Creating Your World Without Sacrificing Plot

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For some writers, setting and descriptive detail are a piece of cake. My best writer-friend, for example, thrives in the sci-fi and steampunk genre due to her intricately designed universes and strangely warped alternative timelines. Come to think of it, I’m not entirely positive she has written one piece of “realistic” fiction during the course of our six years of friendship. While her dialog is often a bit choppy and awkward, her use of imagery and compelling language tends to rope you into her universe before the end of the first page.

      For others of us, creating an entire universe is no easy feat. Tweaking the world I occupy currently? Sure, I could do that all day. I could provide intricate, in-depth descriptions of the coffee shop the couple is quietly arguing at, or describe an abandoned insane asylum in such expressive detail a reader can imagine the cobwebs in the corner. Creating entire towns within cities within worlds though? Please, someone tell me, what the hell was I thinking?

      It all started when I decided to work on my latest novel idea for last month’s Camp NANOWRIMO. Though I tend to lean more towards horror and dark fiction writing, I found myself drawn to a compelling plot landing closer to the dystopian fantasy end of the spectrum. Though I tried ignoring the idea at first, after day three it became pretty clear this story wanted to be written. So, I sat down to do what any semi-professional tries to do: research and pre-writing, working on crafting my world and characters before beginning the novel.

      Within the first hour, I wanted to slam my face into my keyboard.

      Luckily, I made it through, and it only took me until 4 A.M. (sorry, honey!). While it requires a lot of originality and creative thought, creating your world can be almost as fun as creating and getting to know your characters! Here are some fun little tips to help anyone like me, who might be better with character development and dialog than the setting.

      1. Draw a map of your story’s world. If you’re anything like me, this will feel kind of silly to you at first. After all, we are writers, not artists. However, when creating a new world composed up of smaller towns and cities or villages, it can be easy to get it all confused or lose track of where you were or what belongs where. Readers will be confused if your character initially lives on the north side of an urban city, only to suddenly begin describing his life in the east part of town. By drawing yourself a map with a small index key, you simplify your own writing process as you navigate throughout different parts of your world.

      2. Don’t freak yourself out by over-researching before you start writing. I am guilty as all hell of this one, which is why I know it’s a valuable tip (if you can help yourself)! When we first begin developing an idea, many of us rush to start researching so we can hopefully pack in as much detail and accuracy as possible. While working on my dystopian universe, for example, I found myself spending hours on Google and Pintrest looking up themes and inspiration, which was tons of fun! However, when I started the research, I had a very different idea of where this novel was going then after putting the computer away for the night. While research is an important part of the writing process, too much research too early into your draft can lead to distorting the story in an attempt to incorporate the research. I personally find it much easier to do research for my short stories and novels as I write them, or even after jotting down the initial first draft. This way, the research is used to support what I have already written instead of suggesting what I should write.

      3. Consider all of the different aspects of your world. While the sensory details and setting are important, there’s a lot more that goes into creating an alternate world. What is the history of your world? Who is in charge of creating and enforcing the laws? What are the laws, and what type of punishments do lawbreakers face? Is religion present? Technology? Mythology? Magical or supernatural elements? Does your fantasy world ever intersect with the world we live in? What happens if it does?

      4. Familiarize yourself with the worlds other writers have created. What elements of craft does J.K. Rowling use to make Hogwarts and the wizarding world come to life and feel real for the reader? How does Tolkien transport readers into the Shire? What techniques do you need to practice to create your very own Wonderland or Westeros?

      5. Don’t be afraid to borrow from things you know and understand. While you might not know anything about mysterious elves or zombie apocalypses or practicing magic, you can fake it to an extent. After all, this is your world and your story. Having trouble coming up with a futuristic device for your badass alien assassin? Don’t be afraid to pull inspiration from the world around you. Maybe the aliens don’t use .45s these days, but that doesn’t mean the plasma laser can’t possess the same shape and basic mechanics. Hell, if you’re feeling especially clever or creative that day, find ways to repurpose common household items. I can’t tell you how many neat futuristic devices I’ve written about after an almost deadly encounter with a child’s toy in the middle of the night. It’s common knowledge in this world that Legos were sent to kill parents. Why not look at that creepy Furby you’ve hidden in the back of your closet and use it to inspire your next creature of terror? As long as you do your job right, your readers will never know how you created such a fearsome monster, and you can throw the little ball of evil away when you’re finished exploiting its ideas.

      6. Do your best to avoid the cliches and stereotypes. It’s incredibly easy to get caught writing what has already been done a million times: damsels in distress and white knights coming to their rescue, sad orphans who go on to be the “Chosen One,” one-dimensional characters who all look and act suspiciously alike…honestly, it gets really freaking boring to read the same plot over and over with different details. While the stereotypes and archetypes have been popular for centuries, and provide a great template for how to structure your world a bit, you want to make sure your world is unique to your plot and characters. If you happen to write a novel about a group of three magical teenagers with special powers who all go to school together to learn to use their powers, but one boy is somehow the Chosen One born to save the magical community…you’re already dangerously close to essentially writing Harry Potter fanfic. If fanfic is your genre of choice, awesome! If you’re attempting to create your own story with unique characters and plot, though, you might want to rethink that idea. While reading is a great place to find inspiration and ideas, be careful not to duplicate another writer’s world or fill it full of stereotypes and cliches. Much like no two countries are the same, no two fantasy worlds should be either.

      7. Give your world character! No, not characters (although we’ll add those later), but character of its own. To create great fiction, your world and setting need to come alive from the beginning. Think of your setting almost like an invisible character of its own. What is the biography or history of your setting? How has it changed over time? What changes are anticipated to come? How does your setting affect the way your characters feel or behave? The two biggest pieces of advice from my undergraduate studies I try to incorporate often are that settings should have imperfect histories much like characters, and sensory details should be linked to emotions. Instead of just telling us it is raining outside, tell us how the rain feels and smells to your main character. Does your character have any special memories about rain in this particular spot? Does your character feel a knot in his stomach every time he passes the burnt down library, or a spark of happiness every time she enters the dining hall? Share those details with your reader, helping them connect to your world as much as you have.

      8. Above all else, remember your setting and world are not your entire story! Even though you might have created a fantasy universe you really love, the world is there to support the plot and characters, not overtake them. Build your world around your story and characters in a way that serves their needs. Don’t be afraid to cut out parts that aren’t necessary or don’t add to the plot, regardless of how cool they might seem or how fun they were to write. Remember, you’re writing a fiction novel, not a LOTR world guide. Use action and dialog to explore your world and draw your reader in. Keep in mind, the reader is there for the plot and characters. The kick-ass world you spent weeks making is just a supporting detail at the end of the day, as much as that breaks my heart to acknowledge.

              Planning and world creation are supposed to be the “fun parts” of writing (or so I keep getting told). If you find yourself pulling your hair out trying to figure out how to squish it all together, set it down for a while. Come back to it later, when you feel relaxed and ready to spend time exploring the inner workings of your imagination. It takes practice, but if authors like Rowling and Tolkien have shown us anything, it’s that well-crafted worlds can live on with readers for years to come. I’m off to go work on the pieces to my fantasy puzzle now. Happy writing, everyone!

Writing with Distractions: When the “Real World” Screws Your Creativity

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      If you’re anything like me, writing during the summer months can feel particularly challenging. Between the warm weather and all of the opportunities to socialize, finding the time to sit down and write can feel like climbing a mountain. Imagine this: you’re on a crowded bus or in the middle of a social event when inspiration suddenly strikes you. This person would make a great anti-hero, or perhaps this setting would be perfect for that one scene in that one story you’re working on. You end up shifting in your seat, biting your nails anxiously waiting for this to finally be over, waiting for the ability to make it back to your journal/laptop/typewriter to start bringing your ideas to life. You race home, full of excitement and inspiration…

…only to remember you live with your children/roommates/spouse, or you left the dishes in the sink in your hurry to leave earlier, or there’s just too much background noise and distraction for you to focus on actually honing your craft. Believe me, I get it. As I write this, there are little squeals and shrieks filling my home as the children play. Later tonight, my partner will be home excited to discuss the events of his day, regardless of what I seem to be working on. Our two fur-babies seem to have the most interest in cuddling on my lap when I’ve opened up my laptop to do something productive. Every few minutes, my focus will be torn away by a cry for mommy, or a cat attempting to climb across the keys, or the occasional loud conversation from the neighbors above us.

      All of this is, of course, an attempt to pretend I don’t get distracted by social media surfing and memes.

      So, what’s a writer to do living in a world full of distractions? Do we stifle the creative thinking in an attempt to be more present and engaged with our surroundings? Do we do our best to remember our ideas and place them on a back-burner until we finally find some time for ourselves? (Okay, seriously, if your life is anything like mine I do not advocate that last idea; you’ll never write anything down but ideas.) How can you tune out the sights and sounds of your environment long enough to accomplish your writing goals? Well, friends, buckle up, because I’m about to tell you how to get away with writing through distractions, otherwise known as making crazy creativity look normal.

      The first suggestion would be to try to limit your distractions. If you’re anything like me, you just read that last line and snorted, possibly even rolling your eyes. Don’t worry, I get it. It’s not like you can just send the kids off for a month long camping trip in the woods, or teach the dog how to use the toilet like everyone else. Distractions are going to happen, no doubt about it, and you can’t always turn your back on them or tune them out. However, not every distraction is unavoidable, or life and death in that moment. Don’t be afraid to tell your family, “Hey, I’ve got some work to do tonight, so I’ll be in my room/office/special chair for a while. Please only bother me if someone is literally dying.” Do your best to ask for support where you need it and limit the number of times someone breaks your concentration to ask for an extra juice box.

      If you notice you’re still struggling to focus even when you finally manage to lock yourself away for a bit of alone time, don’t be timid about switching up your rituals and routine to discover why. I once knew a girl who used music to help her fall into her “creativity zone.” She would spend hours building playlists of music she thought she’d enjoy writing to. Most of the time, however, she would then find herself tabbing out of her writing software to skip or change songs she found distracting. Eventually, she realized she was spending more time and focus on creating her writing playlists and finding acceptable tunes than she actually was writing. She switched over to listening to electronica (is it still called that? Pretty sure that’s still what the kids are calling it) while working, and her productivity has never been higher. When I asked her why, she laughed and told me, “Since I don’t listen to this stuff in my car or for fun or whatever, I don’t really have an attachment to what song plays next. When I’m in my zone and focused, it all honestly sounds the same to me.” While serious amounts of bass and auto-tune may not be the magic solution to improving your concentration, making small changes to your routine can help you cut out unnecessary distractions and time-wasters, an invaluable action when free time can be so difficult to come by in the first place.

      If Facebook and Twitter seem to be more your weakness, you’re not alone in that either. Social media has become one of the easiest ways to keep in touch with friends and network, but it can also present a major source of inattention for many of us hoping to be productive on the internet. Just “checking in” or “reading this one article really quickly” can quickly turn into two hours spent browsing memes and replying to comments, only to realize you’re out of time and you’ve written little besides your name on the page. The easiest answer? Shut that shit down. Close out all of your internet browser tabs before even opening your Word document; you’ll thank yourself later. Does that require a bit more willpower than you’re capable of? No worries, thanks to living in the age of technology, there are tons of apps and software available to help writers focus and limit distractions. While Microsoft Word may be the most familiar and easiest to use for most new writers, software such as Scrivener and Ulysses help writers limit distractions while fully engaging in the creation of their story (if figuring out the software itself doesn’t pose too much of a distraction!). Full-screening your word processing software can help minimize webpages and apps in the background just begging for your attention.

      Visual clutter can be as much of a distraction as having a three-year-old in your lap enthusiastically blabbing on about the bird they just drew. For me, nothing kills my motivation and creativity quite as quickly as slipping into my office, only to notice the empty cups piled on the desk or the pile of little papers all over the room I’ve scribbled notes on. While it can be tempting to start organizing that pile of sticky notes or washing the dishes before they pile up, don’t. Trust me. Just find a way to shove them out of your line of vision for now. I promise, that trash will still be waiting for you later when your house is too unsettled to concentrate on writing. If you’re anything like me, tidying up this one little thing will somehow turn into hours spent rearranging and cleaning your house, and while your office might shine you’ll have little else to show for it.

      But what about those times when writing is just not an option? Is there a way to continue working on your craft while supervising the small children with paint at the kitchen table? Well…yes and no. For me personally, there is no way I can focus on developing my plot or characters while the kids are climbing all over me. I’ve tried countless times throughout the years, but little people have a talent for demanding the majority of your focus and attention while they’re up and about. However, this doesn’t mean I have to put all of my creativity to rest until bed time rolls around. Instead, I find other ways to work on my story, things that require less focus and concentration than the actual writing part. Sure, I may not be able to churn out my quick-paced action scene while cooking dinner for the family, but I can use that time for researching parts of my story I need more information to write, or doing lesser character-development exercises. Occasionally, I can even accomplish my first round of edits and cuts while attending a tea party with Barbie and her friends. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying it’s possible.

      In the end, you have to want it badly enough to make it work and find a way to juggle your work/life balance (or, in the case of many writers, work/work/life) that leaves enough time to perfect your craft distraction-free. You have to be willing to turn off the television, or tell your friend “not today” from time to time. Until we find a way to transport writers and artistic types to another planet to do their work distraction-free, one of the most challenging parts of writing will always be finding a way to squish time for your passion in with the rest of your life. While there are days it might all seem impossible, believe me when I say it CAN be done.

It just might require an extra couple of cups of coffee.

Ditch Those Cardboard Characters: How to Write More Realistic Characters in Fiction

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      Imagine yourself as a reader who has just spent $10 or so on a new book. You open it and read it through, excited to see what twists and turns the author has laid out for you. The plot is intricate and engaging, the setting dynamic and full of beautiful detail and imagery, and at first things seem to be going perfect. There’s just one tiny little problem: you aren’t really crazy about the protagonist.

      The main character is this perfect guy or gal who lives this fairly comfortable life. Or, perhaps he is a complete underdog who is consistently dealing with the deck being stacked against him. Either way, they happen to always make the right choice. They are incredibly attractive, successful, and talented, even if the world hasn’t figured it out yet. Perhaps even the villains fall a bit flat, portraying an image of evil for the sake of pure evil. Though the book had potential to be one of your favorites, you walk away feeling pretty….let down.

      Shout it from the rooftops, one of the most important things you can remember when writing fiction is that people are not flat and one-dimensional. They seldom do things for only one motivation or are driven by only one force. Black-and-white answers to problems are almost as rare as miracles. Humans are messy, complicated creatures. That’s what makes them so interesting to read and write about. The fact is, no one wants to read about a hero’s journey where the hero doesn’t change or learn anything. Maybe the hero has a massive fear of public speaking he has to face to get his message across to the world. Maybe she’s a wee bit forgetful and happens to miss an important engagement and hurt someone’s feelings. Maybe he just lies, often, and can’t seem to figure out why. When it comes to crafting characters, I like to think back to people I know in the “real world.” What makes them so interesting to be around? What are some of their weird quirks and habits? What massive contradictions exist within their personality? Is she a hardcore feminist with a secret nostalgia for the 1950s? Maybe he’s a bit of a misogynist because he secretly believes women are smarter. The possibilities are endless when it comes to creating depth within your characters.

      For me personally, I find the same to be true of antagonists and villains. Being evil for the sake of evil is a bit overrated, and doesn’t honestly make a whole lot of sense in the real world. Why is this person so hell-bent on stopping our hero from reaching their goals? Is it self-preservation? Was there a defining moment that upset our antagonist enough to turn towards the dark side? Maybe, in a different lighting, the “bad guy’s” motives are even understandable. Maybe he believes he’s saving society, or doing what he must because no one else is willing. While it might seem counter-intuitive to create sympathy for your antagonist, it makes for a much more interesting story for the reader. Off the top of my head, a great example of this is the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Without giving too much away (spoiler alert!), there are several different antagonists introduced throughout the series. All have their own motives for their not-so-ethical behavior, despite their opposition to the MC’s goals. The problem is, even though you can see where all of them are coming from, they are all still pretty bad guys. You’re left with watching the MC attempt to choose between the lesser of all of the evils. It’s unsettling, sure…but so is life, which is what made it a great story.

      As I write this, I am staring at the manuscript open in another document, wondering if there is enough depth to some of my background characters. While I am often mindful of the detail I add into my protagonist, the supporting characters have a habit of falling a bit flat at times. Thankfully, I have the rest of this summer to focus on NANOWRIMO and edits. For now, I think I’ll brew a pot of coffee and return to my book. After all, the best writing often comes from intensive reading.

Be well!

And So, it Begins: Camp NANOWRIMO

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      Every November, there is something I become insanely excited about. By the time I’m done blabbing everyone’s ears off about it, my family is begging me to stop. I hole up in my bedroom for the entire month, candles lit and soft Celtic music playing as I convince my family I have become a hibernating bear. If you realized I was talking about NANOWRIMO and not Thanksgiving (ugh), you probably understand exactly what I mean.

      However, NANOWRIMO always ends in tears and frustration for me during the month of November. As much as I try to plan and plot and force it to work out, November is a nonstop month of chaos for me and unfinished drafts end up littering my hard drive. Between Thanksgiving and family visits, the twins’ birthday, and my always slammed school schedule I seem to be lucky if I get 25,000 words down in the month. I always end up kicking myself, telling myself I’d be amazing if only it weren’t in November.

      Enter Camp NANOWRIMO, also known as my saving grace.

      I found out about Camp NANOWRIMO earlier this year. As if someone heard our pleas, they created two month-long summer sessions (or “camps”) with word counts and project types picked by you. Score! You also get sorted into a “cabin,” or a group of people writing in a similar genre to you. Socially active cabins are a great way to network with other writers and provide that little boost of motivation you need in the middle of a challenging writing session.

      I participated in a camp for the first time in April, and I had a blast. Now, I’m sure what you’re all really wondering is if I actually finished 50,000 words. In the spirit of honesty, no…at the 36,000 mark I got distracted by sections that needed major editing (which then turned into rewrites). That novel is still in the editing phase, though it is not the one I plan to crank out this camp session.

      Something about the month of July and Camp NANOWRIMO feels like the perfect time to work on a new YA novel idea I’ve been toying with. In true Ivy Leahill style, it involves some genre blending I’m not sure will work out in the end, but I’m excited to give it a go! What are your creative projects this summer? Are you participating in NANO? Drop a line!

Want to be a Better Writer? Read.

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      I picked up a new book today. I’d like to say I am incredibly excited about breaking it open, but that would be a straight-up lie. I happened to come across a discount book bin outside of a craft store, and it felt immoral to not pick up a few books at less than a dollar a piece. The only downside? None of the choices were books I would have picked out on my own in a Barnes and Noble or even the public library. Still, I picked out two that seemed to have the least visible signs of damage and wandered my way back home, intent on burying my face in some classic literature for the evening.

      I made it through the first chapter, to my credit. After about half an hour, though, I found my attention fading. Did I remember to turn off the oven? What did I need to pick up at the store before dinner? What is the cat doing over there? Knowing myself well enough to realize my A.D.D. Was kicking in, I closed the dusty pages and pulled out my tablet for a change of pace.

      The thing is, I still intend to finish both of those books. It won’t be enjoyable, per say. It’ll be almost like an assigned reading project back in high school. But that is totally okay. Eventually both of those books will have a permanent place in my memory and on my bookshelf, and I will be lost in new literary adventures.

      The advice is almost as old as the craft itself: writers need to read. A lot. Sadly, this doesn’t just mean reading what happens to interest us or what we enjoy. Writers need to read everything from reference books to magazines and nonfiction to classic and contemporary literature. Reading improves a writer’s active vocabulary and grasp of the language. It introduces you to new words and new styles of writing. It can inspire new ideas for your own writing, or simply show you a different way of approaching a story.

      Reading is also a fabulous way to connect with others. It gives you the opportunity to find out what other people are reading, or expose friends and family members to books that inspired you or your work. I lived with a girl once who would insist to everyone we’d meet they had to read “the book that changed her life.” While not every article you come across online is going to massively alter your life in some way, it can alter your level of ability as a writer.

      So go dust off those old romance novels your mother so lovingly donated to you before you abandoned them. Go find that book your friend recommended that you’ve “totally been meaning to get around to,” or hell, open up a magazine at the checkout counter in the grocery store. Wherever you find the words, read. Study your craft, and you’ll be amazed at how much better you reproduce it.

Happy weekend!

Keeping Short Stories Short

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Have you ever had that frustrating moment where you sit down to write the perfect short story for a submission or contest, only to feel like you have no choice but to write a novel (or, if you’re anything like me, a series)? Maybe the contest you’re entering calls for 3,000 words, but you can’t help yourself and end up with 10,000 in the first weekend. Friends, I completely feel your struggle. Sometimes, you just can’t help but build that world and fully flush out those characters.

Keeping the short story short can be difficult, especially for those of us who naturally gravitate towards writing novels. However, sometimes we find ourselves wanting to tell big stories in small spaces. Writing a short story can be quite a different beast from a novel. Pacing has to be quicker, and characters have to be developed faster. It can be frustrating trying to perfect what my sister now calls the “word count crisis.” Here are a few little tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way, mostly by trial and (a lot of) error.

  1. Avoid anything that requires a lot of world-building. I know, this one breaks my heart too. I love my fantasy as much as any writer. I love sci-fi possibly more. In a short story, however, there just isn’t always enough space to set it up convincingly. While I’ve read plenty of amazing short stories from both genres, I am sure this was no small feat for the writer to piece together in such a small space. If you’re feeling bold, by all means, give it a whirl! For me personally, though, I’ve found anytime I set out to write a fantasy short story I wind up with a novella.
  2. Focus on one “crisis.” When you’re writing a novel, you have the freedom to introduce more complex conflicts and resolutions. With a short story, you have somewhere between 1,000 and 8,000 words to introduce and resolve the conflict. That might be pretty difficult if you try adding in copious amounts of backstory, or an overly complicated conflict. I’ve found it easier to stick within my word count when I focus on one major turning point or conflict in my character’s life.
  3. Cut the fluff. This goes back to editing being a tear-jerking process for some of us, but I would argue it matters even more in short stories than it does in novels. If a scene is not serving your story, or if it happens to be full of fluff, cut it and don’t look back. Every word chosen needs to serve the plot and drive the characters forward. If it doesn’t seem like an overly important scene, it probably does not belong in your final draft.
  4. Avoid introducing too many characters. While readers might love having 4 main characters in your novel, in a short story it can just become confusing to try to keep multiple characters straight. It can also cause your reader to struggle to connect with your MC if there is too much else going on. Keep it simple. If the character does not drive the plot forward, or if you can do it without them, cut the character.
  5. Telling is (finally) okay. We hear all the time in writing, “show, don’t tell.” This is perfect advice for adding sensory details and intrigue to novels, but it isn’t always possible with flash fiction or short stories. Don’t be afraid to tell your reader some of what is going on, or why things are the way they are. On the other hand, trust your reader to fill in the descriptive details you might have to leave out.

 

So, there you have it. I plan to work on cranking out a few more short stories between now and July’s writing month, simply to practice the craft. Though it may not come easily or naturally to you, even the epic writer can craft a compelling short with enough practice. Happy weekend!