Story, World-building

Are your origin stories a waste of time?

Whoever said outlining has to be boring? Not me! As all my regular readers know, outlining is an important part of my writing process…and definitely essential for characters, and plot. On world-building, I am considering myself still an apprentice to the masters (Brandon Sanderson, I will eternally appreciate all the video lectures you put out on YouTube. I would have long given up on writing fantasy without these!) but I know for sure that I won’t get very far if I don’t develop a decent process for my world-building, too.

One of the many things I am curious about at the moment is the value of origin stories. As much as I appreciate that these can be written after the publication of a major fantasy book or series, what about writing these as part of the world-building process? You might think this is crazy-talk but I have started experimenting with this on Wattpad (as @JosieColeWrites) and the first few responses to ‘Original Magic’ are quite positive…rankings for it aren’t too shabby either.

Cover design by Josie Cole; royalty free stock image from pixabay.com

But whatever the rankings and feedback might be, at the end of the day the origin short story I am writing is not getting me any closer to finishing my actual novel – or is it?

As I see it, every piece of my story world that is revealed in my origin story naturally emerges from the needs to the origin storyline and saves me having to sit in my home office and sweat over artificial details that may never need to be mentioned in the corresponding novel. Instead, I can make sure that I come up with the important details without which my story world cannot make sense.

Brandon Sanderson has a terms for this concept of only building just enough details to make your reader believe in your story world: the hollow iceberg. Imagine the top of an iceberg being the amount of world-building that you need to put into your novel to describe to the reader where the story takes place. All the massive part of the iceberg that remains under water represents the backstory and world-building writers create to be able to work out the bits that make up the top. BUT the iceberg is hollow…because unless you have the next 20 years to get your 1st novel written, you have to learn to fake it.

So, you see? It’s through my origin story writing that I am working on becoming an excellent story-world-faker (I mean fantasy author).

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you have any experience with ‘faking’ your world-building, feel strong objection to the concept outlined in this post, or have a better idea about what to do with origin stories (no rude suggestions please), let me know in the comments below.

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World-building, Writing Process

How to invent a magic system?

No character can be almighty. Even the strongest and meanest villain has to have some level of weakness…otherwise, why would we be reading? That’s my number one reminder to myself when I am coming up with magic systems for my stories. As much as magic is an amazing story tool and so interesting to write, without limitations it all falls apart.

Now this isn’t to say that this limits a writer’s imagination. It certainly doesn’t limit mine. Think of all the wonderful ways in which magic can be limited. Maybe it only works under certain conditions, in certain places, in the presence of specific artifacts, or away from certain materials…yes we all heard about kryptonite…

So where to start with your magic system? You could try starting with the cool stuff if you find the limitations boring. If the idea of limitations excites you, try spinning the whole concept on its head and start by working out what magic can’t do in your story or when it won’t work (at least not reliably).

Sometimes the best magic systems can come out of a process of elimination. If your character can’t do x and y with magic…how else would they do these things and what other magical abilities do they have to solve their problems (or at least try)?

You can also use limitations in your magic system to mould your characters and ensure there is growth throughout the character arc. If they can’t solve a problem by using magic, is there a non-magical way they can solve it?

Maybe they have to learn a new skill or make an alliance…or perhaps there is something the character has been avoiding that is now the only way forward for them, seeing that magic is not available?

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

Would love to hear about all the quirky magic systems that you can possibly imagine…and the appropriate limitations, of course. Mine still needs more work but, don’t worry, you will hear more about it as I get closer to working it out. If you are planning on writing this weekend, I hope it goes well for you!

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World-building, Writing Process

Are your world-building ideas overrated?

The idea that sparks a world is only a grain of sand at first. Slowly, it morphs and grows until a whole universe starts to breathe from within your notes and maps. And you need a lot of them to build enough before you write. It makes me want to throw up every time I think about just how many ideas it takes to bring a world to life.

As established in my latest post, I have a lot of homework yet to do to bring my story world into existence. All I have so far is a few kernels of understanding. A bag of seeds that are yet to be planted.

Every writer wants to come up with a cool world for their story – that’s a given. But not every aspect of your world can be cool. Your world needs all the boring things too…like plumbing (or some form of waste management – I need to stop thinking about magical loos!). Some aspects of your world will be a logical follow on from some decisions you make in the process of crafting your epic masterpiece and it might not feel all too exciting to be tied into certain causal links between the various elements.

I feel your pain. But here’s the upside to all of this: if you find a few cool ideas for the key elements of your story world, you can snowball them and be off the hook for a great deal of the other parts. Certainly takes the pressure of the good old idea engine.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

Are you a world-building veteran? If so, what was the coolest world-building idea you ever came up with? Tell me in the comments below…oh and feel free to let me have a link to your novel or story if you published it. If you feel brave, what were your worst ideas?...I hope mine were magical loos!

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Backstory, Writing Process

History: what your novel shouldn’t ‘tell’…

Any world – real or imagined – is a product of past events. The characters who walked the earth long before your story even begins, planted the seeds for pretty much every political, biological, and technological reality your characters have to deal with. The history of the (story) world is an essential part of your story, and yet, it’s exactly the part that a writer should never ‘tell’…unless bad feedback about info dumping doesn’t bother you.

Yes, you guessed it, the current state of my world building is poor and one of the reasons for this is that my story world history is vague. I literally didn’t bother fleshing it out to any significant degree, which I am now working to rectify, before addressing any gaps in my character profiling for secondary characters. The reason for this being that that the story world history might change them and I don’t want to have to do it twice.

All I initially jotted down about my story world history were these notes:

  • The story plays at the end of a great war between humans and mages.
  • Mages lost and are now in the minority and severely persecuted.
  • There is a few people who specialise in tracking mages who are in hiding and don’t dare to gather – the best one at this is our antagonist (John).
  • The Forest also known as the ‘home of mages’ has existed longer than any human or mage can remember.
  • The Forest existed long before the first priestess bore magic (from of a sacred well) and erected the temple at its heart where spirits of all deceased mages dwell eternally to protect the sacred site.
  • The opposing force to magic is a religion that loosely resembles Christianity and that has been gaining support steadily over a series of decades.
  • Religious leaders have been spreading vicious lies about magic and the mage-born, fostering fear and separation and go back to the time before the birth of magic.

I know, right? Whatever made me think I was getting away with this? No detail about the war or what made it significant in the grand scheme of things. No notes about how this war has changed people (I’ll be starting a new research file on exactly this change in people, including soldiers and civilians and how war affected them potentially differently depending on their level of involvement).

Crucially, I didn’t work out how the people managed to win the war and defeat magic (I presume with the help of their god). Doing my homework will change my story, affect the magic system I imagined, and hopefully will make the end product much better. I have already re-written the first scene in light of some new information and feel positive about turning things upside down.

Whilst I am not planning to turn into a watered-down version of J.R.R Tolkien (the man invented whole cultures and languages, each with their own diverse mythology and belief systems, for goodness sakes), I do think that I need a little more than a few notes on the subject of story world history.

So, why never ‘tell’? Because if you do your job and work it all out first there should be no need to spell it all out for your reader. Your characters’ actions, beliefs, thoughts, and words – alongside descriptions of the story world in the present – should suffice to deliver a strong sense of legacy.

After all, one of the big criticisms of Tolkien’s work is that there is just too much explaining going on, and whilst I can’t always agree (the detailed descriptions of life in the Shire at the beginning of Lord of the Rings, helps to understand how much Frodo has to change to survive in much more hostile environments), I can see why readers moan about it.

See ya next time ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you are also struggling to work out your story world’s history, or if you have the opposite problem and are consumed by coming up with more and more detail about what happened before your story began, share your thoughts in the comments below.

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