Worldbuilding: Is It What Your Story Needs?

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There’s nothing like writing a good story. All that drama playing out on the big screen or on page after page of your novel. All those characters, so colorful and engaging. All the magic and wonder of getting lost in someone else’s world, be it the starship Enterprise, a Carribean beach hotel, the halls of power in Washington, or the ancient palace of Queen Nefertiti.

Now, there’s usually one problem a lot of writers face with their stories, and that can be getting started.

I’ve been through it myself. And as someone who tried for many years to write a science fiction or fantasy novel, it can be brutal when you realize that you’re spending more time trying to flesh out your setting and less time crafting a good outline for your plot, or mapping character arcs. You hit that moment (or at least I have) when you find yourself with 3 to 4 new tabs open on Wikipedia, all so you can look up Alcubierre drives for starships, negative mass for how to power said drives, Dromaeosaurus for a dinosaur species to inspire your reptilian aliens, and Star Trek for any clue as to how Gene Roddenberry envisioned the warp drive working at all.

But then, take a step back. What we have are a lot of ideas with no real story or characters around them. I could write several paragraphs explaining what I’ve learned about faster-than-light travel, but unless you’re looking to learn about the physics of future spaceflight, your eyes might be glazing over at the thought of that jargon. And, to be sure, that’s what old-school “hard” science fiction used to be. Engineers and doctors who wrote in their spare time would write stories for each other, all technically explained and justified by scientists and engineers in dialogue, even as they’re being attacked by aliens or dragged through wormholes.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Worldbuilding can be useful. It just has to have a point to the narrative.

At the moment, I’ve been rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it’s a healthy reminder of how worldbuilding works. Almost too good, since you know every fantasy writer since Tolkien has wanted to show off their Middle-earth to the masses. But where did Tolkien’s world come from? It came from Nordic sagas, Old English poems, Celtic legends, Catholic spirituality, his lifetime’s work in philology, and his native West Midlands countryside. And while Tolkien does spend a lot of time describing the countryside as Frodo and his companions carry the One Ring closer to Mordor, he never gets too lost in his own woods. He introduces songs, legends, words of Elvish, and magical occurrences all in relation to the main plot. Everything has a point, even if it makes for three very dense books of prose and poetry.

At the same time, though, you can only build so much of your setting beforehand. I’ve written some of my best stories without knowing what the setting was apart from, say, a small town loosely modeled on my hometown, or perhaps a subway station that reminds me of the London Underground. The scene is set. I don’t really need to do ten thousand hours of research into when the Piccadilly line runs, or when certain buildings in my part of California were erected in relation to the 1994 Northridge earthquake. If I only need a subway or a small town setting for the purpose of staging two people having an argument or falling in love, then that’s all I need. People want to read about the tension between those people and how it’s resolved.

Tension matters. And if your setting can add or release that tension, like a couple having a fight in a rainy New York street, or a war-weary soldier stumbling across a mythical rural town that’s been hidden for centuries, then so much the better.

Mapping My Writing Style

It’s the first post of 2019 for me. A good time to look forward, to catch of a glimpse of new vistas, to sing of the body electric of new stories to be written and read and shared and reread.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the style of writing. Not just what we say, but how we say it. I’m focused on how we string words together, how we connect this sentence to that corresponding paragraph, and how we cause lines of text, black letters on white backdrops, to become images and full-fledged scenes inside our readers’ heads. We have our motifs, our formulas, our grammar, and our cadence. Some of us prefer to sound like we speak with a Received Pronounciation; others, like a Southern drawl on a muggy August evening; and still others, like voices raised against midday traffic on Fifth Avenue.

There’s all sorts to writing that I can’t put down a definitive list. So, instead, I’ll just focus on what I have in my writer’s toolbox.

  • Colorful female protagonists
  • References to Latinx culture and Catholicism
  • Social justice perspectives
  • Frequent LGBT romances
  • Vivid descriptions of scenery as an “establishing shot”
  • Multiple interior monologues
  • Third person limited POV
  • Use of dialogue to establish character and move the plot
  • References to Shakespeare, classic works of art and fiction, and pop culture
  • Low-stakes drama and comedy
  • Description of sunlight and interior lighting to establish mood

Looking over my own list, I can see a few points worth noting. For example, I write a lot in the language of TV and films, where I use establishing shots and key lighting to cultivate my settings. My scenes tend to center on two or more people engaged in a conversation, be it a love scene, an argument, an investigation, or a nightmare. I use my scene lighting and my dialogue to build up the overall mood of every scene, to evoke something straight out of German Expressionism.

And, sure, I did include some content here. Mostly recurring motifs. I write about women, I write about Latinos, I write about Catholic spirituality, and I write with an eye toward social justice. All things near and dear to my heart. I make allusions to Shakespeare and pop culture. I am sarcastic as hell, and so are my characters. I’ve written things that try to be big and adventurous, but really, I’d rather do something small and lighthearted.

Overall, I’d say that I write about people discussing things and growing because of their discussions. I write about feelings more than actions. Take a look at any of my stories, from my Digital Eyes, Family Ties anthology to some of my newer works, and you’ll see there’s a lot of depth to what a character might be feeling over how much action they’re accomplishing. You won’t find any James Patterson thrillers or Stephen King horrors in my work. I’ve nothing against those kind of authors, but I’m more the guy whose work you pick up when you’re sleepy and you just want to curl up with something not-so-heavy on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Style matters. Sure, you can give me a book that has more poetry than plot, and I can get bored real quick, but I also think that we can’t just write for the sake of driving a story from start to finish. We need to consider our native languages, our personal tones and phrases that keep popping up in everything we create.

Readers, if you’re also a writer, what’s your style like? Have you found yours yet, or are you trying something new this time around? Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

A Few Smart, Funny, Talented Women (And Why You Should Follow Them)

It’s the end of the year and, for me, it’s been a very interesting experience. I’ve served as a polling place worker in my local voting precinct, I volunteered with VoteRiders on getting their message out, I’ve made plenty of new friends, and I made some big strides against my long-term depression.

So, as 2018 draws to a close, I’d like to offer a spotlight on some of the people I’ve come to follow and appreciate on sites like WordPress, Twitter, and YouTube. In particular, I’d like to talk about the amazing women I’ve come to follow, whose insight into their personal and professional lives always give me something new to appreciate about the world.

1. Nicole Cliffe

For the brief, beautiful window of when it existed, I was a huge fan of the website The Toast. It was because of that site that I got to appreciate the work of writers like Danny Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe. I follow both on Twitter, but Nicole gets special mention here because of her work as the “Care and Feeding” advice columnist on Slate and her great, funny, and insightful commentary on random Reddit threads like r/AITA. She is a voice for human dignity and caring families that we need to hear now.

Nicole can be found on Twitter and Slate.

2. Gennifer Hutchison

It’s not a secret among people who know me that I adore the TV shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. The latter is about the only thing that keeps me coming back to watch cable TV anymore. And that show’s quality is thanks in no small part to the work of staff writers like Gennifer Hutchison. In particular, I enjoy following her on Twitter, where she talks about everything from her show to tips for first-time screenwriters to personal stories and thoughts.

Gennifer can be found on Twitter. Her current show, Better Call Saul, can be found on AMC.

3. Jourdain Searles

If you want film criticism from a perspective worth hearing, why try Jourdain Searles? I got into her once I learned she was dating Kyle Kallgren, a longtime favorite video essayist of mine on YouTube. Jourdain offers a healthy new look at movies, culture, and the world outside of the mainstream (i.e., white) lens.

Jourdain can be found on Twitter, Contently, and her website.

4. Jess Phoenix

I live in California’s 25th Congressional District, and I’m proud that my current representative-elect is Katie Kill. However, in the June 2018 primary, I voted for another candidate: Jess Phoenix.

Jess is a model for the kind of candidates for office we need right now. She’s a trained geologist with an active study of volcanoes, whose work on climate change inspires her to campaign on new energy solutions and other progressive ideals. I’m proud to have voted for her, and I hope that you’ll find inspiration in both her work on volcanology and her political commentary.

Jess can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and her website.

5. Shannon Coulter

If you don’t know Shannon Coulter, you might know about her handiwork. She’s a political activist who launched the #GrabYourWallet movement, which listed retailers and boycotted them for carrying or supporting any Trump Organization products. She also created a Web portal that allowed people to split their donations across several tight Democratic races for Congress this year. Her work is amazing, and I think she’s also great for putting a spotlight on other voices we need to hear.

Shannon can be found on Twitter, Medium, and the #GrabYourWallet site.

Honorary Mention: Jenny Holmquist

Jenny might not sound as familiar to you, but she’s a friend of mine from college (Go LMU Lions!). I’ve always liked her content, whether it’s gushing about fandoms she enjoys or getting real about her life’s milestones. She’s big into cosplay, and she’s also (at the time of this writing) an expectant mother! What’s not to love?

Jenny can be found on Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, and her website.

Thank you all for reading. Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and may we all meet again for a positive start in 2019!

How to Strengthen Your Story (With Dueling Genres)

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Story is about conflict.

Conflict is about competing interests or desires.

How do you get competing interests between characters?

It’s deceptively simple. You simply have to get characters to think that their story is different from everyone else. And then you have it that way.

Here’s an example for all you audio drama fans out there. I’m a huge fan of Alice Isn’t Dead (and currently loving the heck out of the novel written by Joseph Fink). This podcast is a great example of two genres competing for dominance.

On one side is our narrator, a lone trucker searching the empty highways of America for her missing wife Alice. For her, it’s a romance trying to stay alive in the wilderness. On the other side is the Thistle Man and other walking nightmares, who appear normal from a distance and monstrous up close and feed off poor travelers at rest stops and small towns across the nation. As you can see (or, since it’s a podcast, hear), we’ve got a protagonist who wants romance and an antagonist who wants horror.

This clash of needs, simple on paper, creates a powerful 3-season story.

Or take a story like Romeo and Juliet. The tragedy lies in the competing needs of the young lovers and their families. Romeo and Juliet want to be in love together, be it in life or in death. Their families want to win their ancient grudge match, which turns every interaction into something akin to a street fight or a political drama. If not for the family feud, there’d be only an awkward teenage romance for our couple. Instead, unable to escape their turmoil (and perhaps making poor decisions because of the extreme war), the two end up dead by play’s end and their families bitterly reconciling after the fact.

There’s always more than one story at work. Luke Skywalker thinks he’s on an epic quest to overthrow an empire and honor his Jedi legacy; Darth Vader thinks he’s a broken-hearted warrior restoring order to a galaxy that’s falling apart. Captain Kirk is out to regain his command and reconnect with his former lover and his son on a distant outpost; Khan Noonien Singh mourns his fallen wife and crew, and he seeks revenge on the captain who marooned him.

Depending on who wins the story determines the overall genre for the story. Gatsby loses his love interest and dies in a swimming pool, so that makes this a tragedy. Portia gets Antonio and Bassanio out of trouble with the law, so that makes their tale a comedy. It’s a question of clashing ideals, clashing desires, and clashing methods for success. It’s what makes every conflict so real in the great stories.

On a final note, I’ve found that this is actually a great way to build loglines as a writer. Loglines are those one-to-two-sentence elevator pitches, ones that usually start with “In a world where…” But in this case, it’s about telling your audience what kind of genres (or competiting interests) they’re in for.

Let’s look at a story like Hamlet. Consider this logline for the play:

When a ghost informs him of his father’s murder, a brooding prince must wrestle with how to avenge his father’s killer—his own uncle and the new king of Denmark.

What does this logline tell us about the story? First, that it is a revenge play. Second, that it has supernatural elements (i.e., the father’s ghost). And thirdly, that the antagonist is both Hamlet’s blood relative and a usurper to the throne. Again, remember that Hamlet and Claudius’s desires are from different genres. For Hamlet, this is a revenge plot, but a tragic one because it’s unfolding within his own royal family. For Claudius, this is a political drama in the vein of House of Cards, where he accrued power through lies and murder, and he fears his nephew’s interference in the new regime.

So, learn to change things around. Look for antagonists to be more than just cardboard cutouts or walking excuses for the hero to run into trouble. Tell us their story, even if we never see things from their perspective. And then, once you know what the hero’s goal is as well, you’ve defined both your contributing genres, your core conflict, and set up the ground for a (hopefully) great-selling pitch.

Writing for the “Oooh” Moment in Stories

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It’s hard to know some days when a story’s worth telling. You wake up, and for a split second, you have fragments of a dream that make you go, “Ooh, yeah!” So you jump on your notebook, or on your computer, and you start trying to build off those first few impressions. Several notes and a half-started draft later, you soon discover that, you know, maybe this isn’t all that big an idea anymore. I mean, isn’t the plot just cribbing off a big-ticket franchise like Star Wars or Romeo and Juliet? Haven’t we already seen this before?

There really is nothing new under the sun. Even Will Shakespeare knew this. He borrowed just as much from the legends and royal histories of his day, turning them into dramas and comedies we still obsess over and perform year after year. But he didn’t just give his audience that same legend they all read about, but “This time, it’s set in Florence!” He gave them something deeper than a mere retelling.

I’ve been trying to capture that element of writing for over three years now.

I call it the “Oooh” Moment.

What it is, essentially, is when you’re trying to develop a story idea and you find something that makes you excited. Because, ideally, if you’re excited about this idea, then your audience will be excited, too.

The “Oooh” Moment comes in a variety of ways. It can come before you’re started a single draft, or it could come in the middle of Chapter Thirteen, or it could happen right at the start of Draft No. 19. But when it happens, as a writer, you know when it happens and what it looks like.

Here are a few real-life “Oooh” Moments that I’ve experienced on different stories:

I like this plot, but the protagonist isn’t all that exciting. Oooh, wait, but what if we follow things from the love interest’s POV? Make it her story…!

“Hmm, good romance here, but this villain’s weak. Where’s the tension? What’s their end of the story? It’s almost like… oooh, wait that’s it! It’s Iago and Othello! Oh, yeah, and then that would make her Desdemona and him Michael Cassio…!

“So we’ve got these story prompts now. Okay, has to take place on a boat… there’s a tape recorder, running for an elected office, political drama… oooh! What if the boat belongs to a candidate on a mad expedition? Ok, and the tape recorder is how our narrator–the campaign manager–gives us the story! I gotta start writing now…”

If you’ve written enough fiction, long or short, you’ve probably run into these moments a number of times. You suddenly get this vision of What Could Be, and it gets you inspired to keep going. I know that some of these stories have worked once I found the “Oooh” Moment. That same excitement showed in my work, and when I gave it to my audience, they were just as hooked.

Of course, the hard part is knowing when you’ve stumbled onto such a moment. Be patient, though. It’s hard work, but if you find that kernel of energy in a story, then grab hold of it and hold it up for your audience, too.

So, what’s been your example of an “Oooh” Moment in a story? When did it happen? How far did you run with it? Share your experience in the comments below.