Building a Solid Writing Practice One Goal at a Time

Riders by Veronica Rossi
Written by Veronica Rossi

I’m a big believer in setting goals. Personal. Professional. Spiritual. You name it. I firmly believe you stand a much better chance of getting somewhere if you know where you’re trying to go.

Goals have been a huge part of my writing life. I wrote my first published novel, Under the Never Sky, by sitting down exactly seven years ago and planning twelve-months’ worth of targets. Without an editor to establish deadlines, I took on that role myself. I bought a calendar and projected drafting and revision goals that were specific and realistic. I had a good idea by then of my average productivity so I created milestones I felt pretty confident I could meet. And I did. It wasn’t always perfect. Some months I fell behind. Others I surged ahead. But having those targets—and hitting them—was tremendously encouraging. Big things are accomplished in small steps.

My second YA series begins with Riders. It’s a modern-day fantasy about four teens who unwittingly become incarnations of the four horsemen. These poor guys—War, Death, Famine, and Conquest—do not want to be what they’ve become but the only way to change their situation is to complete a mission. With the help of a visionary girl, they must protect a sacred object from some truly bad baddies.

Riders, which releases on February 16th, was written in a similar process as Under the Never Sky. Take out the scope. Focus on the summit. Project distance and elevation. Plan the route. Prep the materials. And go.

If you stick to a plan, you can write a solid draft of a book in a year. Really.

Having written several novels now, my focus as a writer has shifted. I know I can create books so my 2016 writing goals are about digging deeper. And though they’re writing-oriented I think a few might be helpful to anyone pursuing a creative endeavor. Without further ado, here they are:

  1. Answer the “Why” — My husband recently read Start With the Why by Simon Sinek, based on his TED Talk of the same title. Though I’ve only seen the latter, we’ve been having many discussions about the central tenet of Sinek’s argument. Though it’s primarily geared toward business-minded folks, Sinek poses a question that he believes everyone should consider: What’s your Why? Why do you do what you do? In my case: why do I write?I honestly thought it would be an easier question to answer. After all, I’ve been writing seriously for a dozen years now and I love writing. However to truly answer that question requires some honest soul-searching. Do I write to understand myself? To understand the world? To inspire others? What, specifically, is the desire that pulls me forward, book after book?Most writers are familiar with the story premise or logline. Usually a formula that goes something like: Character does X despite facing Y obstacles in order to achieve Z goal. But what’s my logline? Why does Veronica write in the face of deadlines, writer’s block, etc. to achieve novels? I want to understand the true nature of the force that propels me to tell stories. Sinek explains that we attract people who have similar Whys. That is, whatever it is that motivates me is the very thing that aligns my readers with me. So. By having a firm grasp on my Why, I think I’ll be able to write even better stories and more fully enjoy my work. As I said above, when you know where you want to go, you have a much greater chance of actually getting there.
  2. Step Away From the Computer — I took a month away from the Internet last summer and it was glorious. Seriously. It had an undeniable impact on my mood and my creativity. I was more relaxed. My focus improved. Even my imagination. I plan to do another month-long break this year.In addition to that, I’m going to spend more time working in notebooks. Not just journaling, which I already do, but writing. I started this recently and was shocked to find that my hand grew tired after only a page or two! Scary. But I’ve also found that I take greater care in crafting sentences when I put pen to paper. It causes me to slow down, to think. That’s a great benefit. I make my trade by creating good ideas and sentences—so anything I can do to improve on them is absolutely a priority.
  3. Learn! — A dear writing friend of mine and I have been scheming for the past few months about the classes we plan to take this year. Poetry. Screenwriting. Short stories, maybe? Gasp! Perhaps. If we’re bold enough. We both always want to improve as writers so we’ll be taking online classes that push us out of our comfort zones, right into the growth zone!
  4. Expand Horizons — Before I became a novelist, I was an oil painter. I spent a few years painting commissioned works as my profession. While I’m not sure I’ll go back to painting, I do want to bring another outlet into my life—and it doesn’t necessarily need to be creative. I started running last year and that had a strong positive impact on me. Like painting, running provided me with “non-thinking” time with no no room for email, Twitter, daily chores, or anything else.This goal ties in with the social media break I mentioned above. Too much external input can actually bring me to a point where I don’t even hear my own thoughts anymore. Through these “non-thinking” activities, my subconscious mind gets to stand up, stretch, and step into the spotlight for a while. With every passing year I see the importance of this increase. Making a practice of mental “quiet time” is critical for my creative health.
  5. Be Patient — I’ve been writing on deadline for the past five years. Hustling. For five years. Even before that, when I was trying to get published, I felt this tremendous impatience to hurry things along. I wanted the agent so I could get the book deal so I could publish a book so I could be published so I could…?Write! Write more, of course! It’s what I love to do. It’s a circular deal. I didn’t realize that for a long time, but writing is the work and the reward—so why rush? A good friend of mine has a great way of describing it. He says: Writing to get published is a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. So, my goal is to take my time. Make a great pie. The best one possible. The writing is the reward.

So, in addition to revising the sequel to Riders, those are some of the things I’ll be working on this coming year. I think they all fall under the umbrella of being more thoughtful and connected to one of the great passions in my life. What are some of your goals, writing or otherwise? What’s your Why?

Preorder Riders today:
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Follow Veronica Rossi on Twitter at @rossibooks, on Facebook, and on her website.

No Mother Tongue: Language in the world of Magic

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
Written by V. E. Schwab

I am not a linguist—I barely speak French, and that’s after studying it for four years—but I knew from the outset that the Shades of Magic series would feature not only multiple Londons, but multiple languages.

As a writer who has to construct a world before she can fathom the people who live within it, it was only natural that, to understand the insiders of my myriad realities, I’d have to understand how they spoke. Were they the kind of people who had a dozen words for love? Or no word for God? How did they say hello? Farewell?

Words are, of course, the building blocks of stories. But they’re also a key facet of setting, of character, and, when it comes to fantasy, of world. Stories are populated with insiders and outsiders, and the existence of a language to which readers aren’t instantly privy emphasizes that they do not belong. It slows our introduction to the world, but does not prevent it. Instead, readers are forced to learn as they go, just as travelers would, when passing through a foreign land.

Languages don’t only serve as gatekeepers to readers; they play the same function within the narrative. They can make characters feel excluded. Lila Bard finds herself in a London where her own language is a mark of royalty and where she cannot grasp the common tongue. Kell is constantly frustrated by the fact people refer to him as aven—blessed—or vares—prince. And then, of course, there’s the language that only Kell speaks: a tongue that marks his gift as Antari, and isolates him further.

There are differences between the fictional languages within the book, each invariably invoking some real-world echo in our minds. The people of Red London speak a tongue that is sibilant and smooth, whereas in the harsh climate of White London, they speak a guttural one, and Grey London, our stand-in for the real world, becomes both familiar in its Englishness, and foreign as, over the course of the series, we spend more time with other tongues.

One of the most exciting things for me, as a writer, has been the eagerness with which readers have sought to learn certain phrases, to memorize the meaning of Kell’s spell words or the common greeting between princes, or even some of Calla’s more obscure expressions. While the majority of oft-quoted phrases are in Lila’s common English, it’s an extraordinary thing to see a fan sign off a letter with As Travars. Used poorly, fictional languages can feel like a wall, preventing all but the well-versed from feeling included in a world. But used well, they can invite the readers to become part of a world they love, transforming from a barricade into an open door.

Preorder A Gathering of Shadows today:
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Follow V. E. Schwab on Twitter at @veschwab, on Facebook, and on her website.

Making Maps: The Weight of Imaginary Geography

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard
Written by Susan Dennard

Because I’m currently writing the second book in the Witchlands series (titled Windwitch), I thought I’d discuss maps. Why? Because maps are really, really important in storytelling. I don’t care what genre you’re writing—knowing Where Things Are not only helps the drafting process, but it also helps ground the story.

Even if you’re drafting a contemporary, you want the details of a city to be right. And even if your city is totally made up, you want to make sure it feels real.

Personally, I love making maps. No doubt because they’re great procrastination tool—I mean, I could hardly start drafting my fun murder mystery idea without a fully developed town!MysteryIdea

In case you’re curious, the idea was a sort of Nancy Drew meets Remington Steele tale complete with romance! tension! 1960s fashion! A touch of paranormal mystique! As such, I wanted a cute, contained town with lots of fun—even offbeat—features.

For my Something Strange & Deadly series, I was working with real cities during Victorian times. As such, I had to use historic maps of the area.

For Philadelphia, it was easy! 1876 was the year of the Centennial Exhibition, so not only were tons of maps made for visiting tourists, but detailed guidebooks too.1876Philly_with locations

The same could not be said for 1876 Paris. I think the closest I got was 1883. As for Cairo, I never did find a good map. I ended up compiling a bunch of different diaries and guidebooks written in/around 1876 in order to get a good idea of where things were.

When it came time to write Truthwitch, one of the first things I did was sketch out a rough map of the Witchlands continent. Since the empires are loosely (read: very, very loosely) based on the Venetian, Ottoman, and Habsburg empires, I knew I wanted my continent to look roughly European.

And, since most of the action happens in my alternate Venetian empire (at least in the first book), I wanted the area to feel Mediterranean and Adriatic.WitchlandsRough

While I was drafting Truthwitch, I used this rough map to approximate distances and travel times, to figure out the most logical routes to different places—and, perhaps most importantly, to imagine how the landscape all fit together.

Once it was time for an actual illustrator (Maxime Plasse) to step in and reproduce the map “all fancy like,” he helped me tweak some names and he also suggested some new/different landscape elements. For example, he added some more mountains and rivers to make it all feel More Real.

One thing I really wanted for the series’ map was for it to look like it came from the Witchlands—like maybe my characters would have this exact map to travel. Well, Maxime totally succeeded in creating that. I mean, just check out this cartouche. (I LOVE THAT WORD. Cartouche, cartouche, cartouche. I wish I had more excuses to use it in everyday conversation.) 

It looks very official, doesn’t it? Ah, and are you interested in seeing the full color version of the final Witchlands map? Well, east your eyes on the glory that Maxime Plasse produced!

The Witchlands
Now that I’m writing Windwitch, I’m relying on my glorious final map a lot—like way more than I did with book one. For some idiotic reason, I left all of my characters are in different places at the end of Truthwitch. Now I must constantly scrutinize the map to figure out where everyone is in relation to each other.

Right now, it looks like most of book two will happen around Lovats, which is the capital of an autonomous nation called Nubrevna. That said, who knows where everyone will end up by the time I finish the book! All I know for certain is that my maps will keep me (and my characters) on course.

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Follow Susan Dennard on Twitter at @stdennard, on Facebook, and on her website.

How to Write an Epic Story Without Any Proper Villains

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Written by Charlie Jane Anders

I’m basically a total hypocrite. I go on these fire-breathing rants all the time at about the lack of good villains in pop culture. I’ve typed the phrase “an adventure story is usually only as good as its villain” so many times, my fingers cramp up when I even think about them. But when it came time to write my novel All the Birds in the Sky, I wanted it to feel like a grand epic… but I didn’t want there to be a villain, at all.

I guess part of this was because I wanted All the Birds in the Sky to be a relationship story as well as a wild adventure. When I set out to tell the story of a witch named Patricia and a mad scientist named Laurence, I really the action to be driven by stuff that happened between the two of them. The first few drafts had more “bad guy” action for them to react to, but it kept getting in the way of the emotional realness. And the more the two of them were making choices that pushed the story forward, the more real it felt to me.

I needed this to be a book about the meeting of those two worlds—Patricia’s mysticism and love of nature, and Laurence’s scientific mastery and cool gadgets. All of the energy, all the most interesting stuff, seemed to come from the two of them running up against each other in different ways over the course of the book.

So instead of Patricia having her own personal Voldemort, an evil witch who keeps trying to take over the world—something I really tried to make work in the second or third draft—I kept moving in the direction of Patricia struggling with her own mistakes, and her own personal demons. And likewise, I kept toying with the idea of Laurence having a rival, or a fellow science genius that he was trying to outwit—and for a long time, there were actual aliens who wanted to invade the Earth, as a running subplot for Laurence. But Laurence was most interesting when he was dealing with his own self-imposed pressure, and the demands of his friends.

That still left me with Theodolphus, the evil guidance counselor who torments Laurence and Patricia in middle school. But Theodolphus took on such a life of his own, and evolved into something so much bigger than just a “villain,” that he kind of needed to stay. Plus we all knew at least one authority figure like that in middle school.

Part of revising a book is paring back all the “ooo shiny” ideas so you can get to what the book is actually about, of course. And the more I worked on this, the more it seemed like this would be a book with no villains. There would still be terrible, reprehensible acts—but they would be committed by our heroes, and their friends, with the best intentions. Just like how I started out intending to stick to my principles and include real proper villainy, but wound up becoming a total hypocrite.

Preorder All the Birds in the Sky today:
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Follow Charlie Jane Anders on Twitter at @charliejane, on Facebook, and on Tumblr.

Reading Resolutions

It’s January, and that means it’s time to make New Year’s resolutions! Sure, we all really want to start eating healthy and working out. But what about your reading resolutions?

We thought we’d kick off 2016 by sharing our own reading resolutions. Whether it’s picking up that classic we’ve always wanted to read, trying a new genre, or seeking out new authors, we’re planning on shaking up our reading habits this year. How about you? What are your reading resolutions?

Can't We TalkSarah Romeo, Ad/Promo Designer

The comic/graphic novel is a new genre for me, but I just finished reading Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, which was a hilarious, heartbreaking, overall wonderful read. Now I’m hooked! I plan to read Over Easy by Mimi Pond next.

Mordicai Knode, Marketing & Publicity Manager, Publishing

My reading resolution is: stop having reading resolutions! No, really! I’ve decided to recommit myself to reading just for fun. I’ve had a reading plate chock full of reading lists, book clubs, reader challenges and reviews, and I’m all tuckered out. I’m really looking forward to reading whatever I want, new or old, bestseller or forgotten gem. I’m breaking free of the shackles of my short pile, of the books I feel I “should” read. I’m going to read purely for fun, and whatever I want. Academic esoterica, YA heists, the Gene Wolfe short story collections I’ve been saving for a rainy day…anything I want.

All the LightPhyllis Azar, Director of Advertising and Promotions

I live on a reading diet of 99% fiction and 1% non-fiction—which I get from radio and television news programs. In the coming year, I resolve to read more book-length non-fiction, perhaps alternating every other read between fiction and non-fiction. The last non-fiction book I really enjoyed was about horse racing and all its glory and grit; it wasn’t Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, although that one is tempting me, but another title I can’t recall! Still, I remember how it brought me into a world I knew nothing about and made it come alive. On the fiction side, a good friend has been singing the praises of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and I have it on my nightstand right now. As for trying something completely new, I’ve always wanted to get into mythology, but I’m not sure where to start. Would love some suggestions!

Lee Harris, Senior Editor, Publishing

Free up some space.

Some time ago, in a semi-futile effort to free up valuable storage space, I disposed of all the books I wanted to read, and kept only the books that oh-my-god-I-have-to-read-RIGHT-NOW! But even after that Herculean effort, I still have more books that I could ever comfortably read in my lifetime.

And in the last year I’ve read precisely none of them, and only added to the pile. It’s a sickness. Most of my pleasure reading this year has been non-fiction, which I consume exclusively on my Kindle.

So, my Reading Resolution for 2016 is to end the year with fewer unread books on my To-Read shelves than I begin with. That way I can free up some more space for…well, books.

Mary Moates, Digital Marketing Assistant

My New Year’s reading resolution is to reacquaint myself with British Victorian classics, such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy, and also drink a lot of tea in the process.

Theresa Delucci, Assistant Director of Advertising and PromotionsLeGuinLeftHand

This will be the season I read The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin to completion. I’ve started and stopped it twice due to work-related reading constraints, but I really feel I’m missing out on a classic. This read will also be contingent upon if we get some snow, because right now December’s so warm, it feels like winter isn’t coming. I also want to read classics by Samuel Delaney (Dhalgren) and M. John Harrison (Viriconium.)

Finally, I’m going to try to curb my impulse e-book buying habit. I collect $2 anthologies like some people collect Star Wars toys; seriously, I even have a mushroom-themed anthology, that’s how big my collection is. It’s full of fungal goodness. But have I read more than a story or two in each? No, I have not.

Natalie Zutter, Staff Writer,

I’m ashamed to say I have some gaps in my sci-fi knowledge, so I want to spend 2016 catching up on Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree, Jr., Arthur C. Clarke, and the like. But I’d also like to keep up this past year’s resolution of reading more recent SFF/speculative fiction I keep pushing lower on my TBR list, like Andy Weir’s The Martian and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last.

Ksenia Winnicki, Senior Publicist

I have a massive backlog of comics and graphic novels that need to be read. I’m hoping to make some significant dents in that giant TBR pile before I head off to another comic con or comics arts festival and end up buying more comics!

Last UnicornDesirae Friesen, Associate Publicist

I have a confession: I’ve never read Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. This is especially sad because I loved the movie when I was a kid, despite not knowing anybody else who had even heard of it. It was a lovely surprise to discover as an adult that it was based on a book, and the book itself is considered a classic. It’s time to hunt down the Last Unicorn and see if the book is better than the movie.

Diana Pho, Associate Editor

I’ve been meaning to get into more horror, and to (everyone’s, apparently) shock, the only Stephen King book I’ve read is The Dead Zone. So I’m going to pick up a couple others—I was told to start with Carrie—and see how it goes from there.

David G. Hartwell, Senior Editor

I really want to read Letters to Tiptree, a volume of letters composed recently addressed to the deceased writer, with an appendix of some real letters. I was Tiptree’s editor and remember her fondly. I find myself curious to discern who the writers think they are writing to.

Diana Griffin, Publicist

The release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has reminded me that I need to catch up on the works of Leigh Brackett, the Queen of Space Opera, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. I’ll be reading a collection of her “planet tales,” The Solar System, and hope to dive deeper into her short stories in the new year.

Cassie Ammerman, Senior Digital Marketing Manager

I’ve always loved history and narrative non-fiction, but those categories tend to take a back seat to my beloved sci-fi and fantasy. Between reading for work and all the great stuff that has been coming out in the past few years, my TBR pile has leaned heavily toward speculative fiction. 2016 is going to be my year of non-fiction! I’m hoping to read at least one non-fiction book for every two fiction ones I read, as opposed to my current ratio of about five to one. Wish me luck!

Building the Great Library of Alexandria

The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston
Written by Michael Livingston

My new novel, The Shards of Heaven, is a historical fantasy. Part Indiana Jones, part Game of Thrones, this adventure takes place within our historical past, incorporating fantasy elements like the Trident of Poseidon as seamlessly as possible into the known facts of history. Indeed, if I have done my work well, one might argue that the Trident really was there at the rise of the Roman Empire—we just haven’t heard about it before.

As you can imagine, this approach placed limits on what I could or could not do with the power of the Shards, and I confess this has always been a part of my fascination with the story. I wanted to do the mythological and historical interweaving of luminaries like Tolkien and Jordan (and now Martin), but I also wanted to take the extra step of making it a part of our “real” historical world.

Which meant research.

Lots and lots of research.

In a recent post on my website, I discussed how I had to construct a map of ancient Alexandria for my story, and here I’d like to share a little about researching a specific building in that city: the Great Library of Alexandria.

Though the ancient city of Alexandria is perhaps best known for the magnificent Pharos Lighthouse, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, it was the Great Library that was surely the more important cultural artifact. Constructed under the orders of Ptolemy I Soter (Alexander the Great’s general, who succeded him in ruling Egypt) and organized under the direction of Demetrius Phalereus (who had been a student of Aristotle), the Great Library was the single greatest repository of knowledge for some three centuries.

We have little idea now about where it stood or what it looked like.

This factual vacuum left me with a great deal of freedom in designing the building for my novel, though I was certainly constrained by the architectural and technological capabilities of the fourth century BCE. Within those limitations, I wanted the building to be impressive as a construction, beautiful in its aesthetics, and true to the spirit of the building’s purpose as a repository for knowledge. I also wanted it to have a formal centrality within the complex of the Museum, the sprawling Alexandrian complex dedicated to the Muses. In The Shards of Heaven I describe it thus:

“Built of white marble and stone, the Library sat in the middle of the Museum like the physical embodiment of the flowering within the complex: a six-sided, multi-tiered building crowned with a magnificent cupola that was itself mounted by a glimmering gold statue of a man holding aloft a scroll, opened to the heavens.”

Tolzmann, Don Heinrich, Alfred Hessel and Reuben Peiss. The Memory of Mankind. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2001
Because the Library was originally organized by a student of Aristotle, I imagined that its vast array of holdings would be initially organized according to Aristotle’s ten divisions of knowledge.

This, then, was part of the reason I chose a six-sided building: drawing walls between the outer hexagon and another at its center would give me six “halls” within the construction, all radiating out from a central hall that I pictured as being open all the way to the top of the dome, a reflecting pool at its center and staircases spiraling around its interior walls between the three floors of the building. One of these radiating halls would be a great entrance hall, lined with ten pillars and otherwise filled with scriptoria and administrative offices. The remaining five halls would each have two of Aristotle’s ten divisions, neatly and logically giving order to the hundreds of thousands of books and scrolls that would have been housed there.

There was another reason I chose a hexagon shape: in symbology the hexagon is emblematic of the natural honeycomb, representing both the sweetness of knowledge and the busy, cooperative “bees” of the librarians toiling within. More than that, a hexagon fit into the symbolism of the Shards of Heaven themselves, which is grounded in a symbolic revision and representation of the classical elements.

Plus, well, I thought a hexagon would just look pretty amazing.

Whether it was reimagining the Great Library or reconstructing the Pharos Lighthouse, one of the immeasurable joys of writing The Shards of Heaven (and its coming sequels!) has been my need to breathe new life into our past by rebuilding it—sometimes brick by brick—for a modern audience.

I can only hope that readers will love seeing the results of this work as much as I enjoyed building it behind the scenes.

Buy The Shards of Heaven today:
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Follow Michael Livingston on Twitter at @medievalguy and on his website.

Stormwrack: Changing the Channels of Time

A Daughter of No Nation by A. M. Dellamonica
Written by A. M. Dellamonica

In L. Sprague de Camp’s classic alternate history novel Lest Darkness Fall, Martin Padway is transported to fourth-century Rome, where he changes the course of history by importing advanced technology into his new home timeline.

It’s a common enough plot, but what I love about this particular novel is that Padway’s not an engineer. He doesn’t fall into the past fully equipped to refine iron into steel or sketch out the blueprints for an Edsel. His first ‘inventions’ are brandy, Arabic numerals (including the all-important zero!) and double entry accounting. And brandy is awesome, of course, but the latter two imports may sound boring as hell. Sure, it’s nice to do math and keep your accountant from cheating you, but—

Exactly. But! It’s math! In every sense, the zero is a game-changer. It weighs nothing, and most of us have some grasp of how it works in our brain’s back pocket. Given enough time, a willing audience, and possibly a little brandy, most of us could explain it.

It is a popular conceit to imagine that we non-engineers are too distanced from humanity’s inventions to reproduce them. To assume that if one of us was transported to the far past, our inability to scrape together an iPhone from scratch would make us, somehow, technologically pathetic. We are the guys for whom science might as well be magic, the thinking goes. A 21st century arts graduate couldn’t really trigger a scientific revolution.

I disagree. We all have weird pockets of exploitable knowledge, picked up in classrooms but also in more mundane places. If you’re committed to the idea of meddling in time at all, the key is, perhaps, in knowing what you could usefully bring to the past you’re in.

Which brings me to A Daughter of No Nation. Sophie Hansa is a trained wildlife biologist, but over the course of this second Hidden Sea Tales novel she discovers that the two things she’s most likely to end up importing into the culture of the world of Stormwrack are ideas. One is the scientific method. The second is criminal forensics…as learned from TV.

Sophie, like me, is fannish. She watches Castle. She loves Veronica Mars. She grew up in twenty-first century North America and has seen hundreds of hours of crime and cop shows. She’s seen quasi-realistic stuff like Law & Order and Criminal Minds, and implausible set-ups like The Mentalist. She’s even watched some really weird things like Vexed (whose cop protagonists work out of a coffee shop).

In our world, it would be disastrous for an ordinary civilian to try to apply dumbed-down TV-style detective procedures to real-world crimes. But Stormwrack is a world apart, and it’s one where most of the people don’t have the mental habit of analytical reductionism (approaching a new phenomenon by mentally breaking it into components, and then pushing them around to see how they might be understood). Sophie doesn’t have to have years of training in the physics of analyzing blood spatter. She just has to pass on the idea to a motivated cop. Even the concept of preserving a crime scene is every bit as radical, on Stormwrack, as double-entry accounting was to de Camp’s ancient Rome. It was a radical idea here, too, at one time. Now it’s just standard procedure.

Sophie does have an advantage that many of us wouldn’t if we were inventing modern police procedure in a world trapped in the Age of Sail…she has some grounding in biology and chemistry. But when she’s asked if she might consider doing this, importing this particular piece of earth technology, she’s drawing as much on Sherlock Holmes and Blue Bloods as on anything she learned in a classroom.

Buy A Daughter of No Nation today:
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Follow A. M. Dellamonica on Twitter at @AlyxDellamonica, on Facebook, and on her website.

What You Don’t Know You Know About What You Don’t Know

Barsk: The Elephants' Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen
Written by Lawrence M. Schoen

My formative SF reading included a lot of sense-o’-wonder adventure stories. Was there subtext to those tales? Maybe with some, but if so I suspect I missed it entirely. I was too busy enjoying myself, traveling through time and space, meeting aliens, and grappling with ideas that made the preteen me wide-eyed and slack-jawed. So decades later when I started writing, no surprise that a similar voice emerged (at least, in my better stuff). Part, perhaps, of writing what you know.

More recently, questions of what I do and don’t know have occupied my mind. As both a cognitive psychologist and a hypnotherapist, I’ve been thinking about the role the unconscious plays in writing, and in my own fiction in particular. A couple things jumped out, one that’s probably obvious and one less so.

Obvious first: good worldbuilding isn’t about cramming in endless detail that only you (okay, and your mother) will love. Rather it’s about creating such a lush tapestry in your mind, at both a conscious and an unconscious level, that it underlies your process, seeping into the writing as verisimilitude, that seamless and seemingly effortlessness that we all want.

The less obvious point is that the unconscious mind can be trusted to handle all the subtext of a work, in much the way it incorporates the details inherent in the worldbuilding. This frees the author to focus on all those cool, sense-o’-wonder things. Some examples: In writing Barsk, the conscious part of my writing was focused on telling a story about uplift, but at some unconscious level I apparently put in lots of stuff about intolerance, as practiced both by the intolerant and the object of their intolerance. Go figure. I also went into the book intending to create a pair of characters whose friendship was the most important part of their lives, but unbeknownst to me I was really going for the poignancy of a relationship that transcends death and redefines obligation. Huh. And I also thought it’d be cool to throw in some threads about prophecy and telepathy, all the while not realizing that I’d gone off to explore philosophies about manipulation and lifestyle choices of being a player or the played. Seriously, where did that come from?

All this introspection led me to have similar conversations with other authors (usually at the bar during conventions) about the intentionality and the weightier things in their fiction. Some insisted their work held no allegory, no subtext, no message. Others assured me that as authors they felt a responsibility to use their fiction as a soapbox. It’s worth noting that both explanations are products of the conscious mind, and are the result of reflection, revision, and/or rehearsal.

We could stop there and be done, but there’s more to the story. I’ve had the opportunity to engage more than a few writers through trance (which, curiously, also often happens in bars at conventions) and glimpse the creative unconscious at work. It has its own agenda, its own skill sets, its own tools. The goals of the unconscious mind are as deliberate as, though not necessarily accessible or revealed to, the author’s conscious. Or more simply, whether the author is aware of it or not, this is where that subtext gets brewed. It’s these unconscious processes that inform our writing and engage our readers, in ways we may not consciously ever know we intended. But we did.

Which is why when I’m asked about my own fiction, whether I intended this particular message or that compelling theme, I’ve learned to just keep my mouth shut and smile enigmatically. Unless of course you’re a fellow hypnotist and we’re at the bar. Then, maybe, you’ll get the whole story. And if you do, please let me in on it.


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Follow Lawrence M. Schoen on Twitter at @klingonguy, on Facebook, and on his website.

Stories That Helped Me Find the Power Within

Mystic by Jason Denzel
Written by Jason Denzel

Over the years, I’ve often described The Wheel of Time as being like a heavyweight boxing champ. It’s big, bulky, powerful, and capable to blasting you to the ground with a massive uppercut of prose and conflict. The upper echelon of characters command titanic powers, making them almost god-like in stature. Balefire roars from their hands. Mountains and oceans fall from the sky when they gesture. Whole armies move at their command. Even dreams submit to their will, making no enemy safe.

More than that, the story, 4 million words long, spreads across fourteen novels (plus a prequel), commanding respect. Nobody is soon going to usurp WoT’s crown as the biggest, most expansive epic of our time. Even George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive are unlikely to unseat the champ in terms of sheer volume.

Robert Jordan created a world that can be used as a textbook example of thorough world-building. (If you want evidence of that, look no further than The Wheel of Time Companion. Love it or hate it, if you can survive 14 rounds (err, novels) with it, The Wheel of Time will leave you flat on your ass.

You would think that, with all its heft, and given the mighty presence it’s played in my life, the WoT would be the most inspiring force behind my own writing. But you’d be wrong. It certainly plays a huge role—there’s no way, after living and breathing Jordan’s world for twenty years that it couldn’t influence me—but the book that I most often come back to as the one that lights me up from inside is Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

Where WoT is the reigning heavyweight champ, I’ve always seen Earthsea as that stoic kung-fu master who can floor you with a single finger. The book is only ten chapters long. Under 55,000 words in length. Yet the impact of Le Guin’s masterpiece is equal to the slam of Jordan’s magnum opus. With perfect prose, flawless style, and a timeless message that pierces straight to my heart, Le Guin crafted a story about a young man learning to become an apprentice wizard. About what it’s like to find power from within. And likewise, it’s about how our greatest enemies are ourselves.

Mystic is my response to those ideas. It draws inspiration from both Jordan and Le Guin while striving to be its own thing. This is my take on what it’s like to have to fight for your birthright when others would deny it to you. It’s about finding your true self, and in doing so, finding your inner heavyweight boxing, kung-fu master.

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Follow Jason Denzel on Twitter at @JasonDenzel, on the Dragonmount Facebook page and on his website.

R is for Robot

Made to Kill by Adam Christopher
Written by Adam Christopher

Y’know, there’s just something about robots that I like. Maybe it’s because they’re one of those rare creations that actually made the leap from sci-fi to the real world—what started out as a fictional concept of artificial workers ended up as real machines which build our cars and explore the solar system. Maybe it’s because robots are real that we can see what they might one day become. A warp drive that can take us to the next star in the blink of an eye is pure fantasy…but a walking, talking, thinking machine that can make coffee and take out the trash is tantalizingly possible.

Maybe I like robots because they’re just so damned retro, the term first coined in 1921 by Czech writer Karel Capek in his play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Here, the robots are synthetic, organic people, mass-produced in a factory—the Czech word “robota” meaning forced labor. A little different to what we would call a robot today, perhaps, but it’s the idea that’s key—artificial, manufactured life.

Robots may come and go according to science fiction fashion, but I have three particular favorites of my own.

D84 (Doctor Who: The Robots of Death, 1977)

It won’t surprise anyone to discover that one of my favorite Doctor Who stories is about a bunch of robots who throw Asimov’s three laws out the airlock and start slaughtering the human crew of a vast, floating sandminer that is sucking minerals from the dunes of a distant, unnamed planet. The robots, with their Art Deco stylings, are divided into three classes: Dums, mute worker drones; Vocs, the standard mechanical crewmen; and the Super Vocs, one of which runs the whole operation. As the story unfolds, it is revealed that one of the supposedly silent Dums—D84—can not only speak, but is a secret undercover agent on the trail of dangerous roboterrorist, Taren Capel.

Now, D84 is something of a hero of mine. Played with eerie calmness by Gregory de Polnay, he not only assists the Fourth Doctor and his companion, Leela, to uncover Taren Capel (hiding among the human crew of the sandminer) but, in a noble—and very human—act of self-sacrifice, destroys one of his killer kin to allow the Doctor’s plan to succeed.

Robbie the Robot (Forbidden Planet, 1956)

An obvious choice, but you can’t argue with the most famous robot in all of science fiction. One of the first robots to be shown as a distinct character with his own personality, Robbie’s impressive 7-foot bulk is a true design classic. While the original prop is now part of a private collection, 1:1 replicas are available—George R.R. Martin even has one in his hallway.

Andromeda (A for Andromeda, 1961)

From the famous to the obscure, Andromeda is closer to the R.U.R. concept of robots, being an artificial, organic creation. In the story, a newly operational radio telescope immediately begins receiving signals from the Andromeda galaxy; the signals turn out to be plans for an advanced alien supercomputer. Once the computer is built, it gives instructions for the creation of Andromeda, played by Julie Christie in the original production and by Susan Hampshire in the 1962 sequel, The Andromeda Breakthrough. It might sound a little hokey, but A for Andromeda was co-written by famous cosmologist and astronomer Fred Hoyle with producer John Elliot and is a remarkably ambitious piece of early television sci-fi. The 2006 remake, starring Kelly Reilly as Andromeda and Tom Hardy as her creator, Fleming, is well worth tracking down.

And then there’s this robot called Ray…

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Follow Adam Christopher on Twitter at @ghostfinder and on his website.