Tuesday, April 23, 2013

you call it playing god, I call it worldbuilding part 2

Wow, don't you want to start worldbuilding after that long, meandering post about the dangers of worldbuilding? Follow me!

But really, a quick step-by-step of my WB process. Hopefully I haven't turned you off the subject.

(I don't usually write contemporary genres, at least not without supernatural or fantasy undertones, so this will probably be overkill for those who do write contemporary. Or maybe not.)

  •  MAP. 
    • In case you didn't catch my drift the first time, I always work off a map. Geography has shaped our own history so much, it only makes sense that it will shape your story too.
    • Tools: first I draw out said map on graph paper, usually with a pencil, then transfer to Photoshop via a scanner or a cruder drawing. From there, I can duplicate and do certain maps for certain things (borders, roads, geographic formations etc.). I don't have a tablet, but I have a violent need of one for map purposes.
      • It may also help to have an atlas or Google Maps on hand to help, if you need inspiration. I was that weird kid who spent school library trips looking at the atlases in the back so I have a bunch of favorites at my house
    • Now that you have your map, check out the cities, the rivers, the mountains, all that cool stuff you just drew. What's going on down there? Is that mountain range a border? Do the people on either side like each other? Why or why not? Continue into perpetuity or until you die in worldbuilding ecstasy. (Don't do that). 
      • At this point, it might help to already have a story in mind. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. 
      • How does it fit into this greater history you're shaping? How does the history shape your story and its characters? What happened to make the world this way?
      • The trick here is to be brief. Don't get stuck in the quicksand.
    • Tools: a simple word processor will do, or pen and paper.Your choice. For larger stories that require intense background, I dabble in Excel and make color-coded timelines. This was before I developed self-control, but someone with willpower could do this quite easily and survive.
    • The fun part. Where do they fit on the map, in the history, in the setting you've created?
    • Here we can get a little deeper. Parents, grandparents, education, language, religion, culture - how does this shape your character? You have to know where they come from to know where they're going and how they're going to act when they get there!
      • Of course, as you start piecing together your character, you can use this stuff to inform the rest of the world you're shaping. It's a two-way street. 
      • I love family trees almost as much as maps.
    • Tools: Graph paper is my lord and savior. Great for family trees and character maps or character wheels. Of course, there's always a word processor or pen and paper to be used as well.
  • PLOT
    • By now, you've probably got some idea of the story you want to tell. Your worldbuilding has got you thinking like your characters, living in the world you know, and so you understand exactly where they can take you. You started this process wanting to tell a fantasy Romeo & Juliet. Now you know you're going to undercut it with a magical civil war that ruminates on the destructive power of revenge. 
    • GO WRITE THAT PLOT. Outline, bullets, numbering, word-vomit, whatever. Just get it down.
      • I personally go for the 8 sequence, three act structure when I'm outlining. I studied screenwriting and that was the style hammered into us and it works for me. (I can do another blog post on this if anybody wants). Basically this means my stories are structured like movies, or at least they try to be.
    • Get your lovely pile of worldbuilding together. Go through it, see where the gaps are. Where did this religion come from? What city did her parents live in? Why is the king so damn mean and what made him this way? Is there anything special about that island you drew in for fun? (Maybe it's a holy island haunted by angels, who knows). 
    • This is like plugging up holes in the front yard because someone is coming to look at the house. You don't need to fill them up, but just put a little grass over the top. You might fall through later, but at least you've gotten to later.
    • Remember, don't get stuck. Keep moving. Things can always be filled in when you need to fill them in. 
    • Tools: coffee
I can't promise you're ready to write (you could've been ready to write back before the word 'map' left my fingers), but this is usually the point where I am. And then it's off to the sometimes slow, sometimes fast, always wonderful and excruciating races.

you call it playing god, I call it worldbuilding part 1

Based on notes and comments and my own inflated ego, my greatest strength is worldbuilding. I've patrolled a lot of blogs and how-to's and they've helped me so much in my WB process, so this is my attempt to give back a little. Of course, what works for me might not work for others and vice versa. And then there's the little Tolkien on my shoulder saying "Oh you drew a map? That's cute. Try inventing a language next. Try inventing ten languages. SASSY TOLKIEN OUT."

Let's just get it out there. I've been worldbuilding since I was about six, opened the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time guidebook, saw the map of Hyrule and decided to draw my own. (Sidenote: I always think, wow that's the dorkiest sentence I've ever written/said. And somehow I always find a way to out-dork myself). Anyways, I was drawing maps before I ever started writing stories. It was only after the Crayola-scribbled wonder was done that I started thinking about what went on in those cities and poorly-drawn mountains. I have a habit of doing things the wrong way, so it only makes sense that I started worldbuilding before I ever started writing. And now, sixteen years later, the habit still stands. I always worldbuild before I write.

As I did with my Hyrule-knockoff, I usually start with a map. I did it with THE RED QUEEN and, because I am a fool for maps, I even did it with all my screenplays. Luckily the zombie western, the castle thriller and the WWII spy movie actually required maps (I honestly think I only write things that need maps). Yes, I even drew a suburban neighborhood/built a Sim house for a teen comedy I wrote. I won't mention the frat row I mapped out for the "fratire" comedy.

When it truly comes down to it, I didn't need the maps to aid the story, I needed the maps to help myself. The draw of worldbuilding, for me at least, isn't just about setting the stage and fleshing out a world. It's about becoming part of your story. There are probably a thousand bits of worldbuilding for RQ that never made it into the final draft, but they still exist. They're still in my head. When I write a particular scene in a particular place, I know what's going on in the next room. I know who has a pretty sister and has a complex about it. I know who that rando guard walking by in the hallway is and what family he comes from. All this just deepens the world for me, which in turn allows me to live, breathe and, hopefully, write about it as truthfully as I can. 

I truly believe that worldbuilding is meant to aid the writer as much as the reader, and perhaps more so. That said, there's a point in time where worldbuilding stops being a crutch and starts behind a burden. I'm talking about the dark side of worldbuilding. *thunderclap*

It's a trap I've fallen into with shocking regularity. I've got the map, some family trees, a brief history of world/characters and maybe even a plot outline for posterity, and I'm ready to write. But wait, I need to flesh out language parameters! But wait, I need to step this family tree back another 10 generations! But wait, I need to made coats of armor and 20 different color-coded maps depicting trade routes! But wait, but wait, but wait. This is the danger of worldbuilding - you get sucked in.

Worldbuilding is, in my opinion, very delightful quicksand. Once you're in too deep, it's almost impossible to get out and therefore, to actually start writing. In my experience, this is usually my way of not writing while tricking myself into thinking I am actually am. And then suddenly it's six months later and I've got some pretty maps, cool names, and no story. My inspiration is gone. I can't tell you how many binders of family trees I have lying around. (Beat that, Mitt Romney). And no matter how much work and color-coding I put in, they're never going to result in anything more.

It's taken me a long time to figure out the happy medium, at least for the style and subject I'm pursuing right now. For example, my YA fantasy THE RED QUEEN has the least amount of worldbuilding I've ever done for a story. It also happens to be the first story I've ever finished. Coincidence, I think NOT. I started writing RQ with a single, very rudimentary map, a plot outline, three pages of world background, and an excel sheet full of characters, tiny bios, and other miscellaneous details that I filled in along the way. For the first time, I didn't fill entire binders and for the first time, I finished a book. The world and characters evolved on the page and I let them. The world existed more in my head more than any excel sheet or map. Edits were made, characters were cut, but from page one I was in the world and I was in the story. I found my happy medium of worldbuilding, at least for this tale. And it was a lot less than I thought it was.

Now the challenge comes in not falling off the worldbuilding wagon. The other project I'm currently working on is a worldbuilding extravaganza. But now that I know less is much, much more, I hope I can rein myself in long enough to actually write it. Today I did some historical and cultural work in the world, but didn't flesh out what didn't need to be fleshed out. I made up some religions, but restrained from writing ten pages on them. THIS IS PROGRESS.

Of course, the amount of worldbuilding required varies from tale to tale and genre to genre. A series like A Song of Ice and Fire would obviously need more and 50 Shades of Grey would require no brainpower at all. The only way to figure this out is, unfortunately, to make a lot of mistakes and fill a lot of binders and build up a lot of self-control. No, Victoria, stay away from the Photoshop.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


So I've seen/gagged at a fair amount of "haul videos" on YouTube, wherein girls empty Sephora bags and gush over their new lipsticks. No hate, I do the exact same thing after any shopping trip - just not in front of a webcam. I'm not that type of person. I AM, however, the type of person to write about my book store purchases. Seems fitting, right?

So here it is. My "haul blog post."

There is absolutely not ring to that sentence. Sorry not sorry.

First up: CLEOPATRA, A LIFE by Stacy Schiff. Pretty self-explanatory, a biography of the last queen of Egypt, arguably the most intriguing woman in history.

I've been wanting to pick this book up for ages, I just always seem to forget when I step into Barnes & Noble. P.S. I love Barnes & Noble and will be first in line at the funeral if they go under. Anyway, this little gem was parked right in front of the entrance and was ON SALE. I am, above all things, a sucker for a sale and a good book, and this was BOTH. It was a miracle I tell you. So I grabbed Cleo and continued on towards the book I originally entered the store to buy. Fair warning, I'm one of those people who intends to buy one thing and leaves with 67 others. At least this time it's books and not shoes. Side note: the book is just so pretty. The cover design, the inner cover, the parchment-y pages. I'm in love.

The next book I picked up (still not the one I came into buy) is GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETY by Jared Diamond. This is a nonfiction book that discusses the formation of human societies and how/why Eurasian civilizations were able to rise to such dominance.

By far, this is the second dorkiest book I've ever purchased. The honor of first easily goes to my vast collection of Lord of the Rings reference books (including an atlas, encylopedia, weapons guide etc.). I absolutely love history and, again, I've been wanting this book for a long time. It always ends up in B&N pile and then gets cast aside at the last minute. Today, it made it past the final cut. I'm especially interested in reading this for my own creative purposes - worldbuilding is a hobby/obsession/compulsion of mine and studying well, the building of our own world is the best thing I can do to help stretch those muscles.

Yeah, I know, I just bought two Pulitzer Prize winners. I swear I'm not usually so highbrow. For example, the book I'm currently finishing up is a post-apocalyptic vampire epic.

My last purchase, the one I entered B&N for in the first place, is the one I'm particularly eager to start. It may or may not have to do with one of my works-in-progress.

CATHERINE THE GREAT: PORTRAIT OF A WOMAN by Robert K. Massie is, again self-explanatory, a biography of Catherine the Great, a minor princess who rose to become Empress of Imperial Russia during the 18th century.

I've been wanting this since I started reading NICHOLAS & ALEXANDRA, another Imperial Russian book by Massie. I'm particularly interested in the time period, depicting a woman's rise to the monarchy in a time period much better known for revolutions. Also, I'm really into Imperial Russia and female biographies. This is both. Like GG + S, I'm not reading this entirely for my own entertainment and I'll probably be taking notes while I read. If I remember to. Full disclosure: I never remember to take notes. I do, however, highlight, but only if I have a second copy. (Looking at you, Lord of the Rings). ((Actually that copy fell apart because I read it too much. RIP LotR paperback)).

That's my book haul. Questions, comments, insults?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

the agony and the ecstasy

I am not referring to Michelangelo here, but the impulse that drives - and destroys - anyone who voluntarily puts pen to paper or fingers to keys and creates worlds out of letters. I'm talking about the fundamental need a writer (or screenwriter or author or storyteller or bard or whatever you are, you freaking nitpickers) has to write. To tell a story. I get these quite often and, quiet frankly, they are the best and worst thing I've ever felt. Except for watching Real Housewives.

My moments of pure, unbridled I MUST WRITE OR I WILL DIE usually come when I'm walking out the door or in the shower or anywhere besides right next to my computer. This is a phenomenon all writers know and love/hate, because it reminds of who we are and what we do, but also the terrible pain behind that urge. If I can't write the exact paragraph that's marching through my head at this exact moment, I feel like jumping out of my skin. I've jumped out of the shower, shampoo in my hair, to jot down a sentence or a phrase, or left a party to go home and write. I've even attempted to narrate  to some recording app while navigating standstill traffic. The latter I only did once because I was too embarrassed by the sound of my own voice (I mean, isn't everyone?) to listen to the recording.

But that need is nothing compared to when you actually sit down, crack your knuckles, open up that word processor and suddenly find that all those stories and sentences and oh-so-smart turns of phrase are gone. You are dried up and you haven't even begun. The blank page taunts you. And you deserve it, right? You're a damn writer, you can bang your face against a keyboard and get a coherent sentence out of it! But despite all the button mashing, all the furious playlist creating (because a new playlist WILL help you and no it's not a distraction) all you end up with is the blank page and a lot of frustration. You go to bed pissed, wondering where all that drive went. And, for me, that's exactly when it comes back.

When I was writing THE RED QUEEN, I kept a legal pad behind a pillow so I could jot stuff down. Usually I woke up to incoherent scrawling and pen on my face, but it at least gave the illusion of help. I went back to my computer knowing the drive was somewhere, I just had to find it. So I pushed and typed slowly and fought myself. And that's where the third pain comes in, the one that might be worse than all the others.

I don't know how it is for anyone else, but for me, when I'm really going, I mean when I know every damn letter that's coming for the next twenty pages, I go into a weird little trance. My headphones go in, ambient Nine Inch Nails comes on, and I am a zombie. It doesn't happen often, at least back when I was writing screenplays it didn't, but the last 2 weeks of writing TRQ resulted in two full weeks of blank space. I remember waking up, eating a bagel, and then realizing it was sunset and two chapters were done. The only memory of the moments in between that stays with me is the thought I always have when writing: I am bleeding.

Because that's what writing is to me. I bleed. The connect between my brain and my fingers goes away and the words just happen. I open a vein and somehow pour it all out into a Macbook. This doesn't mean what I write is devastatingly serious or tragic or beautifully intelligent. Quite the opposite, I write to entertain, because that's what I see as my primary goal. Theme and moral and message come later, or else you're just writing a sermon or, at best, an episode of Seventh Heaven. I'm even crazy enough to feel this way when I'm writing something cliche or juvenile or just plain fun. (By fun I mean the zombie vs. cowboys melee that was the third act of my first screenplay). And because it's my blood on the page, it hurts that much more. Where is this going? Is it good? Am I good? All those questions that we all know way too well come haunting, a shadow behind every single letter. 

No one answers back, not for a long time, until the draft is done and you're ready to put that black blood out in the world. I was lucky enough to study screenwriting in college, and get four years of workshop classes under my belt to help me develop a hopefully thicker skin. But I still feel the sting (oh man do I feel it), and I'm sure you do too.

I was never good at conclusion in those five paragraph essay things they made you write in school (or introductions or theses either, come to think of it), and I'm a rambling writer. Again, I'm bleeding out a jumble of words. There isn't much advice in here, if any, but hopefully this post is more of an outstretched hand to remind us that other people understand the agony and the ecstasy. Other people, other writers, know exactly how you feel and how hard it is to do what you do every single day. Writers are, by nature, insular creatures and so we, above all others, need to be reminded that we are not alone.

All the stuff I didn't do

I sometimes get questions about how I: decided to write, wrote a manuscript, got a KICKASS agent at a KICKASS agency full of KICKASS people, etc. so I’ve been trying to think of ways to answer them. And I realized I don’t exactly have one. 

I try to read as much as I can about “Becoming an Author” and all that jazz and, on paper, it seems excruciating. Getting critique partners, entering contests, querying agents, submitting to agents and of course, the actual writing the manuscript part - those all seem horrifying. In retrospect, I realize that I only fully did one of those things (writing the manuscript) for the project that landed me with Suzie. Of course the submitting thing happened (Suzie and I did not have an out-of-the-blue dream about working together and meet for the first time all dramatically on a bridge), but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. How can that be, you ask? Let me attempt to explain without the help of GIFs or outrageous movie metaphors, I reply.

Last April, I participated in a mandatory pitch event that caps off the BFA screenwriting program at the University of Southern California. However, I wasn’t pitching books, but instead screenplays. It was something like 12 rounds of 10 minutes with film and TV industry execs/agents/producers/managers/coffee fetchers and it was the most nervewracking event of my life. But I wore a blazer and I was professional and I did it. I specialized in “popcorn” movies because I have a short attention span and if explosions aren’t involved, my brain wanders. I ended the night feeling pretty good, with multiple script requests and email addresses and all the dreams of a starry eyes film student. Of course, none of these panned out in any special way, as is custom. I did, however, receive a request from an assistant I didn’t meet with, but was requesting from all the students they missed on pitch night.

I replied with my portfolio, he requested several projects, and, shock of all shocks, loved the TV pilot I wrote to see if I could actually write TV. This was very much a “the spider doesn’t know which part of the web will catch the fly” moment. Then a manager/producer at the company then contacted me to say he loved the pilot and wanted to set up a meeting. Long story short, I met with him and several other execs, pitched another tv pilot and a movie. They were buying what I was selling, so I had the strangest “oh screw it” moment in my head and told  them I had another idea for a story. It was a book this time, and I told them I wanted to write the next big YA novel. Then I gave them the logline and basic story arc that I had. I guess screenwriters don’t say that very much because they went nuts, told me that’s what I was doing, and set me up with a rep. This was in May, a little bit after graduation when I was jobless and getting close to homeless. Now I had DIRECTION. Now I had PURPOSE. And I still had no money/job/home.

Los Angeles is not cheap/kind to New Englanders used to seasons and people who can drive properly, so I made a big decision. My summer housing plans fell through, I took an eye opening trip to Montana, and then I moved home to Massachusetts. My dad and I drove my car cross-country and of course, I got a phone call in Illinois saying I got a screenwriting job I thought I wasn’t going to get. Such is my life. Luckily, it was only for three weeks and for good money. All together, everything combined perfectly to allow me to live at home, not work, and WRITE.

So from July to January, I wrote. I submitted chapters to my LA rep and he was a great motivation to keep going/not get caught up by the inner demonic editor. Another friend of mine became my first fangirl and my biggest cheerleader, also quelling my fears. I got stuck, I kept going, I wrote 10,000 words a day, I wrote 2 words a day. And then I edited, with the help of my English teacher mom. And then I finished. And I was afraid. Because what happened now?

At this point, my rep was no longer a rep, but still on my team. He had some ties to New Leaf from the other side of the book-to-movie equation, and submitted my finished MS to a friend there. I was told this on a Friday. I shrugged, and figured I’d hear something in a month. On Wednesday, Suzie contacted me. She was given the manuscript, peeked at it to see what it was about, and then read the whole thing. Of course, I screamed at the email, then furiously responded. We called (on the phone, my nightmare), we emailed, we exchanged notes and we revised. A month later I was officially signing with her. My MS never went anywhere else and I’m so glad things happened this psycho way, because I landed with some amazing people.

This was my very convoluted and strange path to literary representation. I never wrote an official query letter, I didn’t enter contests - in fact I didn’t know those things existed until after my MS was with Suzie. I didn’t even know what MS meant. I was - and still am - a little literary baby bird. And hopefully this post will help other literary baby birds in showing that there’s more than one way to break in. I did it ass-backwards and you can too!

After signing, there were more emails, and more revisions. There were tweets and follows and newfound Twitter friends to offer amazing advice and support (and more publishing vocab to learn). And now we’re moving onto the next step. And I’m still afraid. But I’ve never been more excited.

And this GIF has never applied to me more. Yes, I love Saved By The Bell.


--xpost from my Tumblr--