Worldbuilding (the verb, rather than the noun), is a well-loved hobby. Many people prefer worldbuilding over story writing, or become heavily involved in it due to tabletop gaming, video game development, or other collaborative projects. Most speculative fiction novels require some worldbuilding in the planning stages. This is all great. But worldbuilding (the verb, not the noun), is not actual writing, and spending time worldbuilding is not spending time adding words to the novel.
What is it that draws you to the genre and/or age category you’re writing? If there’s more than one, what draws you to each?
I like the freedom of Fantasy. I like building worlds from scratch and finding magic in both those worlds and this one, and putting my diverse casts in the middle of it.
I’m also drawn to MG lately, though I usually write adult: I’m yet to actually write a MG novel, but I really like the idea of telling stories I wish I had as a child, and ones I could someday tell my children.
I like how in SFF, the social norms are all of my own choosing. I can make gender roles whatever I want, sexuality as unimportant or important as I feel, class and status dependent on all sorts of strange world-specific customs. I love creating new colloquialisms and beliefs, and being able to include diverse characters without having to worry about stepping on toes with real-world cultures (for example, any ethnicity can appear in my giant space empire, but their in-book culture is based on giant space empire things). I can make science more respected, I can have magic changes the rules of everything, I can introduce technologies that completely alter the kinds of conflicts humans can have. It’s a sandbox where I can craft whatever underlying personal or social story I want, while setting it over exciting, beautiful backdrops.
I love the self discovery of YA (and NA to a degree). I’m a big fantasy and sci-fi fan, but I think for age categories, I like YA the most in that the characters are always overcoming something that feels very relatable to me as a reader. I like reading about characters that come from all walks of life, and while they overcome the big goal, the internal arc is usually always (mostly, sometimes…) about finding self, learning about self, and accepting self. Seeing how, and why, these characters learn the lessons they do, has always been something I’m drawn to. Give me all the self-torn protags, and side-characters, and antags, and all of it, and let them overcome it.
If you’re interested in reading along with us, this is a mid-month reminder that we’re going to talk about Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie this month. There’s still time to grab a copy from your local library or bookseller and hop on board! We’ll be discussing our thoughts at the end of June, then starting a new book for July.
In response to plenty of posts on social media—some from industry professionals and others from amateurs and bystanders—claiming that novel aesthetics are a complete waste of time writers should be spending actually writing, I’m here to talk about how these aesthetics can be used as a powerful tool to help your story, and how they’ve done so many times for me.
To those of you unfamiliar with the idea, novel aesthetics are collages of pictures (usually from Pinterest or the like) that represent your novel or some aspect of it.
#ThursdayAesthetic, a great twitter hashtag by Jessica James (@literarilyjess), sets a theme every week for everyone sharing: so far, among others, we’ve seen themes like atmosphere, side characters, love interests, family, setting, and more.
There are different ways of making these collages, and different approaches to it. Some authors like as literal a representation as possible—others, and I belong in this category myself, prefer to go for a couple of details to illustrate the general feeling instead.
Now, of course, putting together aesthetic collages isn’t a substitute for putting words on paper. We can’t submit a query letter and a folder with aesthetics instead of a manuscript—but the process of writing is about much more than just words on a paper, and (with a risk of digressing here a bit) suggesting otherwise can be pretty harmful and detrimental to writers’ productivity and mental health.
So, how can these aesthetic collages help you write your novel?
Novel aesthetics are largely about the feeling of the premise, place, person, relationship, or whatever else it is you’re portraying. They’re about finding the core of what you want to show, and finding pictures that send the right message and evoke the right emotion, whether through literal portrayal or a metaphorical one.
I’m going to share a couple of collages I’ve made for my current WIPs, and talk about how each helped me develop aspects of the story.
Note: I don’t own the images used in these. I put the collages together, and the quotes included are quotes from my current novel, but the individual images belong to their respective creators. I found them all on Pinterest, and unfortunately don’t know who those creators are to credit them. If their names are ever brought to my attention, I’ll be sure to do so.
Making this one was ridiculously difficult. I made it for the “love interest/friend” theme, and I had no idea where to even start. I browsed through my Pinterest album, my own sketches, and even her scenes in the story, and came out just as lost.
And that meant something was wrong—not with my comprehension or the pictures, but with her character itself. I didn’t know how to show all the right things about her, because I wasn’t sure enough what the right things were. Her character was there, as alive for me as any of them, but her depth needed work nonetheless.
So I thought of what mattered about her, to her. Not so much her story and personality and other character profile stuff, but the way she sees the world. The way she feels.
- She is a character whose memories exist in a jumbled order and change in a jumbled order, and she tries her best to keep journals of them. She’s about time, and memories, and intuition.
- She’s the love interest of one of my MCs, and she loves said MC before the MC’s even meets her.
- She’s drawn to a place that feels like home without really knowing where or what that is, and the MC meets her when she’s brought to the MC’s ship as a prisoner.
As I laid down those things for myself, two things happened:
- One, I figured the pictures I wanted had to represent a fragile relationship with time, the journals she and the MC bond over, the wandering/travel, and a sense of seeing/knowing more than what’s there while also relying on the intuition. And a quote, a line of her dialogue that encompasses both her strange relationship with memories and her love for the MC. I had the colour scheme now, too: one that felt gentle and romantic and just a little bit distant, and fit with the others I’d made for the same novel.
- Two, and much more important in the long run, thinking about these elements meant finding the core of who she was. The essence of her character, where the different elements converged and fit together, that coloured her entire arc and would lead to the choices she makes during the climax and denouement. A big choice; a big move. One I had no idea she’d make, and that ties into the main story, the MCs’ arcs, and everything else.
In contrast, all the picture for this one were easy enough. This MC (the above’s love interest, by the way) is the sister who’d escaped the main setting ~10 years before the story, and found safety in the clouds, aboard a ship she calls her home. I knew I wanted her face on there, and that I needed the sails against the sky and the crew she considers her family—but also her twin brother’s whispers from behind the veil she locked her past behind (okay, it’s mostly referred to as a wall in the narrative, but the veil conveys the gentleness of a whisper much better), the glass-winged butterfly from the gardens she grew up in, the baby brother she left behind, and the memories of good times, like when her twin gave her the pair of silver earrings.
But then—I needed a quote. And not just any quote: a quote that captured the essence of what family meant to her.
I looked through the memories, through conversations with her crew, through scenes with her brothers, and all the instances where she mentioned her twin—and none of it felt right. So I put the aesthetics stuff aside and I typed up a random scene in which she tells one of her crew members about her past, and that’s the quote that ended up in the collage. And it made me realise: family, for her, was indeed about all of those things above. But it was also, more strongly so than anything, about the people who were there for her when she made the hardest choice of her life; about those who were there once she escaped the family she knew.
I knew all those things—but this search made it clear I had to show them better. They were all there, for me to be aware of and for the readers to miss, but they were and always have been a crucial element of this MC’s arc, informing her big choices and enriching her interactions with both her found family and the blood-related one. They had to shine. They were something she’s aware of, something that had to be okay to bring up as clearly as this line does, and my words weren’t conveying it anywhere near strongly enough.
I’m not happy with this one, but that’s exactly why I’m including it here.
This one was on the theme of setting, and I went with my main one—the centre of a magic-prosecuting theocracy. A hive of bridges and white marble arches, tinted glass lanterns and hanging gardens, where censers burn incense in every home and the citizens never take off their masks. The beautiful homestead of a terrible system, birthplace to all three MCs and home only to two. Charming but dangerous, resting soundly upon a foundation of lies and under a subtle web of intrigue and control that has you indoctrinated before you catch a single glance of the truth underneath.
Why don’t I like this collage? Because it only shows half of that.
It shows the main things—the incense burner, the flying ships (although not looking the way I imagined mine, but hey, at least not finding the accurate pic sort of made me feel like the idea is somewhat original), the lanterns, the gothic-is architecture, the masks, the quote that I actually ended up cutting from the scene where it originally appeared. The colour scheme sort of brings it together enough, but the core, the feeling, the atmosphere of it, is barely (if at all) readable.
The ivy picture, lower right, was a step in the right direction—towards mixing the beautiful with the controlled order—but overall this one just kind of exists. It doesn’t do.
So why am I including it? Good question. Unlike the others in this post (and others yet which I’ve left out), this one didn’t make me realise anything in particular—it made me appreciate it. It made me conscious of all the little things that go towards building the atmosphere of the setting in the story itself; all the turns of phrase, interactions and reactions, colours and patterns and emotions that I’ve been taking for granted as part of my descriptions. It reminded me that the reason this collage had me feeling all meh wasn’t that these elements didn’t exist in the writing itself, but that they were about so much more than just the visual representation—and it was the first time I actually looked at my writing and thought well, I think I did a pretty good job with this particular thing.
And don’t let anyone ever tell you that’s not incredibly important. Cherish the things that remind you to appreciate your effort.
(click on the pictures to see them bigger)
Consider these sort of as bonuses—they come from a different WIP, my fairytalesque literary fantasy that I endearingly nicknamed Patchwork because it’s a beautiful mess of several ideas stitched together. I’m in a peculiar situation with it: I know the core premises of each of the important characters’ story—but I haven’t written an idea-query for the whole thing, and I don’t want to know anything more about it than I do right now. I want to discovery-write it a bit.
So when I made these, I didn’t really need or want to figure out specific big choices or arcs, or develop any plots/relationships. I needed to capture the atmosphere, the feeling at the heart of it, and the way it weaves through all its different story threads.
The first one is for the thread told in 1st person, by the touch-averse, genderqueer MC on the bottom. The second one is for all the other threads, shown through 3rd omni POV that may or may not be as unreliable as the aforementioned one. The third one is for the setting(s): it takes place across several worlds/realities, following a bunch of individuals whose lives intertwine with or without their knowledge.
When I was in high school, I was in the fashion/textile design department, and our Fashion Illustration class required us to produce designs for a 10-piece collection each week or so. The reason this little personal tidbit matters is the fact that the foundation of every collection was cohesion—something that made all the pieces fit together, while still clearly being different. If you’ve ever seen Project Runway, you already know this, but a common mistake is taking a colour scheme and calling it cohesion based on that alone. While it may play a part in it, just as repeating elements do, cohesion is first and foremost about knowing and understanding the core of what you’re trying to say.
And that is what I needed to find for this collage trio. I needed them to show different aspects of the same story (with a couple of repeating elements, as it happens), while clearly fitting together. I needed them to approach it in different ways, but to feel about equally complicated, and magical, and quiet, and mysterious, and dangerous, and a little bit heartbreaking. It wasn’t about figuring out the specifics of the story—it was about nailing the atmosphere. And once I could feel it, it would weave into my prose and the way both narrators approach the story, kind of like a single thread stitching together all the patchwork pieces.
Little update: Since this post first went up, I made another collage for the black&white theme of Thursday Aesthetics today—one that made me think of everything I said up there about cohesion and connecting the core feeling of the story. Without any colour (and thus without a lot of images I’d have normally used), it was quite a challenge. I made two versions—I couldn’t resist seeing what it would look like with just a touch of the usual colour scheme, and I thought it kind of looked like magic, so here they are:
So allow me to wrap this up by saying it once more: creating aesthetic collages is not a waste of time. It can take time, yes, but so does banging your head against a wall or otherwise beating yourself up over a writing problem or not meeting your goals. As all the other things we do beside putting words on paper—like figuring out maps, sketching characters, brainstorming with post-its, or wandering around in search of cool places—it is a tool, and when approached as such it can and will help you develop atmosphere, prose, POV, characterisation, arcs, choices, relationships, and a myriad of other elements that make a story strong.
And just as all those other things we do beside putting words on paper, it very much is a valid part of the writing process.
For the second half of this year, we’ve prepared a reading list for the monthly Dead Darling Society Book Club!
The aim of this club is to keep writers reading regularly, particularly recent notable books. As the three of us are all SF/F writers, there’s a bias in that direction, but we have tried to incorporate a variety. All of the books we read have been published within the last five years, often much more recently. While we do want to encourage paying attention to how these masters wield their craft, more than anything we want to promote reading, reading, and more reading! And we’d like to provide some community while you do it.
That said, here are the titles you can expect over the next six months:
July – Dread Nation by Justina Ireland – This 2018 NYT Bestseller takes place during the American Civil War and involves the dead coming back to life, combining magic and mystery along with the racial issues of the time.
August – A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Ranked one of the best books of 2016, this beautiful book was highly recommended to me by a bookstore employee I solicited for suggestions. Everyone there lavished it with praise.
September – Witchmark by C.L. Polk – One of the most anticipated debuts of 2018, this magical take on a world similar to post-WWI England is not only rich with unique worldbuilding, it has a wonderful queer romance at its heart.
October – Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue – Another recommendation from the book store employees, this debut novel about an immigrant family in 2007 America is one of Oprah’s 2017 Book Club selections.
November – A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab – A 2016 NYT Bestseller, this fantasy stars a magician who serves as ambassador and smuggler between multiple parallel-universe Londons.
December – Camino Island by John Grisham – This 2017 release is a departure from Grisham’s classic law thrillers, and said to appeal to readers who may not normally be Grisham fans. This novel, rather, involves heists and black markets all surrounding rare books!
As each month arrives, we’ll be sure to post reminders for you, but feel free to get a head start!
Welcome to Outlining 101, where we learn how to outline for those of you looking to plan for the first time, or are interested in new methods of planning. Today, we’re going to be focusing on one of the many ways to outline – the 9 Box Method.
You may be asking yourself, “9 Boxes? What am I packing away for my MC? Are we donating? Moving?” Unfortunately, no. Although, you should really clean out that closet you’ve been shoving all your miscellaneous into for the last 15 years.
The intention of the 9 box is main storyline, so that is going to be what we’re talking about here. If you’re struggling with your main plot? Let’s start here.
So a bit of a disclaimer as we start off – you can use 9 box however you need to. Be it for character arcs, main storyline, subplot, whatever. There is also no right way to outline, only the right way for you to plan (if you are a planner). Also, the image of the 9 box below is not mine, and the source is linked at the bottom of this post. This is meant for resource only, and to help you better understand and explain this method in depth from my understanding and interpretation.
What’s something you enjoy about writing that people usually tend to hate, or vice versa?
Haha, writing queries, though I’m sure I’ll get my share of stressing over them once I start actually sending them out. I think I’m starting to like pitches too, and I’m really hoping synopses are next—I could really use some enthusiasm about those.
Action scenes! My writing group always bemoans writing action scenes, how hard and awkward and hateful they are. But I find them the easiest to write, and I just blaze through ’em with all sorts of excitement and punchy beats. It’s the dialogue scenes that slow me down!
Dialogue!!! I love dialogue so much, I could write dialogue all day. A majority of my first (and second) drafts are dialogue. I love speaking the scenes out loud, conveying emotion and speech patterns and dissecting meanings and motivations all in a few words – and figuring out how to puzzle together what they don’t say.