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What Makes a Fictional World?

The beauty of writing speculative fiction is that anything is possible. Magic. Time Travel. World peace… (is it too cynical to think that the two formers are more possible in our real world than the latter? #writerprobs #historyteacherprobs) …and, while working in a world that will be shaped by your hand means the possibilities are endless, it also means that you have to play god, and literally build a world from scratch.

How the hell do you do that? Simple. And, lo, on the seventh day, god researched!

Writers research, period. Authenticity is key, regardless of whether you are writing realistic or fantasy driven fiction. While authors writing crime drama need to understand the mechanics of police procedure and writers of historical fiction need to understand the protocols of social status and gender, they both have the luxury of using anecdotal and empirical evidence to help them write authentically. Spec writers… well, we just make shit up, right?

Wrong. Well… kinda wrong. Wrongish.

You cannot just create matter from nothing. All cells come from previous cells. As too, with speculative fiction; you don’t just create something from nothing. The facets of the real world serve as our inspiration for fantasy worlds. The conflict that develops in fantasy setting may be fueled by metaphysical, magical, or technological issues, but it all stems from issues we encounter as real world people. Any fan of Star Trek: the Original Series will tell you that what made the show so amazing was its ability to take real world, contemporary issues and work them into a science fiction context. Species were based on cultures of Earth, albeit some were done in woefully poor and racist taste. Religious, ethical, political, ecological, cultural, and economic issues were not limited to human beings — they impacted species across the universe.

If there is one universal truth, it is that sentient beings, no matter how utopian and peaceful their society is, will always have shit to fight about. And that brings me back to my point: some aspects of the real world are universal to any society. If you want to build a fictional world, you have to start with a foundation, a template, and customize from there.

“If you’ve done your due diligence when building your fictional world, it will bleed into your writing without any great effort on your part.”

So, what makes a world? Here is the basic structure of any society, regardless of time period, culture, or race.

  • Setting
  • Political & Economic system
  • Shared cultural beliefs
  • Science & Technology

Setting

The variables of setting are very important to your world, and can either structure your world, or limit the possibilities. One of the most important ways to show authenticity is to make sure that the setting reflects every other aspect of your society.

  • Geography — What resources are available in this region? How do the people regulate resources, and does that create conflict? Do the seasons change? Are their multiple environments in one land, or is it all the same? Do the people adapt to the environment, or do they adapt the environment to meet their needs through modification and technology? What kind of flora and fauna live in the environment, and how does that impact the people?
  • Time Period — What freedoms do people have, and what limitations? For lack of better words (because as a historian, my brain throws up red flags and sees these words as ethnocentric), how “barbaric” , “primitive”, “advanced”, or “civilized” are the people? What constitutes the difference between the meaning of these words in their world? Are people treated differently based on race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or other minority qualifiers? What changes has your world seen over its existence? Who has power, why, and has that changed? What historical events have shaped the world currently?
  • Science — What is technology to your people, meaning any device that makes life simpler? Do magic/paranormal/metaphysical components exist in this world? What is the difference between science and magic and religion, and does that distinction cause conflict?

Political & Economic Systems

What kind of political system(s) exist in the world, and how are they organized? Who created them? Have they always existed? What is considered to be the responsibility of the government, and of the individual? How are children educated, if at all? What is considered a well-rounded education? What are the laws, who created them, why, and how are they enforced?

It’s easy to overlook, but a nation’s government and economy are intrinsically linked. The attitudes towards making money, public services, and other ethics about business will impact how governments make laws, protect their people, and provide services. What kind of economy exists in your world? Who controls it? What kinds of goods are made, and what kinds of services are offered? Does the environment and resources play a role in that? What jobs are available?

“If there is one universal truth, it is that sentient beings, no matter how utopian and peaceful their society is, will always have shit to fight about.”

Shared Cultural Beliefs

What unites the people of this world? What do they eat? What do they believe? How do they dress? What is sacred and blasphemous to them? What language do they speak? What are the customs and traditions in this world? What happens when parts of this culture are changed/forgotten/ignored, and does that cause conflict? Are multiple cultures fighting for resources/rights/autonomy, or do they live in harmony? How does the culture impact class, gender, age, and what expectations are held for those qualifiers? How has history played a role in the development of the culture(s)?

Science & Technology

A huge misconception modern humans have when it comes to technology is that it has to be digital, futuristic, world of tomorrow kind of stuff. But, from the historical perspective, technology is really anything that has made life easier. Many people would automatically jumped to the progress made my weapons and tools, but it gets even more simple than that. We may be spoiled with our personal pocket computers, but at one point, all those things a cell phone or tablet does, were distinct forms of technology. Printed books, brought about by the printing press, were an incredibly advanced tech in the Middle Ages. Pencils were cutting edge shit. A writing system in general changed to world, drawing the line between recorded history and pre-history, forever dividing us civilized people from those primitive savages. With this idea in mind, think about everything that makes your life safe, comfortable, and simple. Now, examine what the people in your world would need to feel the same way?

  • How do people communicate?
  • How to they move goods and people?
  • How do they fight?
  • How do they farm?
  • How do they learn and discover?
  • How do they heal?
  • How do they play and relax?
  • How do they record information?

Even if not directly important to or acknowledged in the story, these are the bare minimum elements of the world that should be addressed. The reader doesn’t need to know all of the details, especially if it will amount to endless pages of backstory and context, or if it’s irrelevant to the basic plot. But, as a writer, these are things that need to be considered to have a fleshed out understanding of how your characters will act, react, view, and function in their world. If you’ve done your due diligence when building your fictional world, it will bleed into your writing without any great effort on your part. You will be able to avoid heavy-handed exposition and your readers will appreciate the opportunity to fill in some of the blanks themselves.

“You cannot just create matter from nothing. All cells come from previous cells. As too, with speculative fiction; you don’t just create something from nothing.”

Remember too, that when you are building your world, the real world is full of inspiration for the elements you need to make it seem authentic. That requires research. Good research- not a cursory skimming of a Wiki page. All of us at IndiePen Ink know just how complex and time consuming proper research can be. Lucky for you, our strife has turned into your benefit, as it has inspired us to create a truly helpful research resource for writers unlike any other: The Research-a-Torium. A writers reference source that can guide you to online resources and services, as well as services and titles you can find at you own local library. Thanks to the tireless work of our Lady of the eLibrary, Caitlin, we expect to be opening the doors by the end of July.

COMING SOON TO AN INTERNET NEAR YOU!

Start working out those worlds now, and when you get stuck, come see Caitlin in the Research-a-Torium for a world of resources guaranteed to inspire.

Write on young savior,

Craft Editorials Resources Savvy Snark & Sass

Work Smarter, Not Lazier

Why the easy solution to writing problems is a bigger problem in itself.

Worksheets are the root of a vicious cycle.

I’ll freely admit, I have used worksheets, workbooks, and many templates over the years. And, just as I have come to loathe them in my teaching, I am starting to loathe them in writing as well.

Worksheets are making me lazy. They are also making me a less creative person. And the the weird part is, I cannot figure out why.

In teaching, the reason I hate worksheets is that they don’t make the students think. They are just fill in the blank boxes that regurgitate content from the book. They don’t require you to rework the material or think about it in a new way. Perhaps this is why I am starting to hate worksheets for writing. While, unlike their academic counterparts, they do make you think about what is being written, the responses tend to be vague, unthoughtful, and in general, nothing you didn’t already know or have figured out prior. I do not find myself inspired when using worksheets, let alone discovering new, inventive ways of engaging with my material.

But, I still cannot figure out why?

The usual suspects for these types of “workstuffs” (or in other words, the outside resources we use when organizing our stories) tend to be character questionnaires, setting templates, and plot outlines. They are always lengthy… I’ve seen character question sheets titled “100 Questions for Complex Characters.” Why the hell do you need to answer that many questions about your character? Knowing their favorite ice cream has no bearing on how they make their decisions, which does have bearing on the story, as a strong character’s decisions are what drive the plot.

This brings us to our first problem with workstuffs.

“Writing well in a vacuum is impossible. You cannot write a strong story in a dark closet all by yourself, which is the problem with workstuffs. It’s busy work that you do by yourself, with only you to evaluate the results.”

As I often do when I have my own writing dilemma, I threw the question out to my writing slack, where I keep my ever so handy treasury of writers. It’s like having a bunch of experienced writers on retainer… or as I like to think of them, having their souls trapped in my laptop for eternity in order to do my bidding. Yes. Yes….

 

So, having thrown out the question: “Do you find worksheets and workbooks helpful, and if not, why?” this was the analysis of the responses I collected:

Workstuffs, through some amazing, dark sorcery, manage to be incredibly long and yet lack substance. As Christine Brennecke, author of Seven Shards: the Colors of Wine, said in our conversation about why workstuffs suck, she summed it up best by saying, “Too many words. Not enough good words.” Somehow, they say a bunch of crap, yet say nothing at all while providing no assistance to really solving your problem.

Which brings me to the point made by Elayna Mae Darcy, author of They Are the Last and producer of the podcast SpeakBeasty, “They basic AF!”. Yet, they accomplish this while still being incredibly complicated to figure out. Often times, they serve as clickbait to get you to a writer’s website, where they do the majority of the hawking of their wares. “Throw up a 99 Questions to Ask Your Character worksheet on a website, and suddenly there is an unspoken agreement between writers,” as Elayna calls it: ‘If I help you, you’ll buy my shit.’

The unfortunate problem with that agreement is you’re getting the short end of the stick. Chances are that the content wasn’t even original. It was probably just some regurgitated crap they saw on another website once. Seriously, compare and contrast these resources next time you are tempted to use one. It is surprising how often material gets re-purposed. Author and Editor Elan Samuel, of The Warbler book review blog and Story Perfect Editing fame, pointed out the big flaw in this system: “They’re usually a very basic concept, something every writing tip/instructor/resource delivers, with the intent of driving more traffic to the site.”

“Fundamentally I just find the entire concept of ‘worksheets’ useless if you’re not directly involved in a course/class where your work is going to be actually evaluated by another human being. Just putting up these random ‘exercises’ for people to use with no supervision or guidance is always useless, in my opinion.” – Liam Dynes

Many of the workstuffs you find on the internet, especially on author websites, are the most basic format and the most basic methods. Another valid argument Elayna Mae Darcy makes against workstuffs is that despite being a visual method of organizing your thoughts, they fail at stimulating the user visually. “They don’t visually engage me, like at all,” says Darcy. “I LOVE worksheets and forms to print, but I can legitimately never find ones that are interesting looking enough to keep my attention past the title.” This became a general consensus among the other writers, and even I could relate to this one. I don’t know how many times over the years I have revamped pre-made worksheets in my History and Special Education English classes. Sometimes I cut them up and reorganize them, cutting out pieces I don’t want, adding pieces I do, taping them all back together into a new form. Other times, I just take ideas from them or a section of reading, and make my own handout from scratch. In many cases when I do this, it isn’t because I don’t think the worksheet is visually stimulating in an aesthetic sense, but rather, it confuses the student just by looking at it. It does not generate a logical train of thought when working. Good design, in both form and function, solves this problem.

On that note, this was also a downfall of workstuffs in the opinion of Liam Dynes, author of Rockets. Workstuffs are meant to be universal, which tends to make them generic. As a result, they often focus too much on the mechanical, rather than rooting out the real source of a writing problem. As Elan Samuel said, “The exercises are often vapid and don’t dig into the problems of writing beyond the mechanical.”

Content-wise, they are all form and no function, which is completely the opposite problem of what we see with their design.

As a teacher though, I find the absolute worst issue I have with writing worksheets is the second point Liam made about how to evaluate what you actually put into the worksheet.

“Fundamentally I just find the entire concept of ‘worksheets’ useless if you’re not directly involved in a course/class where your work is going to be actually evaluated by another human being. Just putting up these random ‘exercises’ for people to use with no supervision or guidance is always useless, in my opinion.” – Liam Dynes

While workstuffs are inherently filled with surface flaws, even if those flaws were remedied, this would still be a major issue. Without someone to review the work you have done on the worksheet/workbook/workstuff, how is a writer to gain any actual insight into the problem they were trying to fix?

“Throw up a ’99 Questions to Ask Your Character’ worksheet on a website, and suddenly there is an unspoken agreement between writers…  ‘If I help you, you’ll buy my shit.’” – Elayna Mae Darcy, They Are the Last

Perhaps, the one bright side of worksheets is that they do help you to see the flaws in your story. If you can’t fill in the blanks, then yes, ultimately there is a problem. But once that is discovered, workstuffs seem to be the worst way you can fix that problem. This is why it is incredibly vital, not helpful, but vital to find a writer’s group. Writing well in a vacuum is impossible. You cannot write a strong story in a dark closet all by yourself, which is the problem with workstuffs. It’s busy work that you do by yourself, with only you to evaluate the results.

Luckily, we live in the age of the internet. Finding a writing group has never been easier… *cough* if you live in a big city *cough*. But, even those who do not have luck with finding local groups, can still interact and exchange writing with real people in writing forums, online communities, and other writing spaces, like NaNoWriMo.

Over here at IndiePen Ink, we hope to begin cultivating a rich, inclusive and supportive environment. One of our future ambitions is to have a forum and several targeted writing communities. If you would like to help us start growing our community, reach out to us on twitter @indiepenink or email me: sass@indiepenink.com.

If you are really tripped up by a writing dilemma, no matter how specific to your story, visit our Savvy, Snark, and Sass page. They’re like RPG healers, specifically trained to heal your writing ailments. Leave a message for them describing your specific writing issue, and any possible solutions you have tried that did not work, and the girls will give you three different possible solutions based on their writing experience. They are currently taking submissions that will be used in a future show, hosted by Indiepen Ink, Savvy, Snark, and Sass (…Save Your Ass).

Coming Soon to an Internet near you!

 

Write on, young savior,

 

Editorials Pep Talks Sass Writing Styles

If I Tell You That You Suck, Can You Get Over It?

A Letter from Sass:

At some point in the epic history of fiction writing, writers developed a strange obsession with perfection. The why and how have been lost to history. Perhaps that burned up in the Great Library of Alexandria? Yet, despite not understanding why they have this obsessive compulsion, writers of all levels fall into this trap daily.

I’m not singular in suffering from writer’s block. Every writer I know, regardless of their ability, preferred genre, and levels of experience and success, admits that they sometimes hit a point where they just can’t write. The problem is, as the dry spell continues, they simply don’t move on by planting the garden; learning a new recipe; finally cleaning out the closet. They wallow. They let their brain start to warp their confidence in their abilities. Suddenly, they are a no talent hack, and always have been.

This mindset is toxic. It is also counterproductive, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that takes root in the mind of a writer and prevents them from moving forward, even when inspired.

“At some point in the epic history of fiction writing, writers developed a strange obsession with perfection.”

Let’s get personal for a minute. Currently, I have a Google Doc with 30+ plot points, in chronological order, that I have already planned for in my story, Intrepid. I am not want for ideas — I am want for prose. The idea is fleshed out, and I know exactly what I need to write. I just can’t write it. For weeks, I went through the motions of my usual routine: I sat down to write with my trusty Ink Joy gel pen in a funky color, a thick DIY legal pad made out of my favorite lined paper glued together with cardboard backing, and a full pot of steaming tea, and I put on a Epic Instrumental Music video from YouTube from one of my many subscriptions.

In times past, I would have cranked out 1000-3000 words for whichever scene I had decided I was ready to write. Recently, I have been lucky to settle on a mere hundred words I didn’t want to crumple up and throw across the room.

The worst part is that I had absolutely no reason to be blocked. The depression that tends to hit me two to three times a year was not lingering around, and my anxiety is under control currently. My job, while stressful, is manageable now that I have developed a rhythm. Marriage, immediate family life, and finances are all strong right now. My friends are all doing reasonably well… so what the fuck is my problem? Why can’t I write?

Well, that is because I suck. I’m a great writer, but I am a fucking awful drafter. It feels impossible to just sit down and free write without analyzing my own word choice or flow.

Why did my character do that? Why would I write that? Where did that idea come from? Why can’t I think of a better word!?

“It has taken me a really really loooooong time to accept that sucking is not only okay, but necessary.”

Why? Because, the first draft sucks. The pre-write sucks. The first time words hit paper, they are an unruly mess. And, it has taken me a really really loooooong time to accept that sucking is not only okay, but necessary. At the risk of inspiring a chorus of that’s what she saids, let me repeat that again: Sucking is necessary.

On the days I mindblowingly, ultra suck, I try to keep these quotes in the back of my mind…

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. There’s simply writer’s embarrassment.” –  Andrew W. Marlowe

and

“Do something. You can always correct something, but you can never correct nothing.” – Dale C. Bronner

They’re brilliant. The kind of brilliance that you only register once you read it or someone says it too you. It’s the kind of brilliance that makes you feel like a moron for not realizing the simplistic solution it delivers. It is exactly what every writer needs to be reminded of when they sit down to write. In fact, I think these two quotes should be visible to a writer in every writing space.

So, that being said, I have made graphics of condensed forms of these quotes that writers can print and hang in their writing spaces…

The first step in conquering writer’s block is realizing that the block comes not from a lack of creativity, but a lack of confidence. Not being able to write well is a phobia that is so stifling that it makes writing impossible at all.

In later articles, we will be exploring the reasons people suffer from writer’s block, and offering creative solutions to overcoming your fear, rather than stimulating your creativity. Until then, I leave you with this: If I tell you that you really do suck, can you get over it already? We all suck. Get in line kid — the queue starts with me.

Write on, young savior,

News Savvy

We’re Going On An Adventure…

Authors, imagination travelers, and word weavers — the world needs your story, and we at IndiePen Ink are here to help you tell it.

The mission of IndiePen Ink is to serve as a multiverse of writing resources, providing blog posts, web shows, podcasts, and more, all to help independent writers and creators embrace their passion of one of the world’s most ancient crafts: storytelling.

Founded out of a mutual adoration of books, writing, and pop culture by C. Brennecke, Elayna Mae Darcy, and Rebekka S. Leber (with the help of friend and web wizard Elan Samuel) the site will include such things as thorough and engaging writing prompts, raucously weird yet informative web shows, and even a bi-weekly podcast by and about women in literature and the media. What we are not is a static, cookie-cutter operation with click-baity titles that don’t actually help you become a better writer. Our focus is on building community, helping creators with their unique problems and struggles, and having a damn good time while we’re at it.

We believe that you care about the stories you tell, and we want to be there for you to help you tell them in a way that leaves a positive mark on the world. Think of us as your support system as you endeavor to write your books or other creative works. When you need guidance on the next steps of your quest, consider us your Obi-Wan Kenobi. When you need logical advice or help with research, let us be your Hermione Granger. And when you need encouragement and someone believe in you, we’ll be your Samwise Gamgee.

Starting out on a new adventure, be it launching a website or writing a new book, can at times be a daunting thing. But if we, the creators of IndiePen, have learned anything, it is that sometimes the biggest leaps of faith lead to the most rewarding and magical journeys of all.

Ready for whatever comes,

The IndiePen Ink Team
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