New Story in Progress: Witchwood

I’ve taken a bit of a break from the blog to work on a new book that somehow already has 20,000 words! I am not sure how that happened or when it happened to be honest. While it is nowhere near ready to hit the Worlds in Progress page, I’ll let y’all take a look at what its query might look like…

WITCHWOOD

They knew her as Crown Princess Blodwen Rydderch of Hearth– the woman born as the daughter of Hearth.  She would become the beating heart of the eight islands. As the last midnight bell tolled on her eighteenth birthday, she would look at the Ladies and Lords of the seven islands before her and choose who would rule beside her.

They knew her as resistance leader Raven– the woman born a witch’s daughter. Her mother long dead. Her birthright unknown. Her grievances against the crown carried on black wings out across the sea.

Only she knew they were one in the same.

When the resistance is cursed into the forms of the birds they once used, when they are caged by the crown they defied, when she is cast out by her father, Raven’s wings pull her into the safety of the Witchwood–where the Goddess lives and magic flows.

Pulling elements from The Seven Ravens, Snow White, and other beloved tales, Witchwood reaches into monarchy at the brink of change as it follows the generation who will dismantle a kingdom through nature, witchcraft, and embroidery.

(YA Fantasy, Estimated 80,000 words)

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Worldbuilding: Magical & Mundane

There comes a point in creating a magic system you have to decide: What is magical and what is mundane?

When I say magical there I mean the sort of magic that is hidden and reverent. The sort of magic that is spoken about in whispers and veneration. This is the magic kept secret and passed down and down and down until it is as much myth as magic. The magic that, despite being as real as anything else, has passed into legend.

Then there is the other sort of magic, the sort of magic imbued in everything a character does. It is in the sweep of a hand and a muttered word to light a fire. It is in the quick stitches to fix a pair of socks. It is in the glimmering songs sung to a child. The second nature magic. The everyday magic. This isn’t the magic beholden to a wizard in a secluded tower.

This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive– far from it. Instead, when creating a magic system for your world you need to find the line. Is your world the sort of place where you can hop down to the general store for a magically-imbued potion, or is it the sort of place where magicked healing is myth, a legend, something for your protagonist to search for?  Or can they go to the general store so some ailments, but others are far outside the reach of a local hedge witch’s power? It’s the middle ground– the magical mundane if you will.

My personal tastes run as magical as mundane. I love it when magic is within everyone’s grasp, not something confined to ivory towers, or blood, or some fated destiny. I’d much rather a story where magic runs through the world as immutable as life and death. Magic is not confined to that destined party of three who will save the world, it is with everyone, a force for all rather than a few. However, that’s just me.

To give yourself a grasp on where your line between the magical and the mundane is try a day long writing activity. Here is what you are going to do. For one day write down absolutely everything you do. Write down the minutia of your day. Seriously, if someone else was to read this account of your day, I would want them to think the phrase horrifying detail, then back away slowly.

At the end of your day, sit down with your list of activities and consider one of your WIP’s magic systems, then write down how a character would go about that in your world, what level of magic or mundane would they use for it.

For a quick example, let’s go with what is probably the first thing on people’s lists: waking up. My guess is you do this by an alarm clock or a phone or a combination of both. How do people in your work in progress wake up? Is it through mundane means, magical means, or magically mundane means?  I’ll use an example from one of my WIPs. Pulling from the victorian tradition of knocker-ups and combining it with some magic I’ve got some magically mundane ways of waking up. Rather than having people use sticks or batons to use slam onto doors to wake people up, used the fact that fire magic is prevalent in the area. The magicked up knocker-ups use itty bitty fireworks at windows to wake people up. Not the greatest job in the world, but not bad for a young mage in training.

You might be surprised at the solutions you come up with for everyday problems. How does your world deal with public transportation? Who makes bread? How is grain ground? What is your world’s sewage system? Is there a way to recycle? Where do clothes come from? Who mends them? Constantly ask yourself, could a character do this with magic? Then ask yourselves would a character do this with magic?  Are there systems in place for that? Is magic or mundane the answer?

I’m not saying that you need to include every single one of these in a story, unless you want to create a 10,000 page monstrosity of worldbuilding. However! Worldbuilding is in the details as much as it is in your hand drawn maps and your nation’s power structures. Worldbuilding is in the everyday. So if you want to show how magic permeates every aspect of life, than give us some examples. Show us the background of a rich, fully thought out world.

 

Writing Activity: Acrostic Playlist

Are you a music-enjoying nerd avoiding actually writing by looking through the writing tag on WordPress while pretending that counts as writing? Then I have the writing activity for you!

First choose a word from your work in progress. It could be a theme, a character’s name, a prominent object, your magical MacGuffin, or what have you…. For the examples I am going to use GUARDIAN, an Important with a capital I word from my Stone Spoken series.

Next, prepare your word with each letter on a separate line like so:

G

U

A

R

D

I

A

N

We will be doing an acrostic poem with a twist! If you can’t remember what an acrostic poem is from your school days, it’s a poem where the first letter of each line also spells out a word or short phrase.  Our twist here is that it is an… ACROSTIC PLAYLIST!

Rather than a line you make up, attempt to find a song title for each line. The best of these acrostic playlists will make a poem, musically match your work in progress, and have thematically appropriate lyrics. If you manage even one of those you are doing great. Good luck!

You can thank some insomnia for this boredom-bashing activity. As always leave a comment with your poem or link to your post if you want! I’ll give you two examples, both based on Guardian. 

Musically Thematic:

Gryphonheart

     by Jo Blankenburg

Unforgiven

     by Two Steps from Hell

Above and Beyond

     by Audiomachine

Rise

     by John Dreamer

Dream Chasers

     by Future World Music

Into Darkness

     by Thomas Bergersen

As One

     by LiquidCinema

Never Back Down

     by Two Steps from Hell

 

Bonus Challenge of Thematic Lyrics:

Gatekeeper

     by Aisha Burns

Until We God Down

     by Ruelle

All is Well

     by Austin Basham

Rescue My Heart

     by Liz Longley

Dear God

     by Lawless

In the Shadows

     by Amy Stroup

A Quiet Darkness

     by Houses

Need the Sun to Break

     by James Bay

 

Getting to Know Your Characters: New Year Edition

A writing exercise I enjoy is to pretend you are chatting with your characters. Imagine you are on an interview with them, out for coffee, or whiling away the hours in a park. Have a conversation with them. Let you be you and them be them.

Sometimes this can be done all in your head. Do you have a long bus ride? Start interrogating your characters about their life choices. Just don’t miss your stop. Other times, you might benefit from doing a free writing while thinking about this. Let your words and thoughts flow. My general advice for this is not to think too much. Go with your first instinct with a character’s answer. You might be surprised.

We’ve had a list of backstory related questions once upon a time, but let us begin this year with some New Year inspired questions.

  1. How do you celebrate the New Year?
  2. Do you have any traditions you do not celebrate anymore? Alternatively, how has your celebrations changed?
  3. What is your reaction to the phrase New Year, New You?
  4. Where do you see yourself at the end of this year?
  5. What goals did you accomplish last year?
  6. What goals did you not accomplish last year?
  7. How would you have approached last year differently if you could go back and do it again?
  8. What year would you consider your best year, and why?
  9. Is there anything you want to change about yourself this year?
  10. What does a new year mean to you?

 

Worldbuilding Aside:

While we are on the topic of the New Year, stop to consider how you arrange your year/time if you are writing speculative fiction! Is a year religion based? Season based? Celestial based? How do your characters measure time and dates?

Worldbuilding: Healthcare

If your character broke their leg how would they mend it? If they have a cough who would they see to heal it? If they had depression who could they talk to? Would they staunch their own wounds and hope for the best?

Healing can be confined to the few.

Healing can be given to all.

Your world, your rules.

Medicine can be easily accessible or it can be only for the the wealthy. There could be an underground for doctors and nurses. Healing could be taken from the people as a punishment. Medicine could keep people compliant– given out only as a reward. How does your government heal their people? Or does the government ignore the needs of its people?

Who has the power?

Sickness could shatter a person’s wealth as much as their health– keeping those without money from seeking out what they need. A cure could be too expensive for the common people. What do people sell to afford their life? What is the cost of just one band aid?

If you are writing a book with magic, is healing in the hands of magic-users or in the hands of scientists, or somewhere in between? Witches could brew up a potion to alleviate cramps. Wizards could charm a prosthetic to grow with a child. Mages could ward against malaria. Sorcerers could spell against seasonal affective disorder. Healers could treat gender dysphoria, sculpting bodies by magic.

Is the child mortality rate high? Is a pregnancy ripe with fear for the mother and the child? Is birth control accessible to all who need it? Is it available to people who are biologically female or male?  Hidden in back alleys, mages script a morning after spell because it’s disallowed by the crown. Witches create coven of midwives. Wizards draw protective runes across bellies.

Is mental health seen as a stigma? Do empaths work as counselors guiding their patients? Or are people left to suffer in silence, their minds betraying them, while pretending nothing is wrong?

Consider what sort of world you want to build.

What sort of world do you want your story to unfold in?

 

Worldbuilding: Birth, Death, and Cake

Imagine the scene: You, face alight with a fiery glow. Light flickers across your face, eyes closed in concentration as you focus your will. Onlookers chant in cadence. A rhythmic beat of friends and family surrounds you. Sibilant syllables flow around you hissing out your name. You take in a breath– a single breath. The chant grows. You release your will and your breath together. Smoke curls up in soft coils in front of you. Finally, finally the chant fades away. Taken up into the void by swirling smoke. You dive forward, glistening knife held in your hand, to begin the yearly sacrifice. You devour what is before you. Your year begins anew.

Or, you know, a traditional American birthday.

Cheers.

Unless you are a celestial being spawned from of primordial ooze, you have a birthday. I suppose even if you are a celestial being spawned from primordial ooze, you have a spawned from ooze day. You have a reason to celebrate coming into this world.

I recently read Krystina Castella’s A World of Cake: 150 Recipes for Sweet Traditions From Cultures Near and Far. In addition to some delightful recipes, the book is peppered with anecdotes of cake and culture across the globe. It seems inevitable, almost, to devote some time to the inexorable link between cake and birthdays, birthdays and cake. I will just say: CAKE. Personally, I almost always have a chocolate cherry cake for my birthday. Although this year, I might shake it up a bit because this book is wonderful and try something new.  (Update: I made tiramisu.) There are all sort of connections between food and life– food as a wellspring of life crops up in the inevitable traditions linking food and celebrations together. Bounty. Harvest. Plenty. Life. All these words, ideas, reasons to celebrate, fold together into life events. The tradition of marking a birthday crosses borders across the world.

The bookend to life, I suppose then, would be death. Food continues into death as well. Let us return to cake. When all else fails, always return to cake. We have celebrations with birthday cakes, name day cakes, quinceanera cakes, but cakes and food are not contained only to birth and life, but to death as well. A Thai tradition is to create a cookbook to share the deceased favorite meals and recipes with family and loved ones after their passing. We cannot forget the pan de muerto, sweet anise and orange flavored breads, made in the time leading up to Dia de los Muertos. The bread of the dead is eaten by loved ones and shared with the dead.

There are few things we can say cross all borders.  Food is one of those few things that connect us all. There is a unity to the people standing around a cake waiting for someone to make that first slice. There is a unity in handing out a piece of a whole to everyone in a family, to everyone in a community. There is a unity in food.

Writing Prompts: Summer Solstice

Today is a great day. Today marks the fact the days are going to start getting shorter. Come back to me chilly winds of autumn and winter. I am weary of such disgusting heat and it hasn’t even gotten that hot yet this year (where I live). Mostly, I cannot wait for the sun to set at a more reasonable hour, I say as I look outside at the bright 9:00 p.m. sky. Following up from the first line prompts for the Spring Equinox, I figured I’d keep it up and do a whole set this year. Have a dozen.

  1. Even on midsummer, she thought, the sun should set.
  1. Elderflower blossoms swirled atop his tea.
  1. “Gather herbs at the most potent,” they said, “on noon of the longest day.”
  1. A wreath of flowers drifted from her hands to rest on my head.
  1. The picnic lasted as long as the day.
  1. “Y’all can whine about the heat all you want, but I’m having a feast.”
  1. I lit the family fire for the first time.
  1. “And you thought building our own Stonehenge was silly,” he said, surveying the lopsided creation.
  1. She dressed the darkest on December 21st, but the brightest on June 21st.
  1. “I thought maypoles were put up, in you know, May?”
  1.  We watched the earliest sunrise crest the horizon, the lights painting the sky in a way we could never describe again.
  1. Quicker and quicker and quicker the dancers leapt around the fire; the crackling flames chased their steps.

Let’s Talk Names

Imagine, if you will, a person. This person has hope and dreams. This person has a past and a future. This person has a style and a voice. This person is one in several billion.

This person is… a person.

This person is your character and they need a name.

Imagine, if you will, a person. This person has hope and dreams. This person has a past and a future. This person has a style and a voice. This person is one in several billion.

This person is… a person.

This person is your character and they need a name.

If you could listen in on my writing process you would know that some video game boss music is playing right now and it is apt. Nothing puts me in more of an exhausted haze then trying to name the characters I will spend years with. This post may have something to do with a character’s fourth name change in five years. Nothing sounds right! I gave naming power over to one of my sisters and just told her to pick something because I’ve hated every version of her name.  She’s pleased she named a queen. I’m pleased I don’t have to think about it any more. It’s a win-win.

However, we can’t always outsource our naming responsibilities.

Let’s talk about reality for a moment. We don’t choose our name. At least not in the beginning. You get a little older and you can do whatever you want, but there at the beginning the naming falls into your caregiver’s hands. For something that is so pivotal in our lives, it isn’t our choice, not really.

With naming comes histories, expectations, and futures all rolled into one.  It’s a lot packed into just a few syllables. Consider your name. What does it say about you? Perhaps even more interestingly, what doesn’t it say about you?

I’m going to take a moment to deconstruct the name I’m most familiar with– mine. You’ll see most of it up in the website bar. Here it is in all it’s glory: Nicole Faith Getson.

I’ll start with the last name. Getson. There aren’t that many of us around. The story is that Goetz needed to be softened. Changed. Melted into the melting pot. The family adopted a different, Americanized version of the name. Goetz turned into Getson.

On to the middle name. When the first act of your life is almost dying, you end up with the name Faith. There are a whole category of these sorts of names. Names that mean things: Faith, Chastity, Honor, Charity, Grace, Hope, Justice, Patience, etc.. Virtue names echoing a puritan past. These names are a far cry from some names used in the past. If we were actually were Puritans in 1600s my name would have ended up being Safe-On-HighHere is another fun fact about my family: we aren’t particularly religious. When people hear my middle name, I get strange looks. Yes, indeed, I’m a walking misnomer! (Hi Mom! *waves* I can already feel your phone call. Talk to you soon. While I’m in the parentheses here, I’ll go ahead and paraphrase this phone call from my mother for you: “You can have faith in many things other than a higher power, including yourself.” Thanks Mom!)

Let’s move on to the first name– Nicole– the name most people everyday know me by. The name that is shouted to get my attention. Something I’ve learned over the years is that people assume my nickname is Nikki. It’s not. It’s Cole. If you need my name to be shortened, please refer to me as the combustible rock, thanks. Yes, yes, I know that is spelled coal.

I have the added bonus of a masculine nickname as a woman. My name takes people aback. I hear refrains of: “Are you sure it’s not Nikki?” The many years living my life assures me that no, that is not what my name is. I’ve also been told on multiple occasions that I am not a Nicole.  Every once in awhile a person will then rattle off a list of names that seem more like me. Emily usually ranks high on these lists and I am not sure why.

Please do not do this to people.

I REPEAT: DO NOT DO THIS TO PEOPLE.

A baby naming book is within arm’s reach of my desk. It hangs out on a side table beside my desk. It’s always there, hovering just out of my sight line, lurking, waiting for the next character for me to name. Waiting for me. Staring at me. Coming for me. This is why sometimes instead of trying to come up with names I send an email out to my Naming of Random Things Think Tank (PATENT PENDING) and they get to come up with a side character’s name, because I just cannot.

*boss music crescendos*

Names are a touchstone to a character. It’s often one of the first things we think of when considering a character it helps encompass all that makes them… them.

A character of mine changes his name half a dozen time over the course of one of my books. Being a poster child for identity crises, he uses these names to reinvent himself over and over and over. Each name settles him into a different culture and life. He switches his family name from first to last and back again. He changes how the vowels are pronounced. He changes where the emphasis is, all as he figures out who he is and where he fits into the world.

There is also a lot to unpack in a name. People don’t appear one day at the beginning of their most interesting plot points. They were born and given a name, maybe they changed their name, maybe they have a nickname, maybe they gave up their family name, maybe and maybe and maybe… there are so many options here that give a glimpse into both a character’s backstory and the world.

First Line Prompts: Now With Added Dragons

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a princess in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a dragon.

Do you ever think to yourself while reading a book, let’s add dragons? I certainly have. Here are ten of American Book Review’s Best First Lines for your first line writing prompts this week, now with added dragons.

  1. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a princess in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a dragon.
  1. Happy dragons are all alike; every unhappy dragon is unhappy in its own way.
  1. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by any other dragon, these scales must show.
  1. There was a dragon called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
  1. He was an old dragon who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
  1. A dragon’s life has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
  1. Once upon a time, there was a dragon who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
  1. Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, are dragons.
  1. Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of a dragon.
  1. I have never begun a novel with more dragons.

Bonus round: It was a pleasure to burn.

As always, drop a link in the comments if you want to share your dragons!

 

My Publishing Dragons

If it doesn’t happen now, it never will.

If you haven’t been on the writerly twitter cycle recently Alyssa Wong talked a bit about youth success stories in writing. Then some other writers talked about it, so now I’m going to have some 20s something unpublished writer feelings about it…

I was eleven years old when Eragon was republished in a pivotal moment in my development as a young writer. Here was this kid not much older than me that had a book series already published. I read it in astonishment. Then I picked it apart finding the barely veiled references to The Belgariad, Lord of the Rings, Dragonlance, and Star Wars. I read it disgruntled and annoyed. After the movie came out, every time I went into another bookstore covered in Eragon merchandise, my soul died a little. I scribbled what would be baby’s first book– a laughably terrible story I’ve written about before.

I would like to say that I ran Eragon out of my mind, but for years it was there, a tiny blue dragon nibbling away at my conscious. I wrote and wrote and wrote chased by a sapphire dragon. I gave friends bits and pieces of stories to read. Stories about princesses transforming into fairies. Stories about death and family. Stories about women wizards and warriors. However, no matter what I wrote, a winged shadow ran after me.

Someone gave me a copy of Eldest when it came out, I flipped through it, reading past the Elven world and into what I thought it said about the world of publishing. Now the dragon hounding me flared red. Scarlet. Jaws open ready to snap me up if I dropped from my breakneck sprint. I kept hearing about the writing success stories of young people. 

Looking back now, I had an unhealthy obsession with it publishing young. Take a breath.

Brisingr arrived as Eragon fever subsided, the movie had come and gone. Bookstores, no longer swathed in blue and red, returned to their old ways. It was a moment of relief to watch it subside. For a moment I slowed down. I didn’t have to be an overnight success as a teenager. Even still, whispers still echoed around me. Publish at 13. 14. 15. Publish now. Publish. Publish. Publish.

If it doesn’t happen now, it never will.

Dragon’s fire curled around my feet.

Dragon’s fire twined around my legs.

Fiery branches ensnaring me.

Creeping up, up, up.

If it doesn’t happen now, it never will.

In high school, I garnered up enough courage to give friends a whole finished manuscript– 300 pages of elemental magic, loneliness, and shadows. I still get inquiries about the main character. What happened to Ana? Last thing they read she blew up atop a tower– the end of the book a blaze of magic and anger. I don’t know, I wanted to say, but instead I give them a mischievous smile, Maybe one day you’ll find out. *

I discovered Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown around this time. I found it in a bookstore that only existed in my hometown for about a month before disappearing. As I never remember seeing anyone else in the bookstore, I imagine it appeared in my time of need, spat out the books I needed, and disappeared into the wind– A fairy godmother made of dust and paperbacks. Aerin became my unwitting guide during my teenage years. I read it when I needed solace, lady knights, and above all dragon slaying.

Meanwhile, Inheritance came out the year I graduated high school. I never bothered reading it. For a moment the dragons pursuing me dropped below the horizon unseen.

Years passed as they do. With whispers still swirling: If it doesn’t happen now, it never will. Publish. Publish. Publish.

So…One of my first acts after graduating from college? Querying a fantasy novel .

I was a recent unemployed grad with a degree I ended up not wanting to go into and a book I thought was not atrocious. What else is a girl supposed to do? I didn’t know what else to do. (I mean I still don’t know what I’m doing, but now at least I’m employed.)

Within hours of sending out my first query, I received a partial manuscript request. I am not exaggerating about this here. It might even have been less than an hour. I tell people this bit of my life and they look at me in shock. Trust me, I was too. I expected silence. Instead of automatically replying, I went to the grocery store and ate too many cheese samples. I returned to my email and became even more amazed to see I was not hallucinating. It was still in my inbox.  

I didn’t get that agent and I don’t have an agent. Nothing went past that initial partial request save a polite no thanks little buddy, good luck. Getting what amounted to a form rejection on a manuscript hurt, but I deserved it. This isn’t my self-hatred and self-deprecation speaking. I really did.

I put that manuscript in a metaphorical dusty drawer for a while. Go think about what you have done, I told it. A few years later and I am typing this blog post up, so thankful for that rejection (and the few others that didn’t ask for any bit of my manuscript). It shouldn’t have gone anywhere. Impatience forced my hand. That dragon had not dropped below the horizon, it was right on my tail, only invisible. Stealth +100. My pursuer still whispered in arcane tones: If it doesn’t happen now, it never will. 

In that time when my manuscript was in detention? I wrote and wrote and wrote. Don’t get me wrong I sometimes wondered if I should ignore my gut and query again. But, in those years, with that manuscript hiding from me, no, I will be honest… me hiding from it, I found a voice that was mine. My writing changed. Evolved. Perhaps even improved.

I’ve pulled out that manuscript again, because I think there is something there. Something in the bones of the story even if the writing needs work. Working through it, chapter by chapter, pulling out the pieces that work and the pieces of nonsense, I’m making something better. I am making something that I could not have made years ago.

Take that, dragons.

* It’s been a decade in the making, but I know what happens to Ana. So I repeat: Maybe one day you’ll find out.