The way we write

World building for fiction – when is enough, enough?

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’m compiling a new page on this site which I call the Intergalactic Guidebook.  I decided a little while ago that it would be fun to create some kind of encyclopaedia of The Lilean Chronicles.  In it I would write a kind of mini wiki all about the worlds and peoples we meet in the series.  This is going to be a herculean task, as I’m finding out but it’s fun to do and I don’t mind it taking a while.  I’m uploading each page when it’s complete and will blog when there’s a new page for you all to peruse.

It’s called world building or rather in my case, galaxy building and I actually did this when I wrote the books.  I built the words, the galaxy as I wrote each volume of the series.  What I’m doing now is putting all that information together in one place, but I’m finding that something interesting is happening as I’m putting it all together.

I know the worlds contained within The Lilean Chronicles very well.  I spent a year writing with my characters and I know all about their worlds, their culture etc so writing it all down again for the guidebook is not hard.  What I’m finding though, is that I’m actually writing stuff I never wrote in the books.  There are things in the guidebook that you won’t read about in the series at all.  The back stories in the guidebook are way more comprehensive and complete than the information in the novels is.  This got me to wondering why I’m feeling the urge to go so much further with these back stories, when some of the information isn’t in the books.

The answer is simple really.  I love doing it.  World building is such huge fun and it’s a total pleasure to invent a whole world, a race of people, their beliefs and culture, even their diseases and sports.   I also feel that the fuller the back story is, the more believable the novel becomes.  When you can find out everything about the world a character comes from, it helps you identify with them more closely and understand them more deeply.  Besides, it’s interesting shit to read..!

So how much is too much?  Should I go so far as to include geological information about the composition of the land masses?  Should I document the changes to air purity over the past thousand years and cross reference this with a graph showing the increase in population perhaps?  Maybe I need to include a political history, complete with list of the last 10 years worth of import and export figures?

No, I think not.  For one thing, it would bore me rigid to write and therefore, probably bore readers too and secondly, it teeters on the edge of OCD.  Readers have enough imagination and sense to know that stuff isn’t necessary for a work of fiction.  Yes it would make it totally comprehensive but it wouldn’t add anything to the story as a whole.

I’d love to one day publish the Intergalactic Guidebook as an actual book to accompany the series but it would involve massive amounts of artwork and I don’t have the money to pay my hugely talented art guys enough to cover the time they would need to devote to such a project.  Who knows what the future holds though; I may win the lotto one day and then I’ll be emailing them..!

Is it okay to dislike your protagonist?

This question was raised on facebook the other day and I have to admit that up until I saw it, I hadn’t given it a thought. I’d always assumed that your main protagonist was someone who you must always love. The question as to whether you can dislike them or not had never entered my head but now it has, I can’t decide. Sometimes the answer is simple; if your protagonist is a nice guy/gal who is always helping people, humble, honourable and gorgeous to boot, then it’s going to be easy to love them but what if your protagonist is a murderer?

Suppose you wrote a novel about a serial killer or some other unwashed fruit loop and their adventures; would it be wrong to dislike them? After all, you would very probably dislike such a person if you met them in real life, so why not dislike them as a fictional character? Is it okay to have a protagonist who is an unlikeable character or must they always be nice? I really feel that there’s no reason why one shouldn’t write a novel with a nasty protagonist; they have stories to tell too. The thing is, would such a book sell?

I suppose the feeling is that if the protagonist is someone you don’t like, then readers won’t want to read the book but is this true? Are readers so superficial that they won’t read a book if they don’t fall in love with my protagonist? I feel the answer is probably yes, readers tend to be that superficial and they want to like the characters and I guess that is why the bad guy is always a secondary protagonist rather than the main event. There is of course, another way of looking at this. As in real life, we may be disgusted by the actions and lives of serial killers, but we are also fascinated by them, so maybe such a book would sell?

What are your thoughts? Add your blog link in the comments and join the debate.

What’s in a name?

As writers, one thing that’s central to our work is people. Our books have people in them and people have names so the characters in our books must have names too, as should the places, animals, plants and objects we fill our imaginary worlds with. Now, unless you’re writing a factual non-fiction book, the world contained within your book will be an invention; a product of your own mind and creativity and this means that you will have to invent all of the names. If your book is based somewhere that actually exists, such as planet Earth, then many of the names will already be decided; you can’t go inventing a new breed of animal or plant on Earth unless your story centres around someone who does. In this case you will probably only need to invent the names of the places and the people and your job will be relatively easy because you will be able to choose your names to fit in with the culture, belief system and racial environment in which your story is based. People like myself who write science fiction and/or fantasy stories have to invent everything and this is both an enormous pleasure and a bit of a pain.

The Lilean Chronicles series is what used to be called space opera but is now just science fiction/fantasy with a paranormal/spiritual thread and my stories all contain space travel and visits to many different planets and races of beings, all of which require names. Then there are the creatures and plants that inhabit these worlds alongside the ‘sentient beings’ who are the central characters; all of these need names too unless I just skim over them in the story. A lot of the time I can do just that, but now and again one of these creatures or plants takes a more central role for a paragraph or two, and then they need a name unless not knowing the name becomes a part of the story. Lastly there is the ‘hardware’ that the characters use in the stories; the vehicles, gadgets, gizmos, weapons, medicines etc. All of these need names and descriptions and it is a difficult job giving them suitable ones that don’t automatically speak of some definite Earth culture or belief system.

Some names are very specific to certain races, cultures or belief systems and when we hear them, we automatically get a picture of the environment and people connected with that culture. For instance if I called one of my heroes Francoise, the reader would automatically think of him as French, even if this process was a subconscious one and they might even imagine him talking with an appropriately French accent..! Now this would be fine if my story was set in France or Canada, but if it’s taking place on the planet Zog in the 37th century, then a French feel to my character would not be totally appropriate and would decrease the ‘realism’ of the whole thing. For me, keeping it real and plausible is very important and I take great care when choosing names for my stories and I believe that the realistic feel is picked up by the reader and makes it easier for them to believe in the story and feel a part of it.

So what do I do with my names? Well there are two options as far as I can see. You could be clever like Tolkien and invent a whole new language and have your character speak that and have totally invented names. If you did this however, you would then need to include a translation. For me, inventing a new language and then including a translation requires far too much knowledge and time. The other way, which is what I do, is to take names we already know and slightly change them to make them more ‘neutral’. Let me give you an example. In my sci fi series The Lilean Chronicles, there is a fairly central character whom I have named Toma. He is a male character, young and titled and has his whole life ahead of him. He comes from a world inhabited by a very spiritual, and technologically advanced race. Because he’s not from Earth I had to give him a name that sounds young, cool and up and coming, but at the same time doesn’t sound too Earth-like and risk tagging him with the wrong identity. What I did was take the name Thomas as a starting point. This is a name that titled people often have and it doesn’t automatically make you think of a particular race or culture; it’s suitably bland. I then messed with it a bit; dropped the letters h and s and kept the rest – Toma.

It’s a similar process I use when naming planets, animals, plants and gadgets. With gadgets, I come up with the physical description first, and then I add its function into the mix and then invent a name that ties in with both so that it sounds plausible and fits its function. Other things like animals, plants and the names of planets I just have fun inventing them for they don’t necessarily have to ‘fit’ with anything.

One important thing to remember when naming your characters and other content; google the name first to make sure someone else hasn’t already thought of it. I wrote the whole of the first book in The Lilean Chronicles series before being told that the name I’d given to a race of people was already in use by the makers of Dr Who. I had to spend several days thinking of a new name for them, before going through the entire book and changing every occurrence of the name. A lesson well learned.

The Bodily Functions Question

One thing I’ve noticed in books and movies too actually, is that the characters rarely ever need to attend to their bodily functions. You do see people vomiting and taking a pee, or talking about needing to pee but it seems that in books and films generally, bodily functions stop at vomiting and peeing.

Take flight of the phoenix for instance. Not once during that movie do we see anyone taking a shit or hear them talking about going to shit, or wanting to take a shit. Neither do you see the woman talking about menstruation or the need to take care of her sanitary needs.

I fail to understand why we can watch and read about people vomiting and peeing but we can hear them say “oh hang on I must go and take a shit,” or “stop the car I must buy tampons.” We all do it for crying out loud so why deny its existence in books and movies?

I must admit that even though I feel strongly about it, every one of my 4 novels in The Lilean Chronicles series contains no mention of shitting or menstruation. Only one mentions peeing and only two mention vomiting. So why haven’t I mentioned the other bodily functions? I guess that although I know it’s stupid not to, I also know people probably wouldn’t like it.

I guess some things really are better left to the imagination huh?

First Person POV – a new discipline

I’m five chapters in to the first in a brand new scifi series and I’ve decided to write this in first person POV. When I wrote The Lilean Chronicles, I wrote in third person POV, which is my natural preferred style as it allows for the story to be somehow, fuller. I don’t remember why I had the brilliant idea of doing first person, but I do remember reading somewhere that ‘they’ say that first person POV is more difficult to do and that if you can write a good story this way, people are more likely to respect your work. I’m always up for a new challenge so I thought I’d give it a go, at least for a couple of chapters and see how it goes.

Well I’m five chapters in and it seems to be going well, although the book is building more slowly than The Lilean Chronicles did. I have to be more disciplined with myself and I have to keep reminding myself that my main character, Sam, doesn’t know everything. There have been a couple of times I’ve had to go back and re word something after remembering that he wouldn’t know this or that. I’m also finding that I’m going far deeper into his own thought processes than I did with The Lilean Chronicles characters and there is far more about what is going on inside his mind. This is a good thing, I feel, as it allows the reader to get to know Sam on a deeper level and really identify with him. I’m trying to resist the urge to fill it up with his many and varied memories as I don’t want the book to be a series of flashbacks.

Third person POV will always be my preferred way of writing. I find my writing flows easier and the book grows quicker and I just find it more natural to have an omnipresent view. Another weird thing, I’m finding that it doesn’t seem entirely natural to have too much dialogue in this new book as I had in third person POV. I don’t know if this is normal for first person or not but that is how it is for me at the moment. I’m pretty convinced that this book won’t be as long as the third person POV books are either but again I don’t know whether this is normal or just my experience.

All in all it’s an interesting experience and good discipline writing in first person POV. I love learning something new, especially when it enables me to create something new and widen my skill base as an author.

Writers Block – what is it..?

I see a lot of posts from authors about writers block. Some of these posts are funny but some are anguished screams of despair from writers who don’t know why they can’t write. I have to admit here to never experiencing writers block; it’s just something I never suffer from and I often wonder what it feels like and why people get it or even if they really do get it or whether it’s just a state of mind they get stuck in.

It must be horrible to just not be able to write anything at all no matter how hard you try. I can’t imagine anything worse to be honest but is it actually something tangible that one can suffer from? Can we ‘catch it’ like the flu and if so what is the cure? Is there a cure? Or is it just a state of mind where the writer just believes he/she can’t write and so doesn’t trust his/her own creative flow?

For me, writing is an intuitive thing. I sit down and just begin to write and within a few sentences I feel ‘something’ beside me and it just flows. Call it my muse, my characters, a spirit inspirer from beyond, I don’t know but there is definitely something that steps close when I begin to write and the words come from outside of me and flow through me and onto the page. I can actually feel it happening this way and I know the words aren’t mine; they don’t originate from within me but flow through me from somewhere else. I believe that so long as I know it happens this way and so long as I trust the process, it will continue.

Perhaps that’s the problem with folks who claim to encounter writers block. Perhaps because they believe the creativity originates from themselves exclusively; when they have a problem or stress in their lives they can’t access that place inside anymore. Perhaps if they begin to embrace the concept of the creativity coming from somewhere outside of themselves and simply flowing through them, they would be able to move away from this concept of writers block.