Writing Update w/ News

As many of you know, the Spiritwalker Trilogy is complete, together with two coda stories: The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal (with the most awesome illustrations by Hugo-nominated artist Julie Dillon) and The Courtship (told from the point of view of Andevai). I have a few more Spiritwalker short stories in progress, including one that involves . . . babies (for those of you that like that kind of thing). Again, thanks to all of you who have so enthusiastically read Cat’s story (and to those who read it and were more lukewarm; honestly, I appreciate people reading my books however it goes.)

For my two latest projects I have been working on a YA fantasy (which will be published as a YA and not in the adult sff field) and a new epic fantasy (first of a series).

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COURT OF FIVES is now the more official title of the YA fantasy formerly known as MASK (not yet fully confirmed but I think this is going to be it). It is fully revised and in production for a Summer 2015 publication date (the wheels of production grind slowly in YA publishing; they like lots of lead time to promote their titles).

This is the “Little Women meet the Count of Monte Cristo in a fantasy world loosely inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt” story that I’ve mentioned before. I wanted to write an epic fantasy that centered around girls, and telling it through the story of four sisters struck me as absolutely the way to go. In my dry, laconic way I am TOTALLY EXCITED about this book. It is definitely the fastest paced and most streamlined thing I have ever written, without losing the details and (I hope) complexity that I love.

(A younger) Hideo Muraoka would be pretty close to my head canon for the love interest:

 

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Meanwhile, I have turned in a draft of THE BLACK WOLVES to Orbit Books. This is the first volume of an epic fantasy series and, again, I wanted to center a story around women (3 of the 5 point of view characters are women and their points of view get about 75% of the page time in this volume). Having said that, I should note that I believe all the characters are great and (I hope) varied.

Here is the current description:

SOME CHOICES CAN NEVER BE UNDONE.
He lost his honor long ago.
Captain Kellas was lauded as the king’s most faithful servant until the day he failed in his duty. Dismissed from service, his elite regiment disbanded, he left the royal palace and took up another life.
Now a battle brews within the palace that threatens to reveal deadly secrets and spill over into open war. The king needs a loyal soldier to protect him.
Can a disgraced man ever be trusted?

I know, I know, it seems like it’s all about a dude, but trust me on this. Not that I have anything against dudes! I am sure that 50% of the characters in this book are men and I love each and every one of them. Especially Captain Kellas.

THE BLACK WOLVES is also currently scheduled for 2015.

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Finally, I have a forthcoming collection of short fiction (and four essays) coming out with Tachyon Publications, to be titled THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT. (Truth in advertising: it is actually “all the short fiction Kate Elliott has written in her career so far except for a couple of Spiritwalker-related stories and with the addition of two new novelettes to sweeten the deal”).

Much more on that later.

In Defense of Unlikable Women: Guest Post by Kameron Hurley

I am excited to welcome writer Kameron Hurley with this excellent guest post.

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IN DEFENSE OF UNLIKABLE WOMEN a post by Kameron Hurley

 

A fall-down drunk who’s terrible with relationships and makes some selfish, questionable choices, goes in search of love, and fails at it.”

This is actually the general plot to two films – the well-received, critically applauded film Sideways and the much maligned, controversial film Young Adult.

One follows a drunken, frumpy loser who steals money from his mother to enable his soon-to-be-married best friend to cheat on his soon-to-be-spouse; the other follows a drunk, frumpy loser who drives to small-town Minnesota to try and hook up with her happily married ex. Both films created stark, harrowing portraits of their protagonists’ pathology and inability to connect to others. Both protagonists are even writers! The biggest difference in the reception of these films, I’d argue, is that one featured a male protagonist – and thus was critically celebrated. The other told the story of a deeply flawed woman, and become instantly “controversial” because of its “thoroughly unlikable” heroine.

I see this double standard pop up all the time in novels, too. We forgive our heroes even when they’re drunken, aimless brutes or flawed noir figures who smoke too much and can’t hold down a steady relationship. In truth, we both sympathize with and celebrate these heroes; Conan is loved for his raw emotions, his gut instincts, his tendency to solve problems through sheer force of will. But what we love about many male heroes – their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim –become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded “unlikeable character.”

Author Claire Messud takes this issue head on in an interview when her interviewer say her female protagonist is unbearably grim, someone the interviewer wouldn’t be friends with. Messud responds:

“For heavens’ sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.”

 

Male writers, and their male protagonists, are expected to be flawed and complex, but reader expectations for women writers and their characters tend to be far more rigid. Women may stray, but only so far. If they go on deep, alcoholic benders, they best repent and sober up at the end. If they abandon their spouses and children, they best end tragically, or make good. Women must, above all, show kindness. Women may be strong – but they must also, importantly, be vulnerable. If they are not, readers are more likely to push back and label her unlikeable.

I actually wrote a recent guest post where I noted that in grad school, I sometimes drank two bottles of wine in a sitting and smoked cigarettes. A couple of commenters on another forum said I must be an irresponsible alcoholic. I couldn’t help but wonder what their reaction would be on hearing a 23-year-old male college student occasionally drank two bottles of wine in a sitting.

Boys will be boys, right? But women are alcoholics.

And so it goes.

But why is this? Why do we read the same behaviors so differently based on the presented sex of the person engaging in them?

I’d argue it’s because women have been so often cast as mothers, potential mothers, caretakers, and servants, assistants, and handmaidens of all sorts that’s it’s become a – conscious but also unconscious – expectation that anyone who isn’t – at least some of the time – must be inherently unnatural. And when we find a woman who doesn’t fit this mold, we work hard to sweep her back into her box, because if she gets out, well… it might mean she has the ability to take on a multitude of roles.

Let’s be real: if women were “naturally” anything, societies wouldn’t spend so much time trying to police every aspect of their lives.

I like writing about complex people. I like writing about women. Hence, the women and men I write are flawed and complex. They have their own messed up motivations. They don’t always do the right thing. There’s not generally a rousing ending where everyone realizes they were a jerk and has a big hug. Life is messier than that, and so are women. We’re not any better or worse than anyone else. I’m flawed. I often make poor choices. I’m very often selfish.

So are many of the people I put on the page. And to be dead honest, I like them a whole lot better that way. Roxane Gay gives several examples of successfully unlikable heroines in fiction in her article “Not Here to Make Friends.” (which I strongly recommend you read). As Gay writes:

“…(this is) what is so rarely said about unlikable women in fiction — that they aren’t pretending, that they won’t or can’t pretend to be someone they are not. They have neither the energy for it, nor the desire….Unlikable women refuse to give in to that temptation. They are, instead, themselves. They accept the consequences of their choices and those consequences become stories worth reading.”

There is something hypnotic in unlikable male characters that we don’t allow women, and it’s this: we allow men to be confident, even arrogant, self-absorbed, narcissistic. But in our everyday lives, we do not hold up such women as leaders and role models. We call them out as selfish harridans. They are wicked stepmothers. Seeing these same women bashing their way through the pages of our fiction elicits the same reaction. Women should be nurturing. Their presence should be redeeming. Women should know better.

Female heroes must act the part of the dutiful Wendy, while male heroes get to be Peter Pan.

Pointing out this narrative, of course, isn’t going to fix it. But I do hope that it makes people more aware of it. When you find yourself reading about a gunslinging, whiskey-drinking, Mad Max apocalypse hero who you’d love if it was a guy but find profoundly uncomfortable to read about when you learn it’s a woman, take a step back, and ask why that is. Is it because this is truly a person you can’t empathize with, or because somebody told you she was supposed to be back home playing mom to the Lost Boys, not stabbing her land lord, stealing a motorcycle, and saving the world?

Stories teach us empathy, and by limiting the expression of humanity in our heroes entirely based on sex or gender does us all a disservice. It places restrictions on what we consider human, which dehumanizes the people we see who do not express traits that fit our narrow definition of what’s acceptable.

Like it or not, failure of empathy in the face of unlikable women in fiction can often lead to a failure to empathize with women who don’t follow all the rules in real life, too.

Stories matter. Fictions matter. It all bleeds out.

Be careful what you cut.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the books God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines such as LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF.    Visit kameronhurley.com for upcoming projects.

2014: In Which My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Stomach

2013: Not a good year.

The new year is a hopeful time for me even though the calender’s change is to a great degree arbitrary. The difference between December 31 and January 1 in terms of the time of sunrise and sunset is small but in my mind I can create a transitional zone that helps me make sense of moving forward.

I always have too many goals at the beginning of the year but I’ve learned that it is okay to embrace the idea that my eyes are bigger than my stomach, that I pile too much on my plate and maybe leave some things unfinished.

In the new year I have a lot of work to do.

I’m slated to be one of the Guests of Honor at Fantasycon 2014 (York, England, Sept 5- 7).  AND I plan to attend Loscon 3 (Worldcon 2014) in London on August 14 – 17. This is all intensely exciting!

So far this year I have

1) turned in the revised manuscript of my forthcoming (2015) YA fantasy, MASK. This is my Little Women epic fantasy in a setting inspired by (but not specifically derived from) Greco-Roman Egypt.

 We four sisters are sitting in the courtyard at dusk in what passes for peace in our house. Well-brought-up girls do not fidget or fume or ever betray the least impatience or boredom. But it is so hard to sit still when all I can think about is how I am going to sneak out of the house tomorrow to do the thing my father would never ever give me permission to do.

 

2) battled intense self doubt regarding the epic fantasy manuscript I am working on, mostly brought on by a crisis of confidence about writing epic fantasy at all. It’s complicated. The most important thing is to persevere past the negative internal voices, and not hate on yourself that you have those voices (and sometimes lose ground to them). That’s human. I have to remind myself that it is okay to believe in yourself. It’s not rude, or cocky, or unseemly. Confidence belongs to everyone.

I have 175,000 words written and a lot of revision to do plus some chapters to write and insert, but in the end I decided that to make sure the layers worked and to understand the story’s architecture I needed a plot board outline, which I finally finished today. At the same time I color coded the five points of view (one per chapter). You can see both the plot board and the post-it tagged manuscript below:

TBWplotboard

I am in the process of finishing and revising this novel now.

Beyond that I have

1) a Spiritwalker novelette very close to being finished that I hope to post for Valentine’s Day

2) a few more Spiritwalker universe short stories that I would really like to finish. My ultimate goal is a short story collection set within the universe.

3) Two novels on deck. No timetables I can share yet.

4) a short story collection coming 2015; I have more work to do on that.

5)  How much I will post over the next few months remains up in the air but I hope to post more regularly and especially I hope to answer some of the many questions I have backlogged. My apologies for not getting to them sooner. I also want to highlight work I’m reading/viewing by others.
As for non-writing related things:

Get more in shape (I have an entire regimen planned and in progress for this).

The other usual things (eat better, spend more relaxed time with people, read more, you know all that).

But if I had to say ONE THING I hope to accomplish this year, I would say: Have a successful trip to Europe (as per above) By my way of thinking success in this context means: hang out with friends, make new friends, spend time with people I’ve been longing to visit, talk talk talk, avoid exceptional hassles, stay healthy, and pick a couple of places I’ve not yet seen that I really want to visit. Also: people!

I don’t know if a new year means the same to everyone — but for me it is a chance to let go of some of the burdens I carried the previous year, to set goals I won’t fully achieve but keep striving for regardless, and to aim for one or two carefully chosen accomplishments or events, however large or small. I’d be interested in hearing how you approach the new year.

 

Centering the Narrative at Smugglivus

I’ve written a post about centering the narrative over at Book Smugglers.

I really love epic stories. Whether film, tv, or fiction, I am deeply drawn to epic action-adventure with a fantastic or science-fictional element and really good emotional story arcs. In filmic terms, these are the stories whose trailers use stirring music and big, bold, vivid cinematography. In such trailers there is usually a woman somewhere, maybe in the background, maybe as a villainess, maybe as a love interest. When the stirring music really pumps up, the visual centers a man or men in an exciting altercation or a powerful confrontation.

Where are the women in these scenes of powerful confrontation?

My 2013 In Writing

For 2014: GoH at Fantasycon 2014 (York, U.K.) I’m super stoked! If you can make it, do! (September 5 – 7)

I also plan to attend Loncon 3 (London Worldcon), which is shaping up to be quite an event.

It’s unlikely I’ll be attending any conventions in the USA in 2014.

 

As it happens, 2013 was a remarkably packed year for me, publication-wise:

February 2013:

Apex Magazine‘s Shakespeare-themed Issue 45 included a reprint short story “My Voice Is In My Sword” and an interview.

 

May 2013:

Fearsome Journeys edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris/S&S) with an original novelette for this sword & sorcery/epic fantasy anthology, “Leaf and Branch and Grass and Vine.”

 

June 2013: (the Big Event of my publishing year)

Cold Steel: Spiritwalker Book Three (the final volume of the trilogy)

Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and said “Elliott pulls out all the stops in this final chapter to a swashbuckling series marked by fascinating world-building, lively characters, and a gripping, thoroughly satisfying story.” Yes, that makes me happy. There are a number of reviews of the novel I really adore but I will spare you quoting them all because I am humble and polite that way.

 

July 2014:

Open Road Media published 8 of my backlist novels in ebook form. Whoo!

(The 4 Novels of the Jaran, the Highroad Trilogy, and The Labyrinth Gate)

 

August 2013:

The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal.

[The link is to the PDF version. The print version is currently out of stock BUT more copies are in and it should be available in the print version again by January 10.]

An illustrated short story, text by Kate Elliott and AWESOME black & white illustrations by the spectacular (and Hugo-nominated!) artist Julie Dillon. This was a blast to write and I love the illustrations SO MUCH. Let’s call it “Bee’s version of the events, with a coda.”

 

Fall 2013:

The audiobook for Cold Magic came out from Recorded Books.

 

October 2013:

Unexpected Journeys, edited by Juliet E. McKenna, an anthology of fantasy stories for the British Fantasy Society. An original novelette, “The Queen’s Garden.” This anthology is only available to members of the BFS, but I hope to reprint the story elsewhere in the upcoming year.

 

Also: ALL of the Crown of Stars novels (DAW in the USA and Orbit UK in the UK) are now availlable in ebook versions as well as print. Because The Crossroads Trilogy is also in e-format, all my published novels can now be easily obtained. E-books are changing the field in massive ways whose fall-out we cannot yet predict, but in terms of a backlist it has been a great thing.

 

That covers publication of fiction. My favorite posts of the year (ones I wrote):

The Creole of Expedition: Part One and Part Two

Strength

Charles A Tan kindly did a Storify of my tweets about “SF Civility

Love and Infatuation in the Spiritwalker Trilogy

Spiritwalker Inspirations and Influences.

The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building

On Fan Art (and how it inspired The Secret Journal).

I’ve missed something I should have listed but if I’d remembered what it was I wouldn’t have missed it.

Liz Bourke did an interview with me on Tor.Com that I quite like.

And Aidan Moher (A Dribble of Ink) and I did a re-read of Katharine Kerr’s excellent DAGGERSPELL that I thought went really well.

 

What’s ahead for 2014?

The two convention appearances in the UK. And a lot of writing.

Forthcoming projects:

A short story collection with Tachyon Publications. (2015)

A YA fantasy (Little Women meet epic fantasy with a dash of Count of Monte Cristo) from Little Brown Young Readers. (2015)

An epic fantasy with Orbit Books.

I’ll keep you posted.

I have two more Julie Dillon illustrations, these in color, that I will be releasing into the wild ASAP.

Most importantly, thank you to all of my readers. This can happen because you are all reading/listening/etc, and I treasure each and every one of you.

 

On-Line Hiatus + RT Awards Finalist

As may be obvious by the lack of updating I am on hiatus and will remain on hiatus until January. I’m working on deadline and am OFF-LINE except to check email.

Feel free to email me or leave a comment on this site (here or on another post) if you have something to say! I am genuinely happy to hear from readers, seriously. At the moment I need to stay away from the timesink of on-line however in order to get two major projects completed.

Blogging should resume in January 2014 with answers to the wonderful questions I was asked back in the Cold Steel Giveaway of May 2013.

Meanwhile, in other news, COLD STEEL is a finalist for the RT Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2013 (together with novels by Paul Cornell, Mary Robinette Kowal,  Stella Gemmell, and E.C. Blake). The contenders answer two questions here on their favorite fantasy novel of 2013 and how they think the field is changing.

 

As always, thank you for reading.

The Status Quo Does Not Need World Building

The imagination is not context-less.

The words and conceptual markers a writer puts on the page arise from thoughts and perceptions and interpretations rooted in our experiences and knowledge and assumptions. Writers write what they know, what they think is important, what they think is entertaining, what they are aware or take notice of. They structure stories in patterns that make sense to them. A writer’s way of thinking, and the forms and content of what and how they imagine story, will be rooted in their existing cultural and social world.

Now consider the genre of science fiction and fantasy. Creators place a story within a setting. In the literature of the fantastic, this landscape must be explained to some degree so readers can situate themselves.

Some writers describe this landscape in extensive detail while others use a minimalist approach. To quote fantasy writer Saladin Ahmed: “Some readers/writers want scrupulous mimesis of an otherworld. Some want impressionistic wonder. No inherent right/wrong/better/worse there.”

Complaints now and again arise about obsessive world-building and how such dorkery has ruined modern fantasy. Recently on Twitter Damien Walter (writer and critic who, among other things, writes about the sff genre for the Guardian), stated, “Obsessive world building is [a] common cause of crap books. . . . Like some other acts pleasurable to the individual, it shouldn’t be done in public. Or in a book.”

Too much detail, too clumsily employed, is an issue of bad writing and should be addressed as such.

But complaints about depicting a detailed world in fantasy have potential sexist, colonialist, and racist implications. These implications are more damaging and pernicious than the alleged disadvantages imposed on literature by detailed world-building.

Why?

Let me explain.

The status quo does not need world building.

It is implied in every detail that is left out as “understood by everyone,” in every action or reaction considered unimportant for whatever reason, in every activity or description ignored because it is seen as not worthy of the doughty thews of real literature.

There are many ways to discuss elaborated world building. This post will focus on material culture and social space.

Material culture can be defined narrowly as any assemblage of artifacts in the archaeological record but here I am thinking of it more as the relationship between people and the physical objects used in life by those people and their culture(s).

Social space refers to the ways in which people interact in social spaces  and how these interactions enforce and reinforce custom, authority, and social patterns and kinship.

What follows is an obvious statement that I am going to make anyway: Different cultures have different material cultures and different understandings of social space, just as they have different languages and language variants, different religious beliefs, different kinship patterns and household formations, different aesthetic preferences, and so on.

As well, every culture tells stories about itself and its past. These stories work their way into that culture’s understanding of the cosmos and its place in it.

Just to complicate matters further, cultures are not themselves purely discrete things. There can be cultures that live between and woven into or half outside of other larger and more dominant cultures so that they partake of elements of both (or more). I know this in part because I am the child of an immigrant and grew up in a household that was both part of and in some ways separate from the dominant culture.

The more minimal the world building, the more, pace Jenny Thurman, the status quo is highlighted without anything needed to be said. This doesn’t mean that minimal world building can’t work in narrative: Of course it can.

But minimal world-building championed as a stance against “obsessive world-building” veers dangerously into the territory of perpetuating sexist, racist, and colonialist attitudes. It does so by ignoring the very details and concerns that would make a narrative less status quo in terms of how it deals with social space and material culture as well as other aspects of the human experience.

When people write without considering the implications of material culture & social space in the story they are writing, they often unwittingly default to an expression of how they believe the past worked. This is especially true if they are not thinking about how the material and the social differ from culture to culture, across both space and time, or how it might change in the future.

Which details a writer considers too unimportant to include may often default to the status quo of the writer’s own setting and situation, the writer’s lived experience of social space, because the status quo does not need to be described by those who live at the center of a dominant culture.

For example, consider how many a near or far future sf story uses social space that is modern, Western, and in some cases very suburban American–and how this element of the world building is rarely interrogated by writer or critic or readers when meanwhile other elements of a story may be praised for being bold, edgy, ground-breaking, or brilliant. Compare how deliberately Aliette de Bodard uses social space in On A Red Station, Drifting, an example of far future sf not focused on a Western paradigm and which needs–and relishes–the elaborated detail as part of the story’s unfolding.

The implied status quo becomes a mirror reflecting itself back on itself while it ignores the narrative patterns and interests of most non-Western literatures, which often tell their story in a way different from much Western narrative (as Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Joyce Chng, and Sabrina Vourvoulias among others have pointed out).

The implied status quo in denigrating descriptions of daily living & material culture denigrates the lived experience of so many people. It judges these details as unworthy of narrative in the same way colonialism, racism, and sexism dismiss other cultures and life-ways and life-experiences as inferior or exotic window-dressing. It does so by implying that a self-defined and often abstracted “universal” (of subject matter or of mostly-invisible setting) trumps all else and can thereby be accomplished with none of this obsessive world building, none of these extraneous details. This imagination is not contextless.

In the US/UK genre market, for example, it is exactly the marginalized landscapes that need description in order to be understood and revealed as  just as expressive of the scope of human experience as that of the dominant culture whose lineaments are most often taken for granted.

Of course there is plenty of detailed world-building that emphasizes the status quo and expands on it, not always in a deliberate or thoughtful way.

Regardless, a well-described setting is good writing. There is nothing wrong with using (say) medieval Europe for your inspiration if you have a story to tell there. Judith Tarr‘s deeply-imagined medieval landscapes attest to that. The point of this essay is not to suggest what any person is required to write or how much or little world building they should deploy. A story needs to be the story that it is.

Meanwhile, as I don’t have to tell most of you, there is an entire world literature of the fantastic, works of imagination set in the past, the present, and the future, most of which are embedded in the status quo of their particular culture and era. The examples are legion, such as the magnificent Sundjiata cycle, the Shah-Nama, the Journey to the West, the numerous syncretic versions of the Ramayana that spread from India throughout Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, the Popol Vuh, and so many others including all those I have never heard of and the many works being written today. However, speaking as I must from an American perspective, few of these works have penetrated into the Western consciousness to the degree that, say, Harry Potter has become a worldwide phenomenon.

So who chooses what amount of world building is acceptable in fantasy literature? More importantly, from what place can such a demand be made?

The world can and will speak for itself, in a multiplicity of voices, not just in one.

 

 

 

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Thanks to Daniel J Older, Liz Bourke, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, and Joyce Chng for reading and commenting on early and late versions of this post. Special shout-out to this recent Strange Horizons roundtable arranged by Dnaiel J Older: Set Truth on Stun: Reimagining an Anti-Oppressive SF/F. And a final link to N.K. Jemisin’s excellent and important Guest of Honor speech at Continuum earlier this year: “SFF has always been the literature of the human imagination, not just the imagination of a single demographic.”

Love and Infatuation in the Spiritwalker Trilogy

To my mind, and in the approach I take when writing, love and infatuation are related but different things.

Love has so many variations; it is infinite; nothing bounds it. Infatuation is often defined within the bounds of sexual attraction (infatuated with someone you are sexually attracted to) but there are multiple ways to be infatuated that have nothing to do with sexual attraction. One can be infatuated with people intellectually; one can be infatuated with a new friendship; one can also be infatuated with an idea or a song or a new activity, and so on.

All my novels deal in part with loving relationships. Some are romantic relationships while others are friendships and/or family relationships. How people build and sustain bonds of trust and love remains a central element of everything I write.

Reading across my body of work, one might notice that all my novels include romantic love stories. These romances are woven into a larger plot as part of characters’ stories, part of their life experience. These love stories whether primary or secondary may also reflect or comment on other elements in the overall story or may be important to the larger plot in related ways.

So far many of these “love stories” have been sexual in nature (and usually but not always heterosexual–I’m working on expanding my range in this regard), but not all of them are.

I want to talk about love versus infatuation in the Spiritwalker Trilogy because the trilogy involves two love stories: one a romance and other not.

(behind the cut will be spoilers if you have not read all three Spiritwalker books) Continue reading

worldbuilding top to bottom (Q&A)

Many months ago on Twitter I asked people what world building questions they had that they would like me to answer. Several of the questions seemed to me to fall into a set that was more about the mechanics of how to organize and approach world building and less about specific world building choices.

How early in the story do you need to know the world? Before you start, or as you get to pieces you need? (Colleen W)
I am curious about the level of detail to start out with vs. what is filled in later? (Stephen M)
Your fave method top>down vs. bottom>up. How detailed is enough? (Sunny K)
Is world building an inductive or deductive process? (Paul W)
Any ideas about developing a society and culture & keeping track of it as it evolves. (Christine F)

In many ways I am not an orderly world builder. I do not sit down and fill out notebooks of material before I start writing. I do not build my world first and then put a story in it. At the same time, I do not wing it from the start, writing into the unknown and making things up as I go along and as they seem necessary or appropriate.

I have no objection to either of these ways of doing things for the same reason that I believe every writer has to figure out her own process. Other writers have other ways of working.

I do not believe in or promulgate “one true path.” I talk about my process because it is what I know. You have to figure out what works for you.

How do I world build? Where do I start?
For me, the world and the story develop together.

Generally (and with some exceptions), my process works like this.

I get an almost filmic image of a character, in a scene, and the character is doing something, interacting with someone or something; but regardless the scene itself has a focus around that character.

In Crown of Stars, that initial image became the scene where Alain walks across the ridge as a storm comes in off the sea bearing with it a woman in armor, whom he meets. In Spiritwalker, the initial image was a young woman seated beside her cousin and looking out through a paned glass window as a carriage arrives outside.

The initial image/scene gives me some information about the world. Crown of Stars had landscape with the feel of medieval Europe. By the evidence of the type of window and the carriage, Spiritwalker wanted to be set in an equivalent of the 18th or 19th century.

At this point I will usually write an initial version of the scene. This first and rawest draft will never be published anywhere or seen by anyone except me. I may push a little past that scene into writing bits and pieces of other scenes or I might write notes or sketches of what could happen next.

As I do this I am continually making decisions about small details. These details start creating the bare-bones framework that the world will ultimately be built on because details tell you a great deal about the social and physical landscape.

For instance, if I introduce a character as a girl who is selling fruit in the marketplace, that means she lives in a culture where girls and women can sell goods in the market and in fact it may be both common and accepted for them to do so; that tells you something about Mai’s home town in the Crossroads Trilogy.

A boy (Alain) dreams of going to war as a soldier, an enterprise he believes to be glorious and noble and good, but he is also sure that because of his humble birth and isolated village he is fated for a more mundane life (Crown of Stars). The details of his daily life and his dreams set the stage for what follows both in his choices and in the sort of world he lives in and what its cultural markers are.

Small details that slowly accrete as I write and thereby become woven into a larger whole are only one aspect of how I build up a world.

There comes a point where I have to stop writing snippets and scenes, where I have to stop focusing on details and step back to consider the big picture, the overarching geographical and cultural elements. Some of these big picture issues I may have considered in advance and simply not referenced yet.

For example with Crossroads I had a map very early on while with the Spiritwalker books I knew that the ocean would be lower (and thus the continents and islands larger) but I did not, for example, draw the map for the Americas until I started working on book two (Cold Fire) when I needed it.

Sometimes an entire element of culture, landscape, technology, or what have you simply may not be important enough at that point that I need to delve into it (it is also confusing to reference landscapes, cultures, and details that don’t pertain to the immediate plot). When it becomes important, then I stop to think it through because now it matters within the plot and informs the forward momentum of the story.

Additionally, if I have to do a huge amount of research I find I have to pace myself; I can’t do it all at once nor can I intellectually absorb several different strands of research at the same time. So for example in Spiritwalker I concentrated in book one on the Mali/Mande, Celtic, Phoenician, and Roman elements (a truly vast amount of material to become even marginally familiar with) and left the situation the Americas fairly vague (using Cat’s relative ignorance of the Americas as my cover), and then delved more deeply into the setting of the Americas once the narrative moved to the Antilles.

In general I prefer to know as much as possible about background and landscape as I write, but there are times (as above) when I literally cannot take in that much information all at once so I focus on one element or region of landscape and culture knowing that I’m going to get to another one later.

Other times it is preferable for me to wait because unexpected ideas or synchronicities can emerge as I work. In fact, some of the best twists evolve organically out of an evolving landscape that would and could not have shown up if I had sat down beforehand and worked it all out before I had started writing the story and living in the world through the characters.

I have learned to be patient, that it is sometimes important to sit back and not over-prepare, to let things come to me out of the aether. It is always amazing to stumble across exactly the thing I need, in the strangest place, the last place I would think to be looking. This process of suddenly finding a piece of information that illuminates a plot complication or a character or cultural question in just exactly the right way to complement the story happens again and again. I don’t know how to explain it.

Yet I do also do a great deal of targeted research and landscape creation to order to build up as grounded a reality as I can manage.

SO: I build a basic scaffolding (the big picture) and enough details to give me a fundamental sense of place. From that point forward big and small develop in tandom. The map reveals the territory. Details limn the culture.

For the Crossroads trilogy I put together several 3-ring binders with lists and lists of details, things like a list of the names of plants and foods, information on the gods and the cosmology, and even a cost of living table (so useful!). [A wiki would serve the same purpose.] By having them available for easy reference, it is easy to make things consistent and to build on what has come before.

As well, these details really do illuminate the larger culture in a way a long chronology of the land’s history would not (although I usually have a version of that, too). I find that material culture and the religious, cosmological, and artistic sensibilities of a place are crucial to the way I write. I want to know how they grow food and how exchange works in the culture, not just a list of kings or wars.

Characters have an identity that has to do with who they are, where they live, and who their ancestors are/background is. People do not live in a vacuum; they are influenced by their surrounding culture(s) and by their interactions, by their upbringings and their assumptions and elements such as their basic material well being and their understanding of how society and the people around them view them and what their space may be or should be in society.

My goal is always to create an architecture of a world that has both the frame and the ornament, if you will. I have to have a sense of what I want to build before I can truly start but I also have to leave myself open to the unexpected discovery. For me, the heart of world-building lies in that balance.