The Three Types of Writing Advice

It is a truism that a wise person is someone who seeks out the advice of others. This holds true for many areas but particularly in writing. Writing is a complicated venture and for the most part each writer has to undertake the journey alone. I have identified three layers of writing advice, each with its own focus and each with its own objectives.

  1. Drafting Advice. This is the nitty gritty of writing. The grindstone upon which the writer has to submit. In my mind this is the lowest, but most crucial, area of writing. It is the wide foundation that is based mostly in the world of simply conveying the ideas through words. A lot of this type of advice is accomplished in a composition course. The Elements of Style, and pretty much any grammar book, will teach you the rules and rhythms of the English language. But reading a lot of fiction will subconsciously teach you the subtle and interwoven tricks of writing effectively and evocatively. Whether it is in corporate memos or urban fantasy novellas, having a grasp on the rhythm of language goes into every form of writing.
  2. Craft of Storytelling Advice. As we enter the second layer of writing advice, the pyramid narrows and the advice becomes more cerebral. Say goodbye to your muggle friends, this is only the place for creative writers. As the muggles leave the self proclaimed “artists” arrive. That is the first advice I have to give, there is a lot of writing advice that is more pseudo-philosophical than really any practical help. I would be the last to deny that writing is an art form, but to mystify the process of writing is not the way to help a struggling writer get better at their craft. Telling a writer that what they do is equivalent to Homer and Virgil is not very practical or helpful in any way. So my advice is to be to be picky when it comes to books on writing advice. If a book does not immediately speak to you and your concerns in a practical and substantive way then drop it and move on. Some great books that I have read on the craft of writing are The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman, Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder (although it is directed at screenwriting the advice is applicable to prose writing), and Plot by Ansen Dibell,.
  3. Motivation Advice. The third layer of advice, and the one that to me forms the peak of the pyramid, is about motivation and lifestyle. Creative writing is a very arduous undertaking. The only people that think writing is easy or fluff work are people that don’t write. When people do “serious work” they do not consistently bleed their emotions onto a blank slate. That is only where the fluff work begins, because the next step is to beat the living hell out of your own creation as you revise your work. Writing actually takes a lot more courage than most people would believe. Also this is the layer of advice that is most susceptible to the armchair guru. We have entered into true self-help territory so keep your wits about you. But two great books that motivate me to write (when I could be doing a lot of easier things) are Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (this book covers all layers respectively and is a must read for all creative writers).

Worldbuilding Series Part 6: Western Magic

Eureka! I just got it.

So my base concept for Western magic was that it was formulaic, predictable, and scientific. That makes sense right? Because it is a direct opposite of Eastern magic, diacritology, that is more creative and a impulsive magic system. Well the problem is that I found that answer to be really boring. A lot of magic systems are about memorization and formulas and all that junk. I didn’t want that. I wanted a magic system that said something interesting about the theme of virtue. It is kind of pointless to a have a thematic structure to your world if it never comes into play. I believe that a magic system based on creativity is perfect for the theme of passion, since that is where the source of art derives from. But a formulaic magic system (to put it in a reductive phrasing) does not really meet the mark of the theme of virtue. While having virtue does set boundaries and limitations upon actions it is by no means a straight jacket for life.

But just before I sat down to write this post I got the idea. I needed a metaphor that would work well with virtue. And suddenly the idea of farming came into my mind. What if you had a magic system that was akin to the actions of a farmer, where over a long period of time the wizard nurtures and cares for a spell and then at the appropriate time “harvests” the spell and casts it. Drawing upon one of my earlier ideas, I can have the magic system be more based on enchanting items and talismans than the Eastern magic system.

I have not worked on the languages of the West so I don’t have name for it yet.I keep on going back to Allomancy, but I can’t name it that because it’s already taken. Curses.

Worldbuilding Series Part 5: Eastern Magic

The first thought that came into my mind about the magic is that the virtuous magic system should be more permanent, long lasting, and more concerned with items and talismans (basically enchanting). The passion magic is more bombastic with magic missiles, fireballs, and lightning bolts (think of the bending in Avatar: the Last Airbender). Now these were my kneejerk reactions to the problem (literally I came up with that concept within minutes), and I have kept to those concepts for weeks as I went about my daily routine for the last few weeks. But as I sat down to write this post I found that concept a little stale and uninteresting. I liked the general idea but it needed some twist, some fun in order to make it work.

I decided to match the passion magic with a metaphor about creativity. So the passion magic cannot do all the crazy stuff as mentioned (I’ll get to that below) but they can create in a manner of seconds anything that they imagine. Now that is pretty crazy, so let me as I create boundaries (i.e. the laws or rules) of the system.

  • Cannot create living organisms, only inanimate objects
  • Cannot “Impose”: that is you cannot create an item exactly in the place of another; things must be created in the open
  • Cannot create massive things (the largest even the best wizards can  construct a building)
  • the system is built upon a complexity tier pyramid: the more complex something is the more energy, expertise, and time is needed to perform. So, for instance, building a complete house is a lot harder than building the separate materials of a house.
  • Also objects that are cast must react to the laws of physics. So lets say you create a javelin above your head right above your thrown arm while you are riding a horse at a full gallop. The created javelin will be launched forward at the speed of the horse.

I’m sure more rules and laws will appear to me in the future but that is it for now. But I want to comment now on how the magic system works for the Easterners. I guess I should give it a name. I first thought of calling it Conjuring but that is not as versatile a word as I wanted, since you can’t conjugate it that well (e.g. chemistry, chemist, chemical). So instead I turned to a conlang. I have actually developed at least four hundred root words for an ancient Eastern language (it is basically Italian put through a meat blender). I will have a post on conlanging but for now just build an ancient or proto language and then build up from there, it is both more interesting and complex and a lot more fun than going backwords. So anyway I came up with diacrita which means to “dream craft” or in another translation to “play with dreams.” The actual terminology would be diacritology, the study and practice; diacrition(s) (dye-uh-CREE-shuns) the practitioners of diacrita, and diacritic being the adjective form of the word.

So Conjuring requires two phases, drafting (which is done in the mind) and casting (where the imagination is created). Drafting is where the diacritions is piecing together in his mind what he wants to create. Let’s say that he wants to draft a coffee table. He can’t just zap it into existence, he has to think about and go over every single detail as if he had made the coffee table by hand. “Has a wooden surface and four wooden legs,” he says. Well he wouldn’t be able to cast the spell because he would be trying to cast something of infinite size and dimension.

This leads into another interesting aspect. When diacritions are at a young age they can virtually create anything of their hearts desire very easily (now these things are very simple and crude but are very impressive). What happens is that as they reach into maturity their wide breath of magic lessens and even disappears. The diacrition’s ability is limited to a certain field and within that field they can only craft a limited list of items within a few seconds. So the categories that they are limited to are determined by what they did a lot as novices. And the categories are as varied and as diverse as people’s interests from sculpture, to architecture, to warfare.

That is where I am going to leave diacritology for now but let me just mention one thing: did you think about the problem of counterfeiting? So did I. That is an interesting question: how does a civilization adapt to the problem of a ton of people being able to make counterfeits.


Worldbuilding Series Part 4: Magic Primer

Sorry for the hiatus. I was graduating from high school and I have been busy writing and then completely rewriting my submission for Sojourn V2 (yeah, that is two 9000+ word stories). So now onto magic systems.

I am at a complete loss when it comes to developing magic systems. They are something that do not come easily to me. I do not know why. I love magic systems in video games, books and such but it is never something that I devote much time to. The fate of my magic systems are usually vague and nebulous (and not in a good way). So when it comes to not knowing what the hell to do, turn to the experts. And the expert in my opinion is Brandon Sanderson. I absolutely love his books and the magic systems that he creates in his works.

First off, if you haven’t already get yourself antiquated with Sanderson’s Laws of Magic. I agree completely with his interpretation and his rules. Since I have never truly developed a magic system before (neither one that is scientific or wondrous) I will go on the side of a “hard magic system.”

It makes sense that since my world is divided between the ideas of passion and virtue that I would give each “world” its own magic system. Well let me flip the table over by including three! Boom! The third system will be blood magic and it will be the “evil magic.” I want this magic system to be softer than the more standard types since it is so evil and mysterious (of course in the future I can always go and develop this more).



Worldbuilding Series Part 3: The World Map

When writing this post up I am reminded of that Hollywood Producer’s cliche “you have three options: fast, cheap, and good–pick two.” So there is no perfect way of coming up with a map. The process I use is pretty complicated and using both my computer and good old fashion pen and pencil. So here we go.

The first question that has to answered is: can you draw and do you have patience? On the first question I would say that I am above doodling. I know how to draw  but I would never describe myself as in artist.

First off I always create a world map. The reason is because I love world maps and the second reason is that it is much easier to zoom out than it is to zoom in. If you were wondering I am definitely a macro to micro worldbuilder. Now the first thing that I must do is to decide on what I want in my map. Whenever you are at a loss in the creative process remind yourself of what your goals are. And if you discover that you don’t have any goals well go back and create some. Since this world is going to be vaguely Cold War like with East vs. West my main goal is that I want the geography to clearly show the east-west divide. Also as added detail I want the divide to be a water barrier like a sea or a great lake. So that rules out pangeas and archipelagos

Now the program I use for my map-making is a software called Fractal Mapper 8.0. I first picked up the software about eight years ago. The software is good and as served me well over the years. But the problem is that I have worked with it so long that I have become used to its nuances and frustrated by its limitations.  I find the main program too tedious for my map-making (I don’t want to waste precious time dragging and dropping the mountains for this mountain chain or having to fiddle with the layers). But what is in the purchase of Fractal Mapper is this free add-on called Fractal World Explorer. What this program does is that it randomly generates a world map. This is the main lesson I have: use computer generated maps for inspiration but do the nitty gritty by hand. It will save you a lot of headache. So after cycling through a few dozen worlds I find one that is promising. preliminary map blank ….Yeah that’s the catch. Fractal World Explorer will spit out a complete and utter mess. This is just a catastrophe. But it does give you tools to fix it and the many years that I have been using this program I honed the use of these tools to do my bidding. And I can notice some promising areas that can work with my stated goal. preliminary map planningThe circled areas are the places that I find interesting and that I want to develop (the part with the black zigzags are the places that I am going to nuke completely). The image below is the result of my labors. Now for some stupid reason the software has this Mercator projection to the map so the areas near the poles are stretched so that massive area near the top is much smaller once put on a globe (a cool feature that is apart of Fractal World Explorer). I am going to pull up Fantasy Name Generator and pluck out a few names. I am done for now. Later I will develop a more extensive geography, but for that I like to use pen and pencil.  Next time we will discuss the magic system of the world. See you then!  world with names

Worldbuilding Series Part 2: Conflict

Last time we discussed the origin of my world and my decision to have a romantic tone instead of a nihilistic tone. Now comes the fun (and crucial) part: deciding the central conflict.

Not all worlds need a central conflict, and likewise not all stories need a central conflict. Shannon Dickson’s story from Sojourn is a wonderful example of a story that does not have any conflict whatsoever. But for most worlds it is important to have a clear and dynamic central conflict because down the road when you are writing stories or DMing games in your world you want to pull upon the central conflict of the world into your story. Here are some examples of conflicts from settings: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter (good vs. evil). A Game of Thrones (ice vs. fire–at least I think, the series isn’t done yet), Mistborn (order vs. chaos), Firefly (freedom vs control). The most common central conflicts, at least to my mind, are good vs. evil and order vs. chaos.

Let’s step back from the theoretical and start talking about my world. I was tempted to make the central conflict good vs. evil, but I hesitated. I am a huge fan of Tolkien’s work and I feel that pretty much he hit the nail on the head when it comes to good vs. evil. For as much his work is unjustly panned as a brutish, simplistic story of goody-goods vs. mindless evil, I have found that his insights on good and evil to be extremely sophisticated (take for example, his insight that the very wise, such as Saruman or Gandalf, are the most susceptible to evil). I shy away from doing good vs. evil because every step that I take I will think “I am ripping off Tolkien.” And not just in a elves, dwarves, and magic ring sense but in a much deeper thematic sense. My hesitation stems not from any fear of being declared, either from myself or from others, a plagiarist or “ripping off Tolkien,” for I am sure that I could add my own spin to good vs. evil. But that is it, only a good spin. I have nothing new to say about the subject. Writing about it, while the subject is extremely interesting to me, would be like a chore for me. I don’t know how I know this but as a creative person often you just need to follow your instincts. This is some good advice for you guys: the litmus test for whether an idea is a brilliant idea or a good idea is if the idea is so powerful that it can lift your fat butt off the couch, sit you down, open up a Mircrosoft Word doc, and get you writing. When an idea truly inspires you it is a force of nature.

On the flip-side of good vs. evil is order vs. chaos. On this I will be brief (hopefully). I never very much enjoyed the idea of order vs. chaos. I remember as a kid watching the History Channel and a show started talking about Zoroastrianism. They talked about how it was about a god of good and a god of evil duking it out. “Wow!” I thought, “that sounds awesome.” Then years later I read about it on Wikipedia and I learned that it was just all order vs. chaos and I was bummed out. Order vs. chaos inevitably boils down to: order is the stagnant pool of water and chaos is a consuming flame that destroys everything. Each side is so balanced in its bummer factor that I lose all interest.

What to do? What to do? How do you come up with something “original?” Well one source that I take inspiration from is the real world. I was contemplating about the news stories of the day and trying to find a common link between them. My advice for anyone doing this is to not go for the “writ from the headlines” because a) that will instantly date you b) the story will become as much about the real life issue as the story itself. Don’t believe me, watch The Dark Knight and then The Dark Knight Rises. The former is a classic about order vs.chaos and the latter is a confused mess about Occupy Wall-street and other topical issues of the day.

So anyway, I was thinking a lot about the culture wars going on in the United States. Like Archimedes leaping out of his tub I shouted “Eureka” (okay not really but he sentiment is the same)! I realized that what what the central theme to all the different culture war issues was virtue vs. passion.  I wanted a central conflict that was not so black and white as good vs. evil but not something so morally relative as order vs. chaos. What do I mean by virtue vs. passion? Well someone who falls under the virtuous camp holds ideas like chivalry, honor, ethics, and tradition above their own desires and passions. Whereas the passion camp says that what is good is whatever your heart desires it to be, and who are we to say otherwise. The virtue camp holds that the virtues that they live by (and thus the god/philosophy by which those moral laws were ordained) is the center of life and above humanity. Whereas the passion camp says that humanity decides where the center of life to be. Like in real life this does not mean that virtuous people cannot be passionate and that passionate people cannot be virtuous, but instead determines what it is that each civilization/culture/society hold up as the most dear. And what they are willing to let go in order to uphold those principles.

This is perfect for me because while I personally am in the virtuous camp I can completely empathize and communicate the passion camp. Each ideology is rich with both good and evil characters and both good and evil cultures.

Okay this post has been going on way too long. Next time we are going to talk about the basic geography of the world.

Worldbuilding Series Part 1: Origin and Tone

The best way that you can understand what I am doing with my world is to describe what started it off in the first place. There is usually that spark, that initial inspiration that begins the whole process. Like billiard balls, one idea leads to another and that idea leads to more ideas. The initial spark is most often very unique to the individual and the moment. For me, the spark comes from the story that I wrote for Sojourn V2. The whole story revolves around the decisions and the fate of someone called the Dreamt Myriad (I don’t know what that means but it sounds cool). In the story the Dreamt Myriad is the foretold hero and champion of the Western Kingdoms who is destined to save the world. He is the head of the church, king of kings, and champion of the people. The idea is tried and true in fantasy fiction and I was drawing upon my nostalgia for books like the Belgariad by David Eddings. The story concerns the Dreamt Myriad as he mistakenly trusts the leader of the Eastern Kingdoms, a man whose position mirrors his own, a man called Tybrin, and thus dooms the Western Kingdoms. That is the cliff-notes version. Hopefully when you read the story in Sojourn V2 you will see the nuances that I thread into the story.

Now worldbuilding, at its heart, is all about making decisions. Macro decisions like “will this world be a literal flat earth” to micro decisions like “what is the economy of this dwarf village?” When you start making a world there are so many questions and so many decisions that you can start to feel overwhelmed. What are the religions? Are they monotheistic or polytheistic? Are the religions tolerant or intolerant? Are the gods real? How involved are the gods? What are the holy scriptures? Are women allowed to be priestesses? What is the preferred weapon for the clerics in my world? When you make a world, question begets question at a frightening rate?

Sometimes when starting out a new world I have gotten shell-shocked by the sheer amount of questions I had to answer to start laying the foundations of the world. Even when I started answering the the huge pile of questions I felt wrong when I did it. My decisions felt arbitrary and contradictory and I feared that in the future my decision were going to lead me into a creative dead end. Over the years of writing and worldbuilding I have developed a useful solution to solve this anxiety. The solution is to go back to my original idea, the spark that got me thinking about the world in the first place. If you examine your inspiration, often a large majority of the questions will fall into place.

Let’s use my world as an example. One decision that I struggled to make was whether the tone of my world was going to be nihilistic or romantic. What I mean by the word “tone” is how the world feels emotional. So was this going to be a romantic world where heroes are heroes and villains are villains. Or was this going to be like George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones where heroes are killed and the villains are rewarded for their cunning? This was a dilemma for me because I love both. I love the sheer emotional power  of romanticism! Those are the stories that just lift you off your feet and take you towards the adventure. Star Wars is a great example of unabashed romanticism and one of my personal favorites. On the other hand I love the complexity and the thought-inducing quality of nihilistic stories (I could not really decide on the correct term, a more apt term would be “postmodern” but that word is as loaded as a revolver so I decided to just go with nihilistic). I love both of them and if you forced me to choose the only real deciding factor would be the side of the bed I woke up on that day.

But if I go back to my inspiration as a guide, the decision becomes clearer. For my story I wanted the Dreamt Myriad to be the real deal. I didn’t want him to be a fraud or a buffoon. I wanted to show that even if one is chosen by prophecy then you can still mess everything up. I wanted to explore the idea that even the best of people can screw everything up for legitimate reasons (not because they are idiots or bastards). And in order to buffer that idea then the prophecies have to be true. And if the prophecies are true then most likely the tone is romantic.

There are no hard and fast rule. It is very possible that I could still have a nihilistic tone and then subvert that by having one prophecy, in a world of crack-pot prophecies, that can be the only true prophecy. That would still work and be beneficial to my goals. I decided upon the former simply because of personal preference. Your creativity will become enhanced tenfold the moment you break the unconscious box that you have erected around your work (I’ll talk more about this idea in future posts). The thing to understand about this process is that going back to your inspiration is not a way to find definitive answers. But the glorious thing that it does do is turns an arbitrary decision into an actual decision.

For my next installment I am going to figure out the major conflict in my world and decide what is it these Eastern and Western Kingdoms are fighting about. And if it will devolve into a snap fight like in West Side Story.