter ink. Paint – okay, paint might be going a bit far, but you never know with some writers (they are creative types, after all). Colour is fun! Help your writer-friend make their words sparkle in a non-sucky way* by giving them a something a little different.
Why is this a different suggestion than the one above? Because it’s optional. But changing up the colour you use to write can be good for shaking loose a fresh perspective. I like to colour-code what I write on my notecards when I’m planning a project. I like glittery ink, because it makes the whole process more fun. And it helps me to pretend my writing is nicer than it is because hey, pretty!
It’s also a fun thing to use to write in other people’s birthday cards, too. Why stick to boring blue or black? Fuck no, I’m an artist. Watch me shine. And sparkle. And glitter.
#3: Things to write words down in
I think I have successfully conveyed the important of pens. It’s also helpful to have something to use them on other than a napkin or a receipt from the bottom of our wallet. Notebooks are always good!
Now, some writers will tell you that they have too many unused notebooks already. This is because it is very hard to walk past a nice one, especially if it’s on sale and calling to us. But I’ve yet to meet a writer who isn’t delighted by getting one as a gift. (All of this paragraph applies to me, by the way.)
I suggest making subtle enquiries of the writer to see what their notebooking preferences are. Do they prefer lined or blank pages? Moleskin covers? Ring-bound ones? Something small enough to tuck into a handbag or is big enough for a backpack okay? Must it be recycled or made from panda poop?**
#4: Sticky notes
Continuing with the stationery theme, sticky notes are wonderful! They capture our thoughts so they don’t escape on us, and we can stick them to any surface for later reference (sometimes, I want to use my forehead, but its adhesive qualities are sub-optimal for retaining reminders).
Be creative. You can go with the standard yellow squares of the stereotypical Post-it Notes, or you can look for different shapes and colours. They exist! They’re fun! Writers like fun. (I know, I know: shocking!)
#5: Caffeinated goodness
I have yet to meet a writer who didn’t appreciate liquid stimulation of some description. Okay, it’s not always caffeine: it might be tea, or hot chocolate, or smoothies, or alcohol-based internal fire.
For the most part, though, it’s coffee. If you cut us, we only bleed red because we haven’t had enough coffee today. Yet.
So think about how you can best support your writer friend’s essential habit. Coffee beans crapped out by a monkey?** A Starbucks card loaded up with enough credit to caffeinate an elephant? (You may wish to check how discerning your writer friend is before trying this one; some prefer to give the lowly stuff to the elephant.) Funky-flavoured grounds?
So many options, so much caffeine to consume.
#6: A receptacle for caffeinated goodness
Maybe you’re not sure what kind of coffee your friend enjoys, or if they can do anything with beans but wish really hard, because there’s no grinder at home. Never fear! Coffee-drinking has accessories (and essential ones at that), and they all make good gifts. Some of them come in funky colours and patterns, so you might even find something in their chosen geeky area (we all have them, let’s be honest here).
So what might it be? A nice set of matching cups and saucers might be nice, but what about a new coffee press? A mug the size of their head? A travel mug so they can never be parted from their one true love? A coffee press in a travel mug the size of their head?
#7: Writing rewards
Some writers need rewards for reaching milestones. It’s both stick and carrot! Sometimes it’ll be that snack they’ve been wanting but are putting off until they’ve finished a full 1,000 words, usually chocolate or cake. Sometimes it’ll be a trip to the bathroom (not something I do or recommend – that can only get messy, but apparently an overfull bladder can be a wicked encouragement).
What about something that they wouldn’t normally treat themselves with? Like a massage, or a facial. A ticket to that musical they’ve been talking about. A trip to see a movie (or even just the popcorn).
Feel free to wrap it in something that says ‘to be opened when you’ve finished x story’. They’ll love it! And possibly hate you a little bit. Sometimes external encouragement and reward is exactly what we need. Be careful, however, of making them time-dependent (like a ticket), just in case they’re a lazy slacker who never finishes a damned thing. No point wasting a perfectly good ticket.
#8 BOOKS (fiction)
I know, I know: how come books aren’t number 1? Suspense is what keeps people reading, you know.*
Writers love books. They love stories. A gift of a book is always, always a wonderful thing.
But how do you know what they’ve got? What they like? What if you choose something offensive to them? Well, you could always ask. Or just guess; that often works, too.
I saw something recently that I think is an awesome idea: give a writer your favourite book. There are so many reasons why that’s a great thing: it means more to the recipient to know that you’re giving something you love, not just something random you picked up. A joy shared is a joy more than doubled.
#9 BOOKS (non-fiction)
Writers must research things. They can be very random things, or scary things, or downright disturbing things. We are magpies, collecting shiny bits of information that might be useless to most, but are golden nuggets for us.
So when thinking about gifts, maybe think about that project that your writer-friend is researching. Have a look around for potential research material that might be related. Even if it’s tangentially related, it might be useful! If it looks interesting, offers handy morsels of information, and is in book form, chances are, your writer will love it.
#10 BOOKS (other)
Nope, not quite done with the books section of our writery gift-o-rama. But if you’ve done fiction and non-fiction, what else is there, I hear you ask? There’s inspiration: that’s what.
I’m thinking of coffee table books full of gorgeous pictures. I’m thinking of guides to steampunk fashion, fantastical landscapes, strange portraits, or aliens scraped from the inside of an artist’s brain. Inspiration brimming at every turn of the page.
You can match them to your writer’s favourite genre, but entirely random stuff works, too. Don’t underestimate the value of something thought-provoking; it might spark an unexpected idea or even story.
#11 Research activities
Like I mentioned earlier, writers love to do research (and worldbuilding), sometimes to the detriment of ever starting their story. But let’s pretend it’s not getting in the way, for the purposes of this list. Or let’s say that you can help give your writer-friend a kick-start he or she might not be expecting.
So what is the idea here? The idea is to take your writer out to do something they’ve never done before. The more real an experience is, the more research material you’re giving them!
Now, I’m not talking about taking them out to the wilderness and leaving them there for a ‘survival experience’. I’m not talking about hooking them up with drugs or surprising them with a brothel visit (surprise whore! Happy birthday!). Those might be hilarious to contemplate but let’s steer shy of getting ourselves into trouble (or jail).
I’m talking about things like a day at a shooting range, or a stunt-driving course, or flying lessons, or a seminar in medieval blacksmithing, or a lecture on the search for exo-planets. (Incidentally, I would love all of those, and have actually done the last one.)
Some of these will cost a bit; some might cost nothing but time. It’s a good idea to look around to see what’s in your area: for example, universities often offer free lectures for the public. The sky’s the limit! (Though, just so you know, you can buy trips into outer space now. Just saying: the sky’s not actually the limit. But you can go there. Or further. Go further (with me).*)
#12 Inspiration cards
Most of these suggestions have involved some monetary outlay, some more than others. But there are other things that you can do that won’t cost you money. One is inspiration cards: something for your writer friend to pin to the wall above their working area, or carry with them when they’re out and about. Something to look at when they’re searching for words to put down or starting to doubt their abilities. Because as writers, we doubt ourselves a lot. We have crises of faith and convince ourselves that everything we do is shit. Never doubt the value of a reminder that we’re actually pretty crazy (or crazy-good; that would be a nice thing to believe!).
You can probably buy some fun and well-worded cards. I’m sure they exist. They might have pretty pictures on! Or you could print out fun memes from the internet (like the picture of the Avengers with the ‘You should be writing’ caption; that one always works).
But you know what would be even more awesome? If you made the cards out of comments on the writer’s own work. Have a look through places where they might have been reviewed or had comments posted, and note down the ones that are worth waving around like flags. Then make these quotes into the cards, however your skills are best suited.
If their work is not online so much, maybe ask friends who have read their work for quotes. Make some up yourself. Feel free to decorate them. Most of all: make it personal. The more you put in, the more they’ll get out of them.
Writers love stickers. Not just Post-it-style notes: actual stickers with pictures on. Or stars, or letters, or parts of an image. NaNoWriMo has taught me that: above all else, we get great responses for giving out stickers. Not even NaNo-specific ones; any stickers will do. Especially if the writer has to earn them.
Any shape. Any picture. Preferably something fun, but plain is good, too. So go nuts. Get that fun, random set of stickers for your writer friend. Even better: give them a progress chart to stick ‘em to.
Because all writers are secretly big kids who like stickering all over the place.
Phew. Is that enough? I think I’ve covered all the writer-specific stuff.
What about you? What do you like to receive as a gift? Tell us! Because if you don’t ask, you won’t get.
Now to wait and see what turns up for my birthday. A geeky writer-girl can hope, right?
* You see what I did there?
** Yes, this exists. Who thinks ‘hey, this’ll be an awesome idea!’?
So many projects, so little time. I’ve talked a lot on this blog about how much I struggle with my health and fatigue (or at least, it seems that way to me). I work full time to support myself, too, so my available time to write is pretty restricted.
My project list is so long these days. I put the Works in Progress page up recently, and I’m still thinking of things that I should put on there. It’s a page that will be updated pretty frequently, I think.
It’s natural that I get frustrated by the restrictions in my life. I am brimful of stories and struggling to be able to get them down and share them. I have pieces of my heart I’m ready to give away but no hands to hold them in. Not enough spoons to carve them out with.
Okay, that metaphor might have got away from me there. But you get what I mean.
There’s something that happens to me when I feel this way for a length of time. The things I really want to do pile up and up, and I’m constantly tipping them back against the wall: not yet, not yet, wait your turn. I’ll get to you. Just hold on there.
At some point, that pile gets too high. The sheer volume of things I want to do but can’t becomes too much, and it topples. I’m right in there, standing underneath, and I give up and join in, tearing chunks out of the middle and strewing them around. Fine. Fine.
In my head, something shifts. In my chest, something gives way. I say ‘yes, I feel crappy all the time, and I have all these restrictions on me, and it sucks. And you know what? It’s not good enough. I’m sick of missing out on my own life. I want to do *this* and *this* and this other thing over here. And I’m damned well going to do them anyway.’ My brain is suddenly active, alive with urgency and ideas that are usually so far out of my reach.
Outwardly, I have a productive spurt. I write on this blog again, blurt out a stream of things that have been backing up for some time, and wind up scheduling them over days or weeks to spread them out. I clean my house. I sort papers that have been sitting in a messy pile for months. I throw stuff out that I’ve been meaning to get to. I plan out a chunk of a new project. I write shorts. I do some of those things that have been towering over me, blotting out sight of what progress I might be making with everything I’m missing out on.
Chronic fatigue is a tricky thing. Sometimes this is enough to pull me up for some time – weeks, months maybe. Sometimes it only lasts a short time before my energy dwindles again, maybe a weekend if I’m lucky.
That’s sort of where I am right now, on the up-kick of a productive spurt. I’m not sure how long it will last. It feels more forced than usual, driven by more determination than it has been in the past. I’ve been lower for longer lately, and I’m trying to pull myself up out of it.
Part of it is most likely prompted by some help I’m getting at home, and right now, I’ll eke the most out of every opportunity that I can get. If a door is open an inch, I’ll do my damnedest to kick it wide, or even a foot wider. Every little helps.
Right now, I’m feeling really positive. My day job is going well. Starwalker is a bit of a challenge (which I might talk about in another blog post), but I got last week’s post out on time and that’s a victory in my book. My writing group is going well. I spent last weekend hanging out with writer friends, writing. The Writer’s Retreat is coming along nicely. Now the pressure is off at home, I can spare the mental energy for looking into health options.
And I’m getting lots of ideas for stories. Some existing projects, as well as a whole new one.
I have figured out why Vampire Electric wasn’t gelling as smoothly as it should be for me: the villain is too off-screen and away from the action for too much of the story. I need to go back and rethink how he weaves in with the rest of the story and drives it forward. I’m planning to continue work on the second draft of the novel for this year’s NaNoWriMo project, and now I’m in a good position to fix it up when I do that.
I’m getting more clarity on some of the shorts I have on my list for Starwalker. I know roughly what I want to do for each character, but some are clearer than others.
I have an idea for a second VVSG vignette. It niggles at me.
The assassin-centric novel I wrote a few years ago is starting to itch again, too. I have a fairly good idea about how I want the rewrite to go, and how I might start to shift it into the Starwalker universe. With some more background work, I might even be able to work in the Fall of Earth, but that would be a sequel (or even two or three books down the track in that particular series).
More and more often, I’m finding that my stories come out as a series. Not serials, necessarily, but standalone novels seem to get bored in my brain and start breeding. Like dustbunnies (or plotbunnies). If I keep turning the idea over in my hands, I seem to realise there are three or four plots in there, not just one. So many books to write!
For example, Tales from the Screw Loose is now probably a trilogy, and much bigger than just a robot brothel (once I get down into the depths of the second, and definitely in the third, book). Again, the events in Starwalker are pushing this into a larger story (and I think it’s a lot better for it, mostly because straight erotica really isn’t my thing). Sexual politics, the automation of industry, the impact of refugees, entitlement, rebellion…
And then there’s the new story. It’s shiny and novel, and the more my brain picks at it, the more interesting stuff falls out. It’s called Splinter Soul, and the basic premise is that, some time ago, someone broke the world in a fundamental way. Souls are infinite and managed to survive being split when the planet fractured, and now people walk around with only splinters of the souls they should have. There’s magic involved, based around how much of their soul a person has managed to rejoin and what form they are most powerful in, so it’s in a person’s interest to try to find all the splinters of who they really are. The splinters are other creatures, some of them mundane, some of them fantastical. They might also be other people, and there might be dragons. There’s a role for reincarnation to play here, but I’m still figuring out the mechanics of that.
It’s still mostly a world right now, a setting with lots of fun pieces to play with. I’m having fun working it all out, and the mists of a story are forming in the background. I think, for once, I’ll have the antagonist before I have the protagonist nailed down. Maybe I’ll wind up making the villain the protagonist… now, there’s an idea. Ooo.
Just writing out those two paragraphs has given me two or three new ideas I can work in. It is unfolding.
This is how the mind of a writer goes. Right now, mine is firing on… maybe not all cylinders, but let’s call it five out of six (instead of the usual two or three).
I have to be careful not to push too hard. Not to throw too many balls into the air, lest they all fall down. I have to pace myself, at least a little, try to keep things reasonable. I don’t want to push myself into some kind of collapse.
But I do want to push. I want to enjoy this. I have so many toys and I mean to play with them. I want to make the most of this up-swing in productivity while it lasts.
There’ll be a price at some point. I’m borrowing spoons. But hell, I’m going to make it worth it.
It’s so tempting to look at the book market and think ‘ooo, stories about albino baboons finding their one true banana are selling well, I’ll write one of those!’. It’s also very easy to think ‘I have this wonderful story in my head, but no-one will be interested in it’.
Both of those thoughts are wrong. They will lead you to a sub-optimal outcome and, most likely, a weaker story.
Because that wonderful story in your head? The one that is scrabbling to be written, whispering to you when you least expect it (or are trying to sleep), or growing every time you trip over something in your day-to-day life? That’s the story your heart wants to tell.
When you write it, it’ll be full of all the passion that is pushing it into your consciousness. It’ll carry with it the love you feel for it, even if the story itself is dark and painful, or disturbing, or tortured, or sappy, or playful. It will carry those emotions with it all the way to your readers, like a heady scent.
When a story is forced and not felt, it shows. It lacks the fire of true purpose, and if you don’t believe in it, right down to your core, neither will your readers.
If it makes you laugh and cry and hide under the bed, it’ll do the same for your readers.
Does it mean you can’t experiment and try something different? Does it mean you shouldn’t try to write something marketable? Of course not.
But if you want to write the best story you can, fall in love with it. Find a way. Build in the things that move you. If it touches your heart, that’s a good start. If writing it spills your insides out onto paper, even better.
Writing what moves you will move others, and they will love it even when they’re crying.
Crap is relative. One man’s flower constructed of perfectly-selected words in lyrical proportions is another man’s unnecessary navel fluff. One woman’s riveting background full of juicy details is another woman’s journey down a random tangent full of annoying barbs that get stuck in her hair.
What does this mean? It means you can’t please everyone (just like with everything else in life), so don’t try. Trying to please everyone is simply setting out to fail.
So what do you do? How do you know if you’re writing the right stuff?
Write for one person. Make it the best that you can for that single person; make it their literary diamond.
Chances are, the one person you should write for is you. Writing what you want to read is a great place to start. You might be the only reader you ever write for. But considering all the different types of things that you like, is that a problem? No, not at all. It’s a focus. It’s a way to know that your story is the right one for the right audience.
What if you’re writing for an audience that you can’t represent (for example, children)? Then pick someone who represents the type of reader you want to aim your story at. Understand that person. Know what they love and what they hate. Know how they read and what and why, and all of those juicy things that will help you craft a wonderful nugget for them to love.
Write for that single, solitary reader. Speak directly to them through the words you wrangle. Make your story a conversation they can get engaged in.
And the rest? They’ll like it or they won’t, and that’s okay. The right people will like it: that’s what’s important.