Writing Problems: Filling Out the World

The genre of storytelling I seem to have settling into the most firmly is middle grade fantasy. The novel I sent out is in that category, as is the one I’m currently editing and the one stewing in my head. Even many of the short stories I write, while probably better suited for an older audience (I’m assuming, I haven’t found that audience yet) fall into the fantasy category.

Fairy in Irises by Dora Wheeler
Fairy in Irises by Dora Wheeler

It makes sense. I’ve loved the genre, ever since I was a kid with Narnia books and through adolescence where I devoured Pern and Forgotten Realms books. So, it makes perfect sense that I would pick this as my niche.

Unfortunately, I have a problem, a pretty devastating one for a fantasy writer — world building. When it comes to building up the history of my world, the locations, places, even the shape, I’m just no good at it. Partly, this is because I find the whole process a little…boring. (Please don’t throw rocks at me.)

In reading and writing I’ve always cared the most about the characters, where they’re going, what they’re doing, how they grow, which I stand by as one of the most important parts of the story anyway. But sometimes, it’s like my characters are moving with a bubble wrapped around them, and everything outside that bubble is completely blank until my character passes through. I can’t picture the shape of things, fail to imagine the placement of, or distance between, locations, whether their only mentioned or actually visited by my characters. And I forget to people the world with characters aside from them, from important leaders to members of a crowd, and even manage to leave out more varied creatures (if there’s going to be a pet baby dragon, or an annoyed pixie, there’s got to be a few other beasts, right?)

It’s harder for me, so I don’t get as much joy out of it, and so, kind of, I ignore it. But I can’t. I need to learn to fill in all the blank spots, to have answers if someone asked me what happens in a different place other than where my characters are fighting their battles. Because, if I really know that world, maybe there’s more I can draw from it to make my characters, and their journey, even better.

I’m working on it now with the novel I’m editing, figuring out the creatures and the shape of the land just outside her perspective. Maybe doing this can help me with the rewrites — if I don’t get bored of it first.



Is there an important part of writing or crafting a story that you find tedious? Or one that you simply struggle with, no matter what you try?

What I’m Reading: New Loves

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

I finally started reading the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson after getting the trilogy box set for Christmas. First, I’d forgotten the magic special feeling of holding a fantasy mass market paperback in my hands. There’s just something about the way it fits in my grip, along with the kind of story I’m reading, that transports me back to some good high school aged memories. Second, oh my goodness this series is good. It was published after I’d graduated high school, which is how I forgive myself for taking this long to read it, but it’s so wonderful: interesting, unique magic system, cool characters, and SURPRISE complicated female lead who winds up being the hero. Working on book 2 right now.

I’ve also been working on Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace for the past month now. I couldn’t easily tell you the plot, except that it’s about a weird family that runs a tennis academy and drug addicts, among other things. It’s a hard read, with the style changing from section to section (it will be pages of only dialogue, to a complex description of a game the tennis students play) and I have to read it slowly, oftentimes outloud, and with nothing else to distract me. So, even without the beastly size of it (over 1,000 pages) I wouldn’t be able to sneak reads of this at work. I think I like it, though it’s going to take me another month or two to reach the end.

Rereadings Edited by Anne Fadiman
Rereadings Edited by Anne Fadiman

For Christmas I got a book, Rereadings, a collection of essays on rereading books. I’m really enjoying it, even though most of the essays are about books I’ve never personally read. It’s not just your tastes that evolve and change how you look at a book, but also the way you perceive the world, like Anne Fadiman, who as an adult suddenly notices racist implications in The Horse and His Boy. It’s inspiring me to reread things I may not remember terribly well, and write about how they hold up and how I may interpret them differently now.

I also went to a used bookstore this weekend, so a couple more novels have been added to me “to read” pile. At least I know I’ll always have something on hand.

Reading List: A Storm of Swords, The Uglies, Sailor Moon

The new season of Game of Thrones aired on Sunday, and that re-inspired me to continue to rereading of the whole story. I dropped off on that partway through A Storm of Swords, not because the story isn’t interesting the second time around – far from it, I’ve picked up on so many things I didn’t notice/forgot in the slew of information. It’s actually because I was finding it too stressful to read again. The first time, I didn’t know what horrible thing were going to happen to my favorite characters – now I know, and I’m full of dread as I anticipate someone getting killed/raped/kidnapped/beaten up. But, I must make it through! (and I must read A Dance with Dragons...)

I’ve also started Uglies, the first book in another young adult series by Scott Westerfeld. So far Westerfeld is showing the same amount of writing skill as he did in Leviathan, but I also got so much more enjoyment out of Alek and Deryn’s characters. Let’s see if I wind up enjoying Tally and Shay as much.

I’m also finally going to pick up the third volume of Sailor Moon; I bought it a while ago, but it’s been sitting on my shelf, unread. I need to get through it so I can finally justify buying volume 4!

What do you plan on reading this week?

What I’m Reading: City of Glass, Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Lately I have been reading a lot of young adult literature, taking advantage of my employee discount and library to get most of it.

Yesterday I finished City of Glass, the third installment of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. In this book, Clary goes to Idris to find the cure for her mother, and of course while she and all the other Shadowhunters are there, Valentine attacks and threatens the Shadowhunters with either genocide or slavery. This volume had some very interesting twists, but I tended to figure it out about 200-300 pages before the characters did, which only made me want to shout at them. I also feel that Clare cheats with character deaths: obviously not wanting to kill one of her main characters, she kills a side character that they are close to, sending everyone into sadness. While I canunderstand the pain the characters feel… I didn’t feel it myself. This person just wasn’t built up enough, so that when he died I felt “Oh.” instead of “Oh no!!!” By killing this character, it gave Clare the opportunity to have the other characters be very distraught, without actually getting rid of someone her readers loved. So, cheating.

Now, the way this book ends, just about all of the loose ends are tied up, and it’s very conceivable that everyone could live happily ever after. She even untwisted the twist that snarled up the romance! Except, there are three more books to go. While there are some things that are hinted at that could cause problems later on, it’s not enough that I can see a story that carries on through three more books. Maybe there’s another twist that I’m not foreseeing, but right now I’m worried that the other books are going to feel very forced.

With impeccable timing, just as I was finishing City of Glass I was alerted by the library that one of my requests came in: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. In this book, Karou is a human girl raised by demons. She now exists in the human world, going to art school, and in what she’s allowed to see of their world – Brimstone’s shop, where he exchanges wishes for teeth. So far, I’m enjoying the way Taylor mixes the fantasy into the reality of the book. Even though it starts with Karou on her way to art school, Brimstone and the other demon characters come up naturally in her inner dialogue. We are gradually introduced to this part of the world, instead of being suddenly shocked with it. It makes the story weirder, and so much more appealing. I’m not too far into it yet but this is probably a book I’ll finish in a couple of days.

Teen Lit: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Recently I finished reading Graceling, a young adult fantasy novel by Kristin Cashore. The main character of Graceling is the Lady Katsa. Katsa has a special power – a Grace – though it’s not one that she takes much pride in. Her Grace is killing, and her uncle, King Randa, uses this power to strike fear in his enemies. She feels smothered by her uncle’s power over her, but Katsa still goes behind his back to create the Council, a group of people, slowly spreading through the seven kingdoms, that tries to right the wrongs committed by the various kings. It’s on one of these missions that Katsa meets Prince Po. The two work together to figure out why someone would kidnap his grandfather, uncovering a sinister plot that could affect everyone in the kingdoms.

A big problem I had with Graceling was the disproportionate way things were drawn out. Many parts of the book, which I would have pegged down as important, happened in a snap. The first meeting with the main villain turns into a run for their lives so quickly that I had to go back and reread the part two more times just to figure out what happens. Much later, he’s defeated almost as quickly, and then everything unfolds in a good way as the witnesses, previously covered in a mind fog, quickly come to the understanding that Katsa did the right thing. A bit too easy. Then there are other parts that are just dragged out. Katsa has quite a few inner thoughts, but these needlessly circle around – frustrating when I just want her to get back to the journey. And the end of the book is one of the longest I’ve seen, lasting chapters after our villain’s been dispatched. I can see how this might be needed; Graceling is the first of three books, and there is some set up to what I suspect is in at least one of those sequels. I only wonder if Cashore could have found a way to pare that part down.

There was plenty to love about Graceling, though. First of all, Katsa kicks all kinds of butt. Not only is she the most physically strong character in the story, but she also shows how a woman, even one who initially feels pressured into situations, can have and obtain quite a bit of autonomy. She’s a bit like this at the beginning, but especially by the end of the novel she proves that no one can tell her what to do or make her give up any part of who she is, even the person she loves more than anyone. Katsa is exceptionally dense when it comes to anything dealing with emotions, but it’s also refreshing to see a lead female character that isn’t overcome with emotions on a regular basis. And despite the problems with pacing, the writing is very well done, and aside from Katsa I found myself loving just about every character, like her love interest Po and the small-but-tough Princess Bitterblue.

Overall Graceling was a good read. It has many of the elements people look for in young adult fantasy literature – special powers, steamy romance, and a badass female character to boot. Still, my pacing problems put this book lower down on the list of suggested reading.

What I’m Reading: A Hat Full of Sky

Considering how enamored I became of Terry Pratchett after reading Men at Arms and The Wee Free Men, it’s taken me a surprisingly long time to scoop up as many copies as I can and read until I can’t see straight. Maybe it’s because there are so many Disc World books that without suggestions I don’t know where to go next, maybe it’s because I thought The Color of Magic was only okay, or maybe it’s because the Pratchett books I did read were for school, and who the hell has time to read for fun when you’re in a graduate program. Whatever it is, I decided to shovel out some time and dig into those books again.

I decided to take it easy and get back into Pratchett with A Hat Full of Sky, the sequel to The Wee Free Men. We’re with Tiffany Aching again, and she’s on her way to the mountains to learn “haggling” from a real witch, Miss Level. The book is, of course, peppered with Pratchett’s wonderful, almost inexplicable humor. When Rob Anybody, a Nac Mac Feegle, refuses alcohol because he’s worried, his wife screams that he died: “He’s deid and still talkin’!” And one of my favorite bits in the book is funny in the way he words it, and the way he talks about something very, very true:

In the cupboard drawer under the sink, forks, spoons, and knives were all in neat sections, was was a bit worrying. Every kitchen drawer Tiffany had ever seen might have been meant to be neat but over the years had been crammed with things that didn’t quite fit, like big ladles and bent bottle openers, which meant they always stuck unless you knew the trick of opening them.

But aside from the humor, what makes this book so enjoyable is Tiffany. An 11-year-old girl who’s smart, brave, clever, and talented, and yet still worried about boys and upset when others are laughing at her. I want her to succeed, I want her to get credit, and yet I understand when she lets things pass her by. I’ll probably snag the next one, which I believe is Wintersmith, next time I get to the bookstore, and I’ll probably have just as hard of a time putting that one down.

What I’m Reading: Wee Free Men, Kamisama Kiss

This weekend I started another Terry Pratchett novel, The Wee Free Men. This one is about Tiffany Aching, an 8-year-old who wants to be a witch. She learns what that really entails when the fairy world starts merging with hers, and the Queen steals her brother. Pratchett is just as cute and clever with his words in this book as he is in Men at Arms, and so far I’ve been finding the entire thing delightful.

The moan rolled around the clearing, as mournful as a month of Mondays.

I’ve also gotten back into the manga Kamisama Kiss. I reviewed the first two volumes on Suite 101, and while I enjoyed it I wasn’t quite sure that it was a manga worth carrying through with. Then I read Michelle Smith’s quick review of volume 4, and became intrigued enough to go pick up the next two volumes. It was well worth it. The story has gotten a bit more exciting on the whole, but even better, the romantic part of the manga has jumped up a few notches to a level that gets my heart all swelled up and has me giggling like the fangirl I am. I’m really excited to read the rest of this.

I have a big stack of books from Borders (more on that later) that I’ll be digging through this week. And of course I’ll finish The Wee Free Men. What are you reading?

What I’m Reading: Finishing Things Up

Much of my reading this week was playing catch up with some books that I started, but hadn’t finished (yes, I have the masochistic habit of reading several books at once).

Men at Arms was just as funny and enjoyable to the end as it was in the first half. And this morning I finally got around to finishing that autobiographical tome, A Drifting Life. The ups and downs of Hiroshi’s creativity and motivation don’t stop, even at the last pages, and while that’s a little bit terrifying (so wait, you mean I will never have utter confidence in myself?) it’s also inspiring, giving me a sense of writerly comradery. This manga is definitely going on my mental shelf of books and movies that inspire me to write.

I also started, and finished, a young adult novel by my current Lesley mentor, Tony Abbott: Lunch-Box Dream. Taking place in the 60s, the story follows Bobby and his family as they take a road trip to Florida, stopping at Civil War battles on the way. But we also see chapters from the point of view of various members of a black family in Atlanta, who Bobby and his family don’t meet encounter until the last chapter. It’s amazing how he captures all the different voices; he does something very interesting, where Bobby’s story is in third person, while the black family’s story – and at one point his grandmother’s story –  is from the first-person perspective of varying characters. At the end, I’m not sure what Bobby learned, or what will happen when he returns home, and that left me feeling a little wanting when I was done, but all the way through it was an intense, absorbing read. I am so very lucky.

Books that I’ll be getting into this week include Waiting for Normal, and a really awesome looking graphic novel, Stitches.

What I’m Reading: Terry Pratchett, Finally

Men at ArmsDespite having a low-stress weekend at the Cape, I didn’t get much reading done. I’d be surprised, but then I remember how people always seem to be very intent on having a conversation with me the moment I pull out the bookmark.

All I really got around to reading this weekend was most of a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, Men at Arms, which I’m reading for a craft annotation this month. I have never read Terry Pratchett before (which I realize is weird since I love fantasy so much) and boy do I regret it. Between wordplay, footnotes and wackiness, this book is funny, and added to that I’m really enjoying the characters and the world set up. I have to read another Terry Pratchett novel later this semester, but I don’t think that’ll be the last one I pick up.

What are you guys reading this week? Have you found anything new and fun?

Writing Updates: July 13 2011

I haven’t written any writing updates in a while, and that’s why I originally started this blog!

Since getting back from Lesley, my work on my MG fantasy has consisted of edits and rearrangements. I’m trying to find the right place to start the story, while also getting the characters fully introduced and into the action as quickly as possible. It’s really hard. I think I’ve gotten the correct order of events for the first part of the story, but I may still need to figure out what parts to chop out to pick up the pace.

I’ve also been working on work for my IS. Aside from just reading picture books and craft books, I’ve tried my hand at writing a couple of manuscripts. The first one is completely self-indulgent and overly sentimental, so I don’t think I’ll be sending it to anyone anytime soon. Another one I wrote, while very rough, has a lot more potential, I think. I’m letting it sit for a few days, then I’m going to use some of the revision ideas I got from Writing Picture Books. I’ve also got another story started, which I want to tell in rhyme, but I only have three stanzas written. Rhyme comes difficultly to me, so I’m letting that story reveal itself to me bit by bit. Walking helps it.

I’ve also been working on my reviews since getting back. A review for a Campfire graphic novel, The Three Musketeers, went up on Suite 101 a few days ago. I’ve also gotten the start of my review for the manga A Bride’s Story written, but I’m having trouble finishing it off. That book may be too intelligent for me to write about, heh.

Before work today I want to get a good start on more edits for another chapter of my novel and maybe have another stanza or two for that rhyming book.