Writing Challenge/Prompt

Picture a long sterile hallway. At the end of the hall are three closed doors. Your character stares at the doors, unsure which one to choose. She finally opens the door on the left and a voice says “Welcome to your life.”

Write a story about what happens next.

Remember: Challenges are supposed to be fun, but don’t forget to stretch yourself and take risks. If you normally write fantasy, try science fiction. If you’ve never tried writing in first or second person, here’s your chance. The story doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, this is all about trying new things and gaining new skills, and most of all, having fun. Challenge stories can go up on the workshop at anytime. Put “Challenge” in the title so people can find it.

Challenges can be suggested by anyone and suggestions should be sent to Jaime (news (at) onlinewritingworkshop.com).

Editor’s Choice Award June 2019, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Ruby of Sindbâd by Isabel Canas

I was drawn to “The Ruby of Sindbâd” this month by its lush descriptive prose, its sense of place, and the way it creates narrative tension inside one closed, quiet room. However, it also had areas of craft that could be shored up, rethought, or handled differently to address the author’s attached question: Whether it’s a piece to save, or a piece to trunk. This month, I’d like to go directly to that, and discuss how to choose a direction for a piece whose strengths and weaknesses mean each approach produces a very different story.

“The Ruby of Sindbâd” has some real strengths: it’s strongly paced and great with texture: shades and colours, the provenance of objects, and the understanding of the Turki prince as a colonialist surrounded by the spoils of colonialism—Shahrzad included. The slightly different pronunciations of book titles, the depiction of an empire as assembled, not monochrome, make this world feel inhabited, alive, real. There’s a strong attention to material culture here, and a deft hand with imagery.

To this reader, however, the primary issue with “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is wholly structural, and it stems from the characterization. There are two characters in this piece—which means both characters have to carry more weight, and stand in for more humanity—and neither Shahrzad nor Il-Arslan are precisely nuanced. Il-Arslan is an archetypical rich womanizing conqueror, “arrogant” and with no depth beyond kidnapping, womanizing, and “drinking with his viziers”. He’s a straw emperor, shorthanded.

Shahrzad is the weak-appearing woman who is coolly much more powerful than she appears, but the trouble is her absolute lack of textual three-dimensionality—not the reminders that Il-Arslan has power over her or her thorough personal history but her internal narrative, her body language, her reactions—effectively undermines and erases any tension over her fate. Shahrzad’s approach to this encounter is “My plan depends on it” and a grim smile while she ditches the body; Il-Arslan is never a threat. We, the readers, know this story and know how it’s going to go, and so, apparently, does Shahrzad. “The Ruby of Sindbâd” says it’s about escape and telling your truths, about having a story that is stronger than that imposed on you, but structurally, it reduces to a straightforward revenge narrative—a straightforward act of dominance—because the outcome is never, ever in doubt. And when looked at in terms of conflict assessment—through the lens of a story is a character in a situation with a problem or challenge—that means it is very hard to make this a story, because Shahrzad doesn’t really have much of a challenge. Someone tries—apparently weakly—to hurt her; she overwhelmingly hurts him back and takes everything in the process.

It’s that lack of challenge that takes the air out of the story, and makes the last line—the punchline—feel so nasty to me as a reader. This is not a situation in which Shahrzad was ever disempowered, afraid, or anywhere but comfortably in the power position, despite the occasional protests and her being far from home. She has a magic Il-Arslan can’t defend against, she’s apparently just been waiting for her moment to use it, and she is alone with him. It’s over before it started. The little toss of “a mirror for princes” back in dead Il-Arslan’s face reads as the mockery of—ironically—a conqueror; it reads as a sneering I-told-you-so to someone who, trappings aside, has been shown by every beat of this story as utterly incapable of fighting back. And I’m unsure, as a reader, who ending on a metaphorical face jammed in the dirt—that little dominance—is for, precisely; what communicative act “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is after, what it wants to evoke in its readers.

Without weighing in on the question of trunking, if there was to be a revision effort, I’d like to explore a few strategies I think might be effective for determining where to put the work in.

The first stems from that last question: While we don’t always write with readers in mind, and frequently the best work starts in deliberately forgetting readers are around and honestly expressing, it’s a good structural diagnostic to bring the reader lens in during editing. What do we want a story to evoke in readers? Which feeling or idea do we, as writers, want to communicate? Once there’s a solid answer to that question—about speaking one’s truth courageously, or something else—it’s easier to look at edits which will bring that feeling out: either by realigning the nature of the metaphors we’re using, or trimming down information that gets in the way, or adding human urges, needs, and reactions that underline that feeling.

The second question I’d suggest would be: Structurally, how might “The Ruby of Sindbâd” introduce a conflict, or underline to readers that one of its elements is a source of conflict for Shahrzad? I can anticipate that the point is not to make her weak, but strong, calculated protagonists are also human, and also have challenges, have complexities, have choices. Where can a choice or challenge that is appropriate for her be incorporated on the page, so she—and the readers—leave the piece with something more than they started with, internally speaking? Less static in the question of an internal conflict?

The third approach I’d suggest: If this is the story you want to tell, but the power relationship as depicted on the page is getting in the way of that and sabotaging it, how might the power relationship be depicted so it tells that story more effectively?

The final one: If the author’s instinct is that no, these are who these two people are, and this is how they’d react, is there a different situation which might show them off to better advantage? Is there something that can change in the situation that lets Il-Arslan do more than sit and die, and Shahrzad do more than hit and leave? Where might they get a chance to act more fully?

I’ll note that these are strategies and approaches rather than specific quotes and definite fixes; that’s because, I think, “The Ruby of Sindbâd” is still caught up in the question of what it wants to say and be. It is already executing quite effectively on the pacing and prose levels, but that argument between text and subtext—the question of Shahrzad’s agency and conflict—is a question with multiple answers: what does it want to execute?

Which means the most important point I’d like to underscore here is that not all these strategies need to be used. They’re diagnostic questions to figure out the possible directions in which a story might evolve. They’re ways to find out which road feels right to take, or whether—as mentioned—one’s attached enough to a story to keep going with it.

No matter what you choose: Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)

On The Shelves

The Fire Opal Mechanism by Fran Wilde (Tor.com June, 2019) 

Jewels and their lapidaries and have all but passed into myth.

Jorit, broke and branded a thief, just wants to escape the Far Reaches for something better. Ania, a rumpled librarian, is trying to protect her books from the Pressmen, who value knowledge but none of the humanity that generates it.When they stumble upon a mysterious clock powered by an ancient jewel, they may discover secrets in the past that will change the future forever.

Editor’s Choice Award May 2019, Fantasy

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Gravity Chapter 1 and 2, by Steph C. Smith

This submission is very long—ideally it would have been half the length—but the idea caught my eye and the protagonist’s voice in the first few paragraphs held it. I like the concept of a character who can manipulate gravity. It’s not the usual superpower, and it has interesting ramifications.

Two things stood out for me as I read.

1. Plotting and Structure

The opening is fairly brisk and dives right into the action, though the prose could be tighter. On that, see observation number 2. The second half stops the action for a lengthy session of expository dialogue, in which we get the backstory in detai, though a character who is developed enough to be interesting, but who seems to exist primarily to convey information the protagonist needs before she can move on. Another character shows up in the midst of this; her arrival seems rather random, and it doesn’t seem to tie in with the exposition.

Though the author’s note does not specify, I got the impression that the novel is a sequel and that this chapter is designed to fill in the new reader on the events of the previous volume. Whether or not that impression is accurate, the chapter puts the plot on hold while Jude is filled in on what’s happened since the last time she was conscious. There’s a lot of information, a lot of offstage action, and a lot of people and places and politics and events that the reader has to process before the story moves on.

Conveying the information in dialogue, with character quirks and bits of stage business—cooking, eating, exchanging introductions, stopping for the arrival and departure of a third party—is meant to frame the exposition in active and interesting ways. Dialogue is active, we’re taught in writing classes, and characters talking is a kind of action. It’s alive. It’s people interacting.

A character telling another character all the things that have happened over a period of months, even with the tellee asking questions and getting answers, is a technique I call “offstaging.” Action happens offstage. Characters talk about it onstage. It sets up a barrier between the reader and the action.

If this is a sequel and Jude (as well as the reader coming to the series for the first time) does need to know all of it before she can make the next set of choices that move the plot, there may be other ways to convey the information. In a world in which magic works, she might experience the flashbacks as visions—removing the filter of Abe’s narration. She might actively seek out the different sets of information through some form of scrying, library-trawling, googling. Abe might give her hints and clues which she has to decipher more gradually, which in turn will reduce the number of names and conflicts and events that the reader has to process at this early stage in the narrative.

If this is the first volume of a series, there’s at least a novel’s worth of backstory in Abe’s exposition. It might be conveyed through the narrative, revealed as each piece of information is directly relevant to Jude’s actions and interactions. Breaking up the exposition will help the story to move ahead more quickly, and give Jude more room to reveal her personality, her wants and needs, her history and trauma.

One thing that may help the pacing and give the narrative more room to move is my second observation:

2. Tightening the Prose

The narrative voice gets a good start on signaling Urban Fantasy and establishing Jude as the tough-gal protagonist with a nice turn of wit. The opening action is also a good start. There’s a lot of good potential in the initial setup.

One way to bring that potential even more to the fore is to trim and tuck the prose, make it sharper and clearer, and heighten the tension and suspense through the structure of the sentences. In general, action likes to progress in short, punchy bursts: brief sentences, relatively simple syntax. This doesn’t mean writing in a rapid chop and never slowing down for a longer or more leisurely section of narrative, but there are a few stylistic habits that might be worth rethinking.

“And” splices, for example, connecting separate actions. “But,” “so,” and “then” have the same effect. They weaken the force of the story by stringing actions together rather than letting each one hold its own space.

I swung it at his head, but he dodged, so I flung it instead at the mirror over the sink hard enough to shatter the glass.

Try breaking up the sentence. Remove the conjunctions. Let each action punch on its own—bam, bam, bam. Then at the end, which dribbles off a bit, keep the action going: I flung it at the mirror over the sink. The glass shattered.

Here too, rather than stringing clauses together, try them as separate sentences:

On my way to the door, I slammed my hip against the end of the bed and fell to my hands and knees. The impact made my stomach lurch and I bit my tongue to keep from gagging.

See how removing the and splices changes the way the actions come across. If you keep the first and, try breaking up the second sentence, so that the two separate physical responses take place separately.

Another way to heighten the force of a sentence, particularly in an action scene, is to use active constructions. Gerunds—words that end in ing—slow and soften the action. They dangle off the edge of a sentence, weakening its force. A series of gerunds can slow down the action, particularly in a series of sentences with the same structure.

I took another breath, shaking my head as if it might loosen that memory and let it slip away. I moved my hands to my head, taking some comfort in running my fingers through my hair. It was longer than I remembered, curling past my shoulders.

Breaking up the clauses, again, can make each piece of the action stronger, more assertive. Varying the sentence structure keeps the reader’s eye and mind engaged, providing a little bit of friction to move the story forward. Replacing gerunds with active verbs can further enhance the effect.

When I’m revising my own prose, one thing I watch out for is a tendency to repeat information. I might try several different ways to say the same thing, then in revision pick the one that works the best for the context.

The flip-flops were uncomfortable, and not quiet. The slap of plastic foam on the pavement grated on my already-fried nerves. No doubt anyone in a three-block radius could hear it and tail me, and running in these things was going to result in an instant face-plant, Faerie powers or not.

These three sentences might condense into one, focusing on the details that want to repeat: the noise and the discomfort of her stolen footwear. One clause for the noise, one for the awkwardness, and then an active bit rather than a potential passive: she tries to run in them, they flap noisily, she starts to stumble, she has to slow down and pull herself together.

Sometimes blocking out a scene for my own use means trying different ways to convey my character’s actions and reactions.

My stomach twisted and I caught myself against a building, the fire in my veins extinguished. I kept my gaze on the sidewalk to fight off the visions of the people I’d already broken. The startling ache behind my eyes meant I couldn’t let those memories come back in detail. I’d never been the type of girl who dissolved into tears on the street and this wasn’t the time to start.

Here I might choose one of these sentences to keep, the one that best sums up what she’s doing and feeling. The rest I’d move to my Outtakes file, to save for later.

In draft, too, it can be tempting to insert a full description of a new character, as a sort of note to self.

She took a few steps into the room. She moved like a dancer. She had flawless brown skin and short, curly hair that started light blue at the roots then faded into a more normal black as it reached her ears. A tiny diamond stud twinkled in one nostril.

In revision, I ask myself which particular detail is directly relevant at this particular point. That’s the one I keep. The rest, again, I put aside. It may come in handy later.

Even if it doesn’t, I’ve given myself a fuller picture of who she is and what she looks like. If I’ve chosen the right detail, the reader will pick up the rest.

Jude has a nice strong voice. Tighter prose and sharper focus, along with some rethinking of how to convey the backstory, will make that voice even clearer. Even in this draft I have some sympathy for her predicament, and I’m curious to see how she sets about getting out of it—or, considering the state of her luck, how she manages to dig herself in even deeper.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2019, Science Fiction

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

 

Perfection by Sarah Kanning

t’s a tremendous challenge to write a science-fiction story under 2000 words: to build a world and people it with characters and develop the structure of a plot. To do it backwards ups the ante even further. I love that this submission tries to do all that, and I think the characters and the basic conflict take up plenty of space. There’s definitely a story here.

I do agree however that the structure needs some rethinking. The straight backwards organization of events starts to feel strained about halfway through.

Maybe it’s me with my linear brain and long familiarity with stories that run in the other direction, though I don’t find I want that to happen here. There’s interest and intrigue, for me, in the unfolding of information, in not knowing everything exactly as it happens chronologically.

At the same time, I think the order of events needs some shaking up. Start with the killing, yes—I like the shock of that—but weave the backstory in through the immediate sequence of events that leads to this conclusion. Maybe play with verb tenses: present for story-present, past for backstory. Mix it up a little bit. Let revelations spark as they become relevant—a flash of memory, connections made as present events or sensory input recalls earlier incidents. The stress of knowing what Hayden was in the beginning, versus what he’s become. Word-echoes, echoes of concepts, as memory and immediate action merge. The prose, the choice of words and the juxtaposition of ideas, might do even more than it currently does to link events and characters.

It’s doable, I think, within the limits of the current word count, though some of that might be recast a little bit, for clarity. Such phrases as

the hacked gash and the darkening contusion precisely centered on the solar plexus

are almost too concise—and at the same time, seem almost redundant. Perhaps just a gash, with hacked left to implication?

And here too,

come manacle and haul me away

feels slightly overcompressed but also overly specific. Do we need to know exactly how he’s bound? Is it enough that he’s hauled away?

The answer could of course be Yes, it has to be this way. And that’s the author’s right and power. Especially when writing very short, every word has its carefully chosen place. Everything comes together into that perfect, single point, which here is the nature and cause of the death that (at least for this draft, and I think possibly for final as well) begins the story and ends the relationship between its main characters.

–Judith Tarr

 

Editor’s Choice Award May 2019, Horror

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

The Train Children by Mark Early

One of the qualities I enjoy most in this story is the flow.  One sentence leaves me interested in learning more about something, and the next sentence tells me more about that something.  Transitions are provided where necessary, and words are ordered so that sentences often end with a mention of the very things that will be the focus of the next sentence.  That means one sentence leads to the next, pulling me along.  I very rarely get to the start of a new sentence and feel disoriented, puzzled, or jarred.  Flow is a critically important element of stories and one that is often lacking.

The flow of the opening paragraphs draws me into this story, which then allows the content of those paragraphs to gain my interest.  That content is well chosen.  The first paragraph establishes that Pastor Hemmings is new to this church, which makes me wonder how the congregation will feel about him.  The second paragraph establishes a mystery about the congregation:  there are no children.  The third paragraph adds a second mystery:  the church has a “hard time keeping pastors.”  By that point, I’m very interested and eager to keep reading and learn more.

The story within the story, about the children being killed years ago at the train crossing, is haunting and disturbing.  Once I hear that, my questions from the opening paragraphs are answered, but now, to keep me reading, I have a new question:  Will Pastor Hemmings survive?  The story seems to be promising me a suspenseful, involving, surprising but inevitable (qualities every climax should have) answer to this question.

All of that works well.  One area of the story that I think could be improved is the plot.  The current plot moves in too straightforward, expected a manner to the end.  About halfway through, Pastor Hemmings hears the children playing, and we suspect where the story will go.  Unfortunately, it goes right to that expected end without any twists along the way.  This not only lacks suspense and surprise, it also doesn’t allow the protagonist, Pastor Hemmings, to have any power to affect the outcome.  He’s simply a victim.  In my mind, the promise that the story made me in its third paragraph–to provide a suspenseful, involving, surprising but inevitable answer to the question “Will Pastor Hemmings survive?”–has not been fulfilled.

One way to strengthen the plot would be to cut the last paragraph of the story within the story, the paragraph beginning “Those young ‘uns are looking for something . . .”  Most of this paragraph feels repetitive, and as I read I realize that it tells me the ending:  that the children want someone to take them “wherever it is they’re bound to go.”  At that point, I know Pastor Hemmings is going to end up driving the children, which is indeed what happens.

Cutting that paragraph will leave more mystery.  It’s always hard to know how much information the reader needs to understand the story and feel its impact.  Readers can often provide important feedback on this.  In this case, I feel I know all I need to know before reaching this paragraph.

Another way to strengthen the plot is to build up to the climax.  Right now, we go from the opening with the story within the story (which is exposition, background information) to the climax with only two paragraphs of transition between them.  Instead of going from opening to climax, the story could build suspense and increase our attachment to the pastor as we see him struggling to cope with this situation.  For example, he could hear the faint sound of children’s laughter from his office in the church and close the window.  He could look up an old news article about the accident.  He could talk to the parent of one of the children (Della?), expressing his condolences and trying to gather more information.  He could talk to the friend who assigned him to this church and ask what happened to the previous pastors.  He could visit the children’s graves in the cemetery and pray for them, and something weird and threatening could happen.  This would make the pastor more active in trying to deal with this situation.

Another way to strengthen the plot is to use what you’ve previously established.  The character of Cyrus, a survivor of the train accident that killed the children, is prominent at the beginning and then disappears in the second half.  The second half involves only the ghosts of the children and the pastor.  The children want to relive their accident, and the pastor has no power, so this makes for a predictable situation.  If we bring in Cyrus, suddenly the situation is less predictable.

In the first half, Cyrus seems to be keeping an eye on the pastor.  So when the children finally show up, I’m wondering why Cyrus isn’t showing up to help the pastor.  My suggestion is to have Cyrus die of natural causes before the climax.  Before he dies, we can see him clearly watching/protecting the pastor.  His death could help explain why the children, who haven’t appeared before this point, now appear.  Yet the pastor realizes Cyrus–in his child form–is among them.  They have taken him back and want him to be one of them.  Cyrus may want to help the pastor escape.

In addition, though, the pastor needs some ability to have an impact on events.  He can’t just be a powerless victim.  Perhaps he succeeds at freeing himself from Della and has the opportunity to jump out of the car and leave the children to be hit by the train.  Now he’s faced with an internal conflict and a difficult decision:  he can jump out and save himself, or he can stay with the children and try to help them find peace.  Giving the protagonist a difficult decision to make at the climax can raise excitement, suspense, and emotion.  Perhaps the pastor tosses Cyrus from the car and turns the car onto the tracks right in front of the train, so the train pushes them ahead without crashing into them and destroying them, and they are headed now to some new place, the pattern broken.  The pastor might see Cyrus get up beside the tracks, now facing a new life as a child.  That could be an ending that could feel both surprising and inevitable.  The events in the middle of the story would need to show that the pastor is someone who cares about the congregation and about these children, but also has plans for his retirement and looks forward to finally having time for himself.  This will allow us to feel the pastor’s internal conflict at the climax and to understand the price he is paying (giving up his dreams of retirement) by staying in the car to help the children.

One other area I want to briefly mention is point of view.  The third person limited omniscient POV remains fairly distant from the pastor throughout.  Calling him “Pastor Hemmings” creates distance, since he certainly doesn’t think of himself that way.  Instead, he might think of himself by his first name.  Also, sometimes his feelings are described not as he would experience them but as an external narrator would describe them; for example, “an unfamiliar feeling of trepidation growing in his normally serene spirit.”  I think making us feel closer to the pastor could make the story more involving and emotional.

I enjoy many of the elements in the story.  I hope my comments are helpful.

–Jeanne Cavelos, editor, author, director of The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

Member News Of Note

Finalists for the 2019 Locus Awards have been announced, and OWW alums are in the running.

C. L. Polk’s novel Witchmark is nominated for the First Novel Award.

Alliette de Bodard’s novella The Tea Master and the Detective is nominated for Best Novella.

Elizabeth Bear’s story “Okay, Glory” is nominated for Best Novelette.

N. K. Jemisin’s stories “Cuisine des Mémoires” and “The Storyteller’s Replacement” are both nominated for Best Short Story.

And N. K. Jemisin’s short story collection How Long ’til Black Future’s Month? is nominated for the Collection award.

Winners will be announced during the Locus Awards Weekend in Seattle WA, June 28-30, 2019. Congratulations and best of luck to everyone nominated!

 

Spotlight on Anna Kashina

World building in fantasy and science fiction

 World building is hugely important in any fiction genre. Effective world building enables us to create a setting, in which the reader can relate to the characters not only visually, but also in terms of their own sensory experience. A realistic world is essential for a believable story, and it can make all the difference in engaging the reader. Thus, I tend to think of world building tends as the essential first step when starting out a new book.

Authors of science fiction and fantasy face an additional challenge: we are creating a new world from scratch, building off concepts and settings other people are not familiar with. Of course, this is also additional fun. We have all the power in this brand new world, and we get to set all the rules.

So, why do we need rules anyway?

Any world we know contains boundaries, where some things are common while others are truly impossible. The same goes for any created world too. Rules and boundaries are essential to gain the readers’ trust, and think of your world as a realistic one. Watching the characters constrained by these rules makes them much easier to relate to. Without rules, the reader would not be able to develop any expectations following the events in the book. This creates an ungrounded feeling that ultimately prevents the reader from getting emotionally and intellectually invested.

As a fantasy author, I spend a lot of time building my worlds, and I have developed a process that helps me along. It can be tedious at times, but most of the time, it is so much fun.

When I approach the task of building a world, I follow several essential steps. As soon as the idea of a novel is in my head – definitely before I start working on the bulk of the text — I think through the following list of action items, in this order:

  1. The world map. This first step is actually also my very first decision. Is the whole story going to take place in a small village, a city, a country, or a single room? Are my characters going to travel around, and if yes, how far? Are they going to meet visitors coming over from distant lands? Are they going to stay confined and isolated?

 Some of these details can be left for later, but this major decision about the scale of the world has to come right at the start. In my case, I follow this decision by sketching a very crude map, and as I work through my story I continue to populate it with places, names, and key elements of the landscape. I am not an artist, so these initial sketches always look horrible, but they do help.

In everyday life, we use a lot of geographical references in our speech, without even noticing them. “Up north”, “back east”, “over in Cleveland”, “back in Russia”, “in Challimar deserts” – these are very telling details about the world and the characters that people tend to drop into their conversations, and if I have a map with geographical names in front of me when I write, it allows me to populate my characters speech with these references from early on. It really helps to make the world more authentic.

  1. The society. This follows my work on the map, so that the two become closely inter-related. I have a another check list for my work on the society, interrogating it through the following set of big-picture questions:
  • What is this society’s overall level of development? Medieval, Victorian, futuristic, alien? This decision is usually easy, and it is also key in defining the next level of details. In my case, I tend to settle on medieval, before the invention of the firearms, which allows me to devote a lot of attention to the finesse of the blade fights J.
  • What technology is available? Firelight or electricity? Cars, steam engines, horses or spaceships? Guns, swords, or laser blasters? This list can go on, but the major questions like energy sources, transportation, and weaponry, tend to come first. My list is normally fire, horses, and swords, but there could be some cool variations here.
  • What type of housing is typical? Castles? Tents? Apartment buildings? Spaceships? Hives? It could be different for different nations in my world, but it is good here to understand the range.
  • How did this society originate? Are these human settlers on another planet where the traveled from Earth? Is this one of the ancient civilizations that has been here for thousands of years? Are these conquerors that settled here by defeating the locals? Are they a small group of survivors after a major cataclysm?
  • What is the societal hierarchy? Is it a kingdom, a religious order, an oppressed mass under an alien tyrant, or a democratic republic? Again, this could be different for different parts of the world.
  • What is the family structure – if different from ours? Well, I usually include elements of romance into my stories, so I tend to stick to traditional families (and, occasionally harems), but this is something I can definitely imagine playing with at some point.
  1. Elements of everyday life. These, in my initial list, include overall appearance of the characters, clothes, types of housing, common household items, tools and weaponry. And of course, food. The possibilities of food-based world building are endless. In my case, I tend to develop an entire recipe book for each world, even though only a few of these dishes are actually mentioned in the book. Once can tell a lot by what people eat.

 Going deeper into this, I usually also think through the languages people speak. In a multicultural world it is often helpful for everyone to speak some sort of a common language, but it is also fun to give language flavors to different groups of people — e.g., an accent, or differences in pronunciation. These are great details that can add authenticity to the story – but they should be used very lightly. If not, they can easily overwhelm the readers.

  1. In every land, people have certain beliefs – or had at some point. These beliefs tend to factor not only into lifestyles and moral values, but also into speech and customs. (e.g., we all tend to say “my God” even if we are atheists). Curses and swear words are actually very important to the story, and can also be a great tool in characterization and creating some vivid personality traits. Most authors choose to use commonly known curses, but they need to be defined upfront. Some of my characters tend to swear a lot, so I settle on the swear words very early on.

I find it useful to utilize known concepts and elements. For example, a lot of my worlds have Middle Eastern elements, because these fascinate me and I really enjoy writing about them. I also freely draw from my Russian background. Using some obvious elements from known cultures often helps to ground the reader, by drawing on the details they already know. Too much unfamiliar can be off-putting and detract from the story. But it is, of course, very cool if you can come up with something truly original!

In the end, the process of world building in science fiction and fantasy can have a lot of similarities with the process of doing research for a historical novel – except that in science fiction and fantasy, the author is the one to set all the rules.

Only after this initial work do I feel ready to work on the bulk of the main text. But my world building does not end until the book is complete. As I write, I continue to interrogate each setting and each scene for additional details that can help further define the world.

And here is the hardest part. Having gone through all this work of creating a brand new, incredibly cool world I know everything about, the temptation is to tell the readers as much as I know, as soon as possible. How much should I put on the page? How much do I leave unsaid?

In deciding these things, it helps me to remember that any story is first and foremost about characters. In thinking of how much detail to put into the book, I get into my character’s head and try to see the world through their eyes. Even if the world they live in is new and cool to me, it is usually very familiar to them, and the details they would notice first are not necessarily the ones that would stick out to someone seeing this world for the first time. It becomes lots of fun to identify these details, and showing them actually does volumes to highlighting the background that is not explicitly shown at all.

The golden rules I go by here are: “Less is more”, and “Show, don’t tell”.

I took the liberty of including the opening paragraphs of my new novel SHADOWBLADE, which can show examples of some of my world building:

Gassan heard the shouting from all the way down the narrow stone passageway leading to the entrance of the serai. A woman, her voice raising to a near-scream and eventually dissolving into sobs. He broke into a run, noting in passing the slanted crescent of the waning moon peeking in through the narrow window overhead. Not the average hour to expect visitors in the Daljeer command center, disguised as a scholarly hall.

The door at the end of the curving passage stood ajar. Gusts of cool night air washed through the entrance hallway, filling it with the scents of desert rosemary and creosote. As Gassan skidded around the last bend, he caught a view of the moonlit path outside, winding to the city down below. Dark shapes loomed along it, outlined against the white sand. Boulders? Odd. Just yesterday, when he arrived here from the empire’s capital for the celebration of the Sun Festival, the path had been clear. He peered closer, a chill creeping down his spine as the objects began to take shape.

Bodies. Dear Sel.

About the author: 

Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her “Majat Code” series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Her newest novel, SHADOWBLADE, is upcoming from Angry Robot Books in May, 2019.

You can learn more about Anna at her blog:

https://annakashinablog.wordpress.com/

 

 SHADOWBLADE:

 

A young sword prodigy must impersonate a lost princess and throw her life into a deadly political game, in this kinetic epic fantasy novel by the author of the award-winning Majat Code series

Naia dreams of becoming a Jaihar Blademaster, but after assaulting a teacher, her future seems ruined. The timely intervention of a powerful stranger suddenly elevates her into elite Upper Grounds training. She has no idea that the stranger is Dal Gassan, head of the Daljeer Circle. Seventeen years ago he witnessed the massacre of Challimar’s court and rescued its sole survivor, a baby girl. Gassan plans to thrust a blade into the machinations of imperial succession: Naia. Disguised as the legendary Princess Xarimet of Challimar, Naia must challenge the imperial family, and win. Naia is no princess, but with her desert-kissed eyes and sword skills she might be close enough…

Editor’s Choice Award

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Collapse Noise by Kate Ellis

“Collapse Noise” caught my attention this month with its precise, chilling prose; the way it pairs a tour through an NPD relationship, beginning to end, with the observer effect, Henry James, and thriller novels; and the way it deftly slides through three subgenres, muddying its trail through each of them—and all to reinforce the story it’s telling. So this month, I’d like to talk about resonance: what we achieve when we make multiple elements of a story sing together.

It’s appropriate for this story, I think, that “Collapse Noise” delicately and deliberately spends time muddying its own standing, in terms of subgenre. It transforms from a very specific subgenre of realist fiction—a tonal anatomy of a relationship, and through it, comment on something wider—to hard SF, to broad hints that this is horror fiction, and ultimately is structured like a thriller: on a third read, the “‘Sounds like you’re trying to catch someone out,’ you said” line is a howl-worthy clue. There is a great deal of work being done in a very short space in this draft, and not just on the genre level; the opening image of Narcissus is surprising, pragmatic, funny, and a little vicious, and establishes the narrative voice and the story’s tone instantly. The clues as to the partner’s nature pop out, thoroughly visible, in the rearview, and they’re blackly hilarious while still offering a chill.

It’s highly efficient work, and it’s resonant work: every piece of the construction is giving a clue, like the Carol Dean comment, on how to read this story, right now.

The prose is also in a great state for what’s marked as an early draft: it’s well-crafted but transparent enough that an intricate story stays quite readable. Lines like “class snobbery ground down to silicate” drop like elaborate icicles into the text, not detracting, just exquisite.

The piece also demonstrates a great eye for telling details, and ones that don’t just sit on the page but group to form motifs. The “gnawed finger nails, split-ends, and a burned out vibrator in a shoebox under the bed” line doesn’t just hit three solid, specific concrete details, but builds each one off the other—here are three kinds of dry, split, broken things, creating a resonance between them—to apply a deeper, more specific, and wryer metaphor to the protagonist’s state of mind. It’s a perfect analogy for the adding-up of details the protagonist does: three small things that themselves are nothing, but together are something big. Again, the text is teaching readers how to read it, how to catch on, while it’s already in flight.

It’s that resonance that ultimately feels like the key to “Collapse Noise”: the way each event on the plot layer is about both relationship and experiment, alive cat and dead cat—more like one light beam seen through two prisms than an actual bifurcation—until the effect is of one unified, urgent, consuming, tantalizing mystery. “Collapse Noise” is one thing, but visibly slides puzzle pieces between each version of the thing it’s being—between the literalism of a science fiction story about physics and the metaphoricness of a literary story about relationships, and then layers in more iterations with Turn of the Screw, thriller novels, the second-date horror movie—until it just reinforces both things it’s about: quantum physics and narcissistic gaslighting. It ultimately, slippery and clockwork, feels like both.

But what clinched this story’s effectiveness for me was that it is not just a deeply cleverly constructed puzzle, it’s one to which the answer is both relevant and urgent. It’s a plausible failure mode for short fiction to construct our puzzles well, and forget that there has to be an emotional weight to the answer, but “Collapse Noise” has asked a hard emotional question, and posits a real answer by its echoing analogies to the observer effect: “Some people think you can’t answer questions about what you can’t see […] just stop worrying and do the math.”

Because of the difficulty of the real-world questions it’s tackling—physics and gaslighting both—the complexity of “Collapse Noise” doesn’t feel put-upon or artificial, but appropriate. This is hard. The form of tackling it, narratively, will be hard too. It’s another resonance between form and content that makes this story work.

I do have some small suggestions for a next draft. I’d clarify the “‘Corral is going to shit,’ I say” line, personally—the supervisor hasn’t been mentioned before, and since “going to shit” is readable as something going down the tubes or so on, the sentence muddied for me considerably.

Likewise, I’d introduce a touch more clarity into the final paragraphs: not a total fixity, but just one more clue. There’s a state of suspense throughout that drives my readerly engagement, but I’m personally feeling the need for a touch more payoff to bring that down.

On the whole, though, this is smart, emotionally relevant, well-constructed, and ultimately passes the best test of a literary story or a thriller: it is rereadable, and delivers more depth and context and satisfaction after the first read. I think that with a little polish, this is set to find itself a good home.

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)