A World of Backstory

As a budding fantasy writer I remember rushing off to George R. R. Martin’s blog to glean some advice from a master. As luck would have it the very first questions on the FAQ page was: ‘I want to be a writer. Can you give me any advice?’ I devoured his response: Read widely young apprentice and let your curious creative soul be nourished by others that have gone before. And then, fledgling writer, do that thing that draws you back to the page again and again – write, grow strong and develop some writing muscles. (Of course I am paraphrasing for effect, but you get the drift). But then he said something that deserves to be quoted in full:

Given the realities of today’s market in science fiction and fantasy, I would also suggest that any aspiring writer begin with short stories. These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft. They are a good place for you to make the mistakes that every beginning writer is going to make. And they are still the best way for a young writer to break in, since the magazines are always hungry for short SF and fantasy stories. Once you’ve been selling short stories for five years or so, you’ll have built up a name for yourself, and editors will start asking you about that first novel.

Cue needle skidding off the record with a jarring discordant thud. Hang on a minute, I’m rubbish at writing short stories. And five years worth? Five years? Five! But George I have this great whopping story in my head that is desperate to get out. And the problem with writing any fantasy for me is the world building involved. Write a 2000 word story and it takes me three months to build the world. Sorry George, it’s not going to happen.

Well a few years on, and this word of advice doesn’t seem quite so outlandish. Because one thing I’ve discovered about writing a novel with a handful of POV characters, set in a fantasy realm, is that it’s really complicated. And as the story progressed I began to see that there were great big holes that required details as rich and as commonplace as the world we experience everyday.

Perhaps I should have cut my teeth on short stories.

However being in this deep with the story, I’ve had to forge ahead and do whatever it takes to keep this novel going. This has meant spending a lot of time world building and working out backstories, and evaluating whether the story still works on the crisper canvas.

Surprisingly rather than just adding colour, the world building and backstory has really influenced the story too.

For example, there is a ring in my story. Not a ‘one ring to rule them all‘ type, but a small identifier in some larger action. I’d sketched it in and not really given much thought to what it looked like, symbolised, or why the character had it in the first place.

However while I’ve been working on the backstory of one of the characters, and coming to grips with the culture this character lives in, I found myself focussed on this ring. I’d written it as being pretty insignificant in appearance, but of significance to a small group of people. As I pondered what it looked like, it not only became very vivid in my mind, but I realised there needed to be something special about it that evoked a reaction in this group of people. As the details were pinned down, so was the impetus to move the story forward.

It’s not possible to nail down a backstory for every little detail in your novel, but the right detail can motivate your characters to action and kick-start a stalled story.

Do you use world-building or back stories to help you push through a knotty plot? Or have you ever been surprised by some seemingly insignificant detail that took the story in a whole new direction?

Gaining Perspective

It’s hard to admit you’ve lost your way. It’s even worse when you knew where the signposts were, but you turned a blind eye and wilfully cut your own track anyway. The problem is, if you are going the wrong way eventually you will have to get back on track, or be forced to an untimely halt.

This happened to me with my writing process. I have written for as long as I can remember – journals, sketches, short stories, songs and poems. I would get up early in the morning to steal quiet time, sneak off by myself during lunch breaks, and be thrilled with any time I could snatch to put pen to paper. It was a joy; a private, cherished, personal joy.

Yet I still wandered so far off my personal writing path that I lost all joy in the writing process. And I did this because I didn’t trust my own gift or my instinct – but decided to find how it should be done.

I could bore you with all the things that didn’t work, but the truth was I spent too much time listening to everyone else and not paying attention to my unique writing process. Eventually I had to admit that sitting around with other writers trying to dissect my poor, limp, over-thought, prose was a waste of time. I have since learned that if you find yourself dissecting something, it is already dead.

Fortunately even a dream can be jump-started. In my case the emergency paddles came in the form of regaining perspective.

I had to step back from the story and ask what had inspired me to dream up Fall of the Kings in the first place?

And I realised, for me, it has always been scratching at the why. Why people do what they do? Why seemingly small decisions can change the course of our whole lives? Why some people insist on sucking on lemons, while others jump at the chance to make lemonade?

My writing process used to involve spending time paddling around in backstories that would never make it into the novel. Apparently this isn’t an efficient way to write – but it has always brought me joy, so I’ve decided to trust my instincts and go back to what worked for me. The results have been promising too. I’ve recently learned a few juicy snippets about a couple of characters that explain why they are always picking at each other – so writing them now is fun.

A few years back I wrote a post, A Word about Waymarkers, which discussed the need for having markers or touchstones to keep a story on track. In hindsight I realised I missed a few crucial points. Firstly, it is important to take your bearings regularly, to look out for the markers, and always know where true north lies. It’s harder to go off track if you always know where you are. And perspective isn’t just for stories. If you can remember what motivates you to turn up at the page, and honour that process, you’re more likely to get to where you want to go.

I’d love to know how you stay true to your own writing style? 

Heady Days of Optimism: NaNoWriMo is back!

It’s been a few years since I succumbed to the siren call of NaNoWriMo, and a few more since I managed to produce 50,000 words of semi-readable prose; yet ever since that first crazy angst-ridden effort, November for me, has become synonymous with writing. So although I got on my soap-box on this blog and said NoMoWriMo for me, I’m wondering whether it’s time to dip my toe in the warm waters of creativity and try my luck again.

They say time heals all.

So the blog has been dusted off and given a facelift (new season, new look… although I’m not sure quite what this theme says about this season?). Scrivener has been opened up with an eye on using it for something other than sticking inspiring pinterest pictures and playing with the post it notes. And quite fortuitously my monthly writing group happened today, so I’m in the writing zone!

What could go wrong?

Looking back on my Postcards From NaNo series, the last time I was this optimistic going in the enthusiasm lasted three days, before the wheels fell off at day 15. To protect myself from NaNo burn-out this year I’ve come up with some rules of engagement.

Rule 1. Don’t chase the word count. My main goal is to recapture my love for writing and to reestablish the habit, rather than crush the magical creative process chasing some random numerical validation set by someone else.

Rule 2. Don’t compare. Yes I have suffered from word count envy in the past. Not even looking at the stats this year.

Rule 3. No strict rules. I don’t have to write every day if it doesn’t work. I don’t even have to work on just one novel. Or in fact any novel. I might write poetry. Or song lyrics. I used to like writing song lyrics!

Rule 4. Have fun. If it isn’t fun I’m not doing it.

Hopefully that will keep November from derailing. Expect some NaNo postcards again this month, but probably not every day. And if anyone still reads this blog, stop by and let me know how your own creative process is working out!

Every Ugly Word by Aimee L. Salter

Aimee L. Salter author of Every Ugly Word.

I am thrilled to share the very exciting news, that my writing buddy (and person who introduced me to the big wide world of blogging and social media), Aimee L. Salter’s new book Every Ugly Word has been released today. And not only released, but launched with an almighty great fanfare as part of a brand new digital-first imprint, Alloy Entertainment – a division of the Warner Bros. Television Group. Their first three titles are: Imitation by Heather Hildenbrand, Rebel Wing by Tracy Banghart and  Every Ugly Word by Aimee L. Salter.

With programmes like Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries and The 100, under their belt, it’s fair to say they’re pretty good at spotting a good thing. Here’s what they had to say:

Alloy Entertainment acquired the books based on the unique voices of the authors and originality of the stories. The company worked closely with each of the writers throughout the publishing process in an effort to gain the widest possible readership. The books will be published under the Alloy Entertainment publishing banner, which currently includes more than 75 New York Times bestsellers.

Those of you who follow this blog, will know Aimee initially self-published this book under the title Breakable. The heartbreaking theme and raw emotion was powerful from the outset – which no doubt brought her to the attention of Alloy Entertainment. Working with them, Every Other Word has taken the story to another level. In Aimee’s words:

It’s slimmer, richer and 100% better than the original, in my opinion. Same premise and basic plot, same characters – but a lot of new content and a completely new delivery of the ending.

Every%20Ugly%20WordEvery Ugly Word follows 17 year old Ashley who is relentlessly bullied at her high school and by her own mother, and his helplessly in love with her best friend, Matt.

She seeks help by looking to her future self, “Older Me” who supports her through it all and teaches her to love herself. But is she really seeking “Older Me” or is she looking within herself for the answers?

When Ashley looks in the mirror she can see and talk to her future self. “Older Me” has been her support system through her relentless tormentor’s bullying, her unstable mother at home, and her forlorn love for her longtime best friend. But when Ashley discovers “Older Me’s” betrayal, she is targeted in the worst way and impends her last chance with Matt. She’s done with hearing every ugly word.

Aimee has a gift of being able to transport you back to those years when growing up was full of promise, pain and a clarity of feeling so sharp to be almost unbearable. I’m thrilled that the advanced reviews reflect this too:

“Original. Authentic. Heart-breaking….Officially one of my favorites!”

— Cora Carmack, New York Times Bestselling author of Losing It.

“A gripping story about a teen facing her demons with twists you won’t see coming, Every Ugly Word is a chilling and heartbreaking debut with raw emotion searing every page. I couldn’t put it down.”­

— Katie Sise, author of The Boyfriend App. 

Every Ugly Word is a punch to the gut from chapter one. The tension and mystery build through every page to an inevitable showdown that left me breathless. With a splintered protagonist you can’t help but root for, you’ll battle through the worst of humanity’s ugliness to emerge at the end dirty and broken and full of hope.”

— Mary Elizabeth Summer, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying.

If you want to congratulate Aimee, or get in touch you can do so here:

Better yet, head over to Amazon and buy Every Ugly Word for yourself.

Huge kudos and much love to an author who has worked harder than anyone I know, and has poured her heart into this story. Way to go Aimee!!!


How to Choose an Unforgettable Title for Your Fantasy Novel

Raewyn Hewitt:

You may have noticed the tumbleweeds blowing through this blog for a while now. It’s unlikely I’ll be posting regularly for the foreseeable future, but I thought I’d share this little gem; one of my most popular from my time over at There & Draft Again. Enjoy!

Originally posted on There And Draft Again:

The perfect name is hard to find. It’s the principle of first impressions. Get it right and your title will be the first step in enticing a reader (or agent) to pick up your book. Get it wrong and your work of fantastical brilliance will be overlooked as readers skim through the wide variety of competing titles. However with a bit of focus (and a flash of brilliance from the creative muse), you can give your title a fighting chance to stand out from the masses.

Don’t get attached to your working title:

Very rarely is your first idea your best idea. I often think of the working title as a childhood nickname. It’s fine when you’re nurturing it through the development phase, but is it really the best way to present it to the world? And bear in mind, if you’re heading down the traditional publishing route you…

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Taking a Dip – WIPpet Wednesday

What do you call a writer who hasn’t been writing? I wish this was a joke with a great punchline, but sadly it’s been a miserable reality of late. My highly anticipated writing weekend fell through, and a new volunteer job has been more of a time-suck than I anticipated. So I’m doing a big push this week to clear the decks so I have a whole day (read school day) to write. I think it’s a worthy goal, as I figure I need a decent stretch of time to find my way back into the story. Wish me luck!

Anyway the past few WIPpets have been a bit heavy, so I’ve been looking for something lighter this week. In this WIPpet Megan and Roan are talking about Matthew – one of my all time favourite characters. Matthew is a travelling preacher, who has been a father figure to Megan. Roan has recently arrived in the Hamlet and has already had some interesting encounters with Matthew.  He likes him, but can’t reconcile him with any of the religious folk he’s come across before. Megan is doing her best to shed some light on him. So for your reading pleasure I give you 20 sentences (12+3+1+4) from The Legend of the Kings (Book 3):

Megan laughed.  “Oh you must get him to tell you about his time at the Sanctuary. He has such a love for God – you’ve seen it, and a gift for interpreting the scrolls, so they couldn’t fault him there. But I think he was a trial to them. One day he went swimming in the lake in the Sanctuary garden, “as God intended”. That’s how he described it – can you imagine? He said it was hot, and he’d been working hard, and when he spotted the lake he figured God would totally approve of a fellow cooling off.  So in he went.”

“But while he was splashing about, his clothes lying on the bank, the Overseer arrived with a group of old ladies, and they decided to stop and picnic right next to where Matthew had left his clothes. So he gets low in the water, and tries to hide in the rushes, when Tobias trips on one of his boots. Tobias looks around and spots the clothes, and clearly not wanting to alert the old dears, strolls over to the water’s edge.

“Matthew is in the water trying to get his attention, and not wanting to be too obvious, when Tobias looks directly at him and holds his gaze. There was no mistaking he’d seen Matthew, but his face doesn’t register anything. He turns back to the ladies and they proceed to enjoy a long drawn out picnic in the sun.

“In the end Matthew started turning blue and his skin wrinkled up so badly he thought he was going to turn into an old duck himself. So he strolls straight out of the lake, casual as you like, picks up his clothing, doffs his hat at the ladies and makes off into the garden as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world.”

Roan was trying not to laugh.  It was just the kind of thing he could picture Matthew doing.

“What happened?”

“Oh – that evening Tobias called Matthew into his office for a chat.  He didn’t mention the incident at all, but asked Matthew if he’d consider being a travelling preacher and teaching those in the remoter parts of Gaelladorn. And that’s what he did.”

Many thanks again to the lovely host of WIPpet Wednesdays, the very talented K.L. Schwengel. I’ll be sharing a sneak peek at the cover of Kathi’s new book Emergence later on this week on the blog! If you’d like to join us, or see what the other WIPpeteers are working on head over to this linky. Have a great week.

Because None of Us Get it Right All of the Time – WIPpet Wednesday

It’s a glorious thing to be human. But the thing about being human is that none of us get it right all of the time. And that applies especially to me in so many areas of my life. Especially when it comes to writing. At least I’m not the only one – today one of my characters, is also missing the mark.

Last week I posted an exerpt from The Legend of the Kings, and with my head on big things going on my own life – totally forgot to give you any background on the passage. Fortunately this week’s WIPpet follows straight on from where we left off, so I will redeem myself and offer up the following introduction:

When the Boundary was erected to keep the dragons out of Gaelladorn, it created an area of no-man’s land between the surrounding mountains where the dragons now live and prey on pretty much anything they can catch. Unfortunately a strategic pass between Gaelladorn and Rohanna (a hostile neighbour) fell within this area and is no longer defendable (against those willing to risk the dragons). Aiden’s home (near the pass), was destroyed and most of his family killed in one of an increasing number of Rohe attacks. His father, the only other survivor, has to Aiden’s frustration retreated into an unresponsive / vegetative state. Aiden has come to the Sanctuary as a refugee and is convinced the Boundary was never meant to be a permanent solution to the dragon problem.

With nothing left except a burning desire to unravel the mystery of the Boundary, his unrelenting search has led him not only to annoy half of the Sanctuary, but finally to a scroll containing a nugget of information that might help. Feeling certain he is on the right track, and that he has been called to a divine quest he tries to get the Overseer on board. However the Overseer is struggling. This scene took place in Tobias’ office (formerly Josiah’s office for those of you following the WIPpets). Tobias had a throbbing headache before Aiden arrived, and has been fielding complaints about Aiden’s dogmatic manner.

As luck would have it there just happened to be five paragraphs (for the 5th of March) of the chapter left:

Aiden looked like the wind had been knocked out of him. Grabbing his bag he got up and bolted out of Tobias’ office without a backward glance.

Tobias closed his door and dropped into his chair. He felt old, and exhausted, and when he looked down he was surprised to see his hands trembling.  Clasping them together firmly, he closed his eyes and bowed his head low, until his forehead rested on the smooth mahogany desk-top.

Lord, that didn’t go well.  Did I do the right thing?

But there was no answer. No peace. Just the pounding of his head, and a heaviness that seemed to settle over him. For a moment he fought an urge to run after Aiden and let him follow his quest. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt? But then people would think he was going soft.

No. There was nothing to find. He was the Overseer, and it was his call.

Poor old Tobias. He’ll redeem himself – eventually.

Many thanks to the lovely K.L Schwengel who came up with the wonderful world of WIPpet Wednesday; an opportunity for writers to share from a work in progress (WIP), with some reference to the date. If you’d like to participate post your own WIPpet and head over to this linky and join in the fun!