Writers, Watch This: Lindsay Ellis

Last week, thanks to YouTube’s algorithms noticing my husband and I watch a lot of critique on movies, television, and literature, we discovered Lindsay Ellis’ channel. We’re not even remotely through watching all of it, because there’s a fair bit and we’re also watching a lot of anime this season, but so far we’ve knocked out videos on the death of the Hollywood Musical, critiques on the adaptations of Rent and The Phantom of the Opera, and her video-letter of apology to Stephenie Meyer about the way she was treated surrounding Twilight and its movie adaptations. All fantastic stuff.

But I probably wouldn’t have brought her up here on the blog if the last video we watched hadn’t hit so close to home — Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding.

It’s an excellent critique of the many problems with the movie, which she quickly summarizes so you don’t have to have watched it first. (And from the sound of it, I’m glad I didn’t, and don’t intend to now.)

I recommend you watch her video, of course, but if you don’t have the 45 minutes to spare right now before you finish reading this post, the TL;DR of it is that Bright slaps the fantasy elements it wants onto an obvious copy of our world without doing enough (or much of anything, really) to integrate those elements in any natural or believable way.

Why did this hit me so hard when her other videos mostly made me nod along with her points and laugh at her wit? Because she could have been talking about my current WIP.

#spookyromancenovel, which you’ve all been hearing tidbits about for almost a year now, is a combo of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, very much in the vein of the outstanding Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. (Which faithful readers will be aware I’ve completed over the last two years.) My alternate contemporary setting isn’t the same, and wears a lot of different influences on its sleeves, but that’s definitely a big one.

Something the Kate Daniels series does to ground its alternate history solidly is have a recent divergence point from “real” history. Which is something that Ellis points out Bright doesn’t do–it constantly references events that happened two thousand years ago, but expects us to believe that despite all these other races cohabiting the world with humans, nothing else major is different–we still get the Alamo, and Shrek, and possibly the #BlackLivesMatter movement…which doesn’t really make sense. (She points out how rare successful alternate-history media is, with Watchmen and, oddly enough, Who Framed Roger Rabbit being the prime examples.)

Seeing this all dissected so neatly made me realize my own worldbuilding is lazy, because I never explain at all when or how my society diverged from our history.

It’s a flaw I’ve been accused of before. I never explain the source of the plague or anything about it in the What We Need trilogy, and my beta readers had me defending that. Ultimately, and I know I’m biased because it’s my own work, but ultimately, it’s justified because a) the story of the plague itself wasn’t the story I wanted to tell, hence starting six months later; and b) it’s okay that the reader isn’t given the explanation because none of the characters can provide it. They’re all just as much in the dark about the origins and specific pathology of the plague.

#spookyromancenovel can’t use that justification. I have werewolves peacefully coexisting in the same city as humans, without any history to explain why. I have a vampire coalition campaigning for political power so that vampires can be recognized as citizens under human government, affording them rights and protections they don’t have because, legally speaking, they’re dead, not undead. But when did that start? How did humans react to the knowledge that werewolves and vampires are real? Not to mention my twist on gargoyles, also real, flocking around the city like overgrown and particularly nasty pigeons. And magic being an actual thing–when did witches come out of the closet, so to speak? How did that go?

My characters, they would know these things. If you asked, they should be able to tell you at least a vague outline of why the vampire political movement started, or when gargoyles started showing up perched on tall buildings, or when werewolves started immigrating to the city and creating their own neighborhoods.

But they can’t, because I don’t know. I wrote a cool world by slapping some fantasy elements onto the world I know, and called it a day.

…Of course, that’s not the end of it, because I haven’t finished. The second draft is finishing up its beta round now. I can still fix all of this, though it’s obviously going to take a lot of work. Creating alternate history is hard, and creating good, successful alternate history is even harder.

So I sat through 45 minutes of critique that was never intended to be directed at me, feeling uncomfortable and vaguely ashamed by how well it did apply to me, and came out of it determined to do better. Thank you, Lindsay Ellis.

Writing Homework #6: Picture Prompts, Emotive Description, and Prewriting

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Find a beautiful picture, or pause a video on something gorgeous–but without people. They’d only get in the way, for this exercise.

Your task is to write a short description of the setting, but do it twice. Once as straight description, factual and precise.

Then write it again, adding a narrator (either first- or third-person is fine) and try to convey some emotion, without creating an entire scene–nothing big has to happen.

The exact emotion is up to you–what inspires you about the picture? Go with that. Or how could you do something unexpected with it, take it in a direction at odds with the visual? Try that, if you’re feeling adventurous.

The multi-level terrace overlooks the sea. It is tiled in mottled brown. The walls are mortared cobblestone, topped with white plasterwork. Bushes grow in planters built into the walls. There are two seating areas, both have small, white tables. One has a red dining chair, and the other has two lounge chairs, dark wood frames with white cushions.

Beyond the terrace is a hill of bare dirt and rock. The water below is calm and reflects the sun. In the near distance, another stretch of land creates a bay, but the details are obscured.

There’s nothing inaccurate about this description, and if I read this in a book, I’d probably imagine something resembling the picture above. Sure, I wouldn’t necessarily have the layout correct, but it would be close.

Now let’s look at the downfall of plain description. What are my verbs? Overlooks, is, are, grow, are, have, has, has, is, is, creates, are. Twelve verbs, and nine of them are forms of to be or to have.

Boooooooring.

Let’s try this again, and get a person involved.

Will stood on the upper level of the terrace, staring at the empty lounge chairs below. He should have been sitting in one of them, with Cynthia in the other, laughing at some witticism of his while they admired the sunset.

A thorn bit his finger. Will realized he’d been picking at the branches of the shrubs planted along the cobblestone wall, pulling off the new growth at the tips. He sucked the bead of blood off his skin and stepped away–the hotel wouldn’t thank him for destroying their property.

But standing at the wall gave him something to do–gazing at the sea was a reasonable pastime. Without it, he had no purpose on the terrace. If he sat down at one of the pristine white tables in the small dining area, with its posh, red-upholstered chairs, a handsomely uniformed waiter would come out to offer him espresso or wine or a plate of cheeses with names Will couldn’t pronounce. If he ordered something, he admitted defeat.

He wouldn’t be waiting for Cynthia anymore, but dining alone.

Did I get every detail from the original description in? Nope. Does that matter? Not really.

When you first saw the picture, was loneliness what occurred to you? Probably not. It’s a gorgeous view that easily could have inspired feelings of beauty or romance or relaxation. But I saw those two empty lounge chairs and knew I could make the description convey the absence of a loved one, rather than their presence.

Getting a person and some mild action involved in the description works wonders for verb choice, too. I’ve still got some forms of to be and to have in there, but Wills stands and stares and picks and steps and gazes.

I don’t think anyone would argue that the first passage is better than the second, but I couldn’t have written the second without the first. I’m not saying all good description needs to go through two phases, but prewriting is a valuable tool–fleshing out the setting of a scene with concrete, uninflected detail to fix it in your mind allows you to then choose the details that matter for the scene and plan how to work them in. (Especially if you’re not working from a picture–then establishing the particulars of the immediate setting in prewriting is even more helpful, since it becomes the only reference outside of your imagination.)

If you get stuck giving your characters space to hang out in while they have their conversations or fight scenes or sneaky-stealthy spy sequences, step back, take the characters out, and just describe the setting. Pack in as much detail as you want, knowing only the best, most useful stuff will come with you to the real draft. Let yourself go nuts.

Then throw your characters back in, and poof! They’ll have space to play in.


Need to get caught up on your assignments?

Writing Homework #1: Studying Description

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So, fellow writers, here’s what I want you to do.

Pick a book from your shelf.  It doesn’t matter if it’s one you’ve read before or not–we’ll get to that in a bit.

Start at the beginning and read until you reach a sentence that is entirely description, whether it’s for a character, object, or setting.

Write that sentence down, then work out everything it actually tells you.

My first example, from a favorite of mine, The Wizard of Earthsea:

Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; above the village only forest rises ridge behind ridge to the stone and snow of the heights.

This comes at the middle of the second long paragraph–early, but not instantly.

What does this tell me?

  • [From the very first sentence, I already know we’re on an island. I want to mention this so I can refer to it without confusing anyone…]
  • The island contains several different types of landscapes: forest, farms, a river, and mountains high enough to get snow.
  • “Pastures and plowlands” means there are both crop-farming and animal-raising going on, though we don’t know which crops or what livestock.
  • “Vale” plus a river means the part of the island being described here is a river valley.
  • The village in question is the highest village in the valley, because there is nothing above it but forest and stone–it’s remote.

Why is this important?  Our wizard Ged has a humble beginning (as they so often do) in an isolated village, far from the more sophisticated civilization of the world, and that becomes important in his character development.  It’s established early (and often, with further description to come) what Ged’s home is like, both the village and the valley around it.  The scenery isn’t just about painting an impressive picture of the world, but giving the reader insight into the characters who live there, who grew up there, who were formed by their environment.

I know this because I’ve read this many times, so I see where the description is leading me, and what purpose it’s meant to serve.

But what about a book I haven’t read yet?

I grabbed The Night Circus from my TBR shelf, because I hope to get to it soon.  Let’s see what I find.

From the first page, third paragraph:

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen.

So what does this tell me? Not as much as AWoE, but to be fair, it’s a far shorter sentence.

  • [And we’ve already established from the title and first line we’re discussing a circus, so off we go…]
  • We know the tents are tall and striped in black and white.  I know that’s obvious, bear with me, please–
  • But by deliberately mentioning two brighter, more vivid colors the tents are not, this stops being a simple observation, and becomes a statement of how different this circus is from your garden-variety circuses, which usually riot with color.

Now, I haven’t read this yet, so that’s as far as I can go with my analysis; but already, a strong image has been created in my mind.  (Aided by the cover, too, in this case, which is gorgeous.)

So what have we learned about descriptive styles from only these two examples?

AWoE uses a long, lyrical sentence to provide a lot of information about the setting quickly, and extra meaning can be teased out of word choice.  TNC uses a short, emphatic sentence to say less, but make its message clear and powerful.  (I could hardly have picked better contrasting examples if I tried, which I totally didn’t.  I browsed a few of my favorites for good lines to analyze before settling, then grabbed TNC without opening it, so my reading would be honest.)

Both styles have advantages, and in AWoE‘s case, the expansive tone matches the landscape and the style of the rest of the prose–long sentences with little punctuation (less than I’d use, certainly, being a comma devotee) but vivid word choice.  As for TNC, I’ll have to read the rest to find out.

Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to try this exercise with at least two books, one you’ve read and one you haven’t.  And more, certainly, if you like! If you want to go deeper, ask yourself these questions about what those first description-only sentences tell you:

  • [Read] Does this particular bit of description set the tone for the book? Does it tie into the theme? Does it reveal something important about the character(s)?
  • [Unread] What do I expect, based on this first description? What can I predict, if anything?

And then, apply this to your own work.  How strong is your first descriptive sentence?  Do you even have a single one, or are your descriptions dribbled in piece by piece through dialogue or action sentences?  What’s your style, and how does it fit the tone of your piece?  (Or does it?)

The Problem with Soulmates

So, soulmate AUs (that’s alternate universes, not astronomical units or the elemental designation for gold.)  A construct where a character falls in love with The One based on some rule or mechanic that brings them together or shows them how to find each other.

I have mixed feelings about them, because whenever I read a list, they’re adorable and would make great stories . . . but I don’t actually believe in soulmates.

(Not a requirement, I know, but it does drain some of the joy out of it.)

I’ve had this discussion with a number of people over the years, including various significant others.  I just don’t think that there is one perfect person out there for me, or someone I’m destined to meet and fall in love with.  It feels limiting.  It feels artificial.  And some of the consequences of belief in a soulmate are tragic and unpalatable.

Like if you never meet them (obviously this one isn’t tied to destiny), you’ll be doomed to be alone, or possibly with someone who could never fulfill you the same way.  You’d never be as happy as you would be if you met them.

Like if you had your soulmate and lost them, then, again, after you could never be as happy with anyone else because you knew what you had.

I just can’t accept that.  Yes, I’m a die-hard romantic, stories about love are my favorites and I will never stop reading romances and erotic romances and fantasy-romance hybrids and basically anything with a love story somewhere in it.  Okay, when I was younger, I would daydream about The One, and yes, sometimes, he was someone I was destined to be with.

But I can’t accept a world, even a story world, where someone loses access to love because of a rule.  I know that’s part of the tension–OH MY GOD MY SOULMATE CLOCK IS TICKING DOWN I HAVE TO FIND HIM SOON OR I NEVER WILL–but my suspension of disbelief apparently doesn’t stretch that far.  I know it’s a construct.  I know it’s artificial.

And a character “knowing” who they’re meant to be with . . . the journey is the important part to me, more so than the destination.  I want to see how people fall in love, not just two puzzle pieces snapping together because they’re supposed to.  Real people don’t fit together that way, and the conflicts that come from trying to reshape yourself to fit better with someone you care about . . .

Well, that’s the story, isn’t it?

And now that I’ve trashed soulmate AUs to the point where Tumblr may never forgive me, I do want to say, I still think they’re adorable, and some of the ones I’ve seen are incredibly creative.  They can set up fantastic and interesting worlds, prompt charming meet-cutes between characters, and be pretty inspirational.  So they’re still valuable tools, and I don’t want my dissatisfaction with how they work to be misconstrued as “I HATE THEM STOP MAKING THEM.”  Because it’s not.

I had intended to do a set of prompts today, but instead, I’ll leave you with a pseudo-soulmate AU that’s more in line with my way of thinking about love:

Everyone has an aura that acts like a mood ring for the soul.  Some people have the ability to see them better than others–those who can’t see them as well are the ones who have trouble with love, or cut themselves off from it when they can’t seem to get it right.

The phenomenon of love at first sight happens when two people meet and “match”–their auras are the same color, or so close they know they’d be compatible if they tried.  So they probably try.  Maybe they’re right, and the love lasts.  Maybe they’re wrong, because as they get to know each other they see different colors in each other, the hidden depths of their auras, and suddenly they don’t match anymore.

Two people who don’t match right away but spend lots of time together–friends and coworkers especially–could have their auras slowly sync with each other over time, leading to love.

And the person who was right for you last year, that cute guy you met in the coffee shop and clicked with but then you lost his number–well, you ran into him again randomly today, and one look at his aura tells you you’re not right for each other now, even if you might have been before.  He’s changed, and you’ve changed, and the moment when it could have happened has passed.

Which means maybe you should ask out that guy you keep seeing at the gym, because he shines so bright he’s getting hard to ignore . . .

Brainstorming Under Pressure

Over the past few days I’ve been taking advantage of one of the features of Quoll Writer to help me develop my ideas for my newest project.  You can choose to do a warm-up exercise and QW will provide you with a quote from a book as a prompt–or you can opt to create your own prompt instead.  At first, when I was getting to know QW during the falling-in-love stage, I thought to myself, “Why would I do that?”

But it’s an excellent brainstorming tool.  On Saturday, on a whim, I brought up the warm-up screen and thought, “I should really work out what this library looks like, so I can have a picture firmly lodged in my brain when I start actually writing.”  (This is for the Haunted Library idea I started in last week’s What If–I liked it so much I’m trying to make it work.  I have character notes and some scene ideas and hopefully soon I can string them together in something that could, possibly, be called an outline.)

I set the conditions for the exercise–500 words or 30 minutes, whichever came first–and let myself run wild describing the library, both in the physical and mystical sense.  Not everyone works well on a timer, but I’ve always loved doing word sprints, so trying to hit the word count goal before time was up got the words flowing.

I didn’t let myself stop typing for more than a few seconds, and I didn’t let myself edit.  (That was really hard, I can’t abide leaving obvious typos behind.)

Framing the brainstorming session as a timed exercise kept me from staring at a blank screen testing ideas out in my head without recording them.  Which is something I do plenty when I’m not staring at a screen–some of my best ideas hit me while I’m doing dishes, of all things.  I’ve been known to dry my hands off and jot something down on a scrap of paper before continuing to wash, then trying to remember to get that scrap of paper somewhere on my desk before it disappears.

Today I think I’ll brainstorm more quirks and powers for my characters to have.  I’ve got the main characters settled–I think–but everyone who works for this strange library is going to have something supernatural about them…

Another “What If” Session: The Haunted Library

Since I like to talk about all points in the writing process, today will be another brainstorming session for a new project.  I have to keep my hands and brain busy while my devoted friends are hammering my novel to bits!

So I’ve decided to build on the Gothic Library post I mentioned last week.  I don’t know that I’m going to end up incorporating any of these prompts/suggestions directly.  But I’ve been reading a lot of fantastical stuff lately (I’m just about to start the third book in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, so I’m up to my ears in vampires and witches) and I’ve become attached to the idea of setting a romance (duh, it’s what I do) in a haunted or otherwise mystical-magical library.

So, let’s try to construct some logical questions and see how the answers go.

  1. Who are my main characters?  I feel like I want the bulk of the story to take place within the library, so it makes sense for at least one, if not both, of my romantic leads to be librarians.  If only one, I imagine the other would start out as a new patron and transition to becoming a regular (and the love interest) as the story progresses.  So I already have two ways to go; right now I’ll focus on having them both work at the library.  I can always come back to the librarian/patron combo later if this doesn’t pan out.
  2. So they’re both librarians.  How do they meet?  This one’s easy.  One has worked there for years and the other one just got hired to replace a retiring colleague.  Or possibly a deceased one, whose ghost still lingers.  Yeah, I like that.
  3. If the library is haunted, how can anyone tolerate working there?  Because everyone who works there has some sort of supernatural ability–the library itself rejects candidates who are mundane.  Or the ghosts do.  I’m not leaning towards making my characters into magic-users to the degree of formal witchcraftmore of psychic quirks and limited powers.
  4. Such as? I got caught up in the idea of telepathic touch.  One of my librarians can read minds, but only with skin-to-skin contact.  Which makes her (or him, I haven’t decided which of them to give it to) take precautions to avoid touching people, like wearing long sleeves no matter what the weather is, and wearing gloves at all times.  Which she could pass off as protecting the books, or lie about, saying she’s covering up scars.  As for other quirks…telekinesis would be handy to reshelve books quickly.  I’m sure I’ll think of more.
  5. What are the obstacles to this romance?  Well, one partner’s reluctance to touch would certainly be a start.  On top of that…the new librarian, living in a new and strange town, feels off-balance about everything in his life as he tries to settle in, and his sudden, somewhat inexplicable feelings towards his strange coworker don’t reassure him that starting over will be easy.
  6. Starting over?  Why’s he starting over?  His power got him into trouble in his old life.  Since I haven’t assigned who has what power quite yet, this one will have to stay vague, but I’m sure it will be a snap to flesh out once I’ve settled everyone’s quirks.
  7. So how does the romance begin? The library decides they’re perfect for each other!  They’re both reshelving books on a quiet night and the shelves themselves move, boxing them together in the romance section.  Hmmm.  That might be too heavy-handed.  Maybe the ghosts steal things from her desk and hide them in his, so that he has to keep bringing them back to her.  Or they lock him in the book sale room near closing time one night, so that he has to call her to let him out.  Oh, those wacky ghosts!

There’s still plenty of work to do–names and character histories, putting together their personalities and families; grounding this odd library in an equally odd town, where things are out of the ordinary but no one ever raises much of a fuss about it; and coming up with some sort of extra-romantic conflict as well, something about the library itself (since it’s so important to the story) to drive the plot forward in addition to the romance.  That, I haven’t worked out yet, but most of the bones of the story are there.

I like this.  I think I’ll keep working on it for a while.

The “What If?” Exercise

Time for me to play a little game with myself, and you get to follow along.

I have a novella I wrote for a contest some time ago kicking around in the back of my mind, because most of the feedback I got on it was “Expand this!”  I sat on it for a while, and now I’m tossing around ideas.

It was a fantasy story with a touch of magic involved, but given the space constraints, I never got into how the magic system worked, and I lampshaded the fact that I never explained it.  Not a crime when you’re trying to tell a good story in about 10,000 words, but if I want to rework it?  I need a real system.

So…what if magic was powered by starlight?  Not an entirely original concept, I know, but run with me, here.

Things I can extrapolate from that:

  • Magical practitioners would likely spend part or all of the night awake.  If magic use was uncommon in this world that I’m playing around with, then we’ve got a ripe opportunity for a secret society.  On the other hand, if magic were commonplace, it’s possible that vast bulk of this society would be nocturnal, with only certain jobs needing to be performed during the day.  (Farming comes to mind as the most notable exception.  Plowing and planting by starlight might be difficult!)
  • Well, what is the sun but a star that’s really close, you say?  Psssh.  Sunlight’s too powerful–or, alternately, because there’s so much of it readily accessible to a practitioner, it could be dangerous to use because it would be easy/tempting to draw more power than the person’s skill could handle.  (Also my world could have a different sun, or more than one!  But let’s set that aside, because it’s another kettle of fish.)
  • So what forms could this magic take?  Let’s use scrying as an example.  That’s often depicted as looking into a mirror or still water to see elsewhere, or elsewhen.  But in my system, it could only be done at night, when the scrying surface reflected the stars.  Which leads to my next point…
  • …Limitations.  Wielders of starlight would be helpless to perform magic during the day (or, alternately, it would be dangerous to), but they’d also be hampered by the weather at night.  Cloudy skies?  Too bad!  So where would they live?  Somewhere with little rain and clear nights…like a desert, to choose the first thing that popped into my head.  Not the only option by any stretch, but it certainly fits the nocturnal theme–if I made it a hot desert, then it’s pretty believable that people might be more active at night, when the temperatures are more comfortable.

“What if?” is one of my favorite questions as a writer.  Asking that gets the ball rolling, and every answer leads to more questions, until you’ve got full-fledged concepts to play with.  Now I’ve got choices to make, and a story to revise.