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The Plague of the Writer: Why Do I Write?

The Plague of the Writer: Why Do I Write?

Authors are often asked this question, and I have yet to form a conclusive answer.

To put it simply: Compulsion.

There are universes constantly exploding inside of my brain, vibrant worlds pushing against my bones and demanding release. Scenes play out on loop in my head, characters live and breathe through my eyes.  They must be heard, they must be sculpted into something tangible.

Conversations of people both named and unnamed echo within my imagination. They evoke feelings that I have difficulties expressing to others. I want to share them with my readers, help them see what I see. And maybe get a glimmer of insight as to who I am.

There may not be meaning in the words I form, not conscious meaning anyway. I write what comes out. And it builds and builds. Sticky webs of interaction and intrigue. Relationships form and tear apart. The universe shifts as generations pass, forming new order for those yet to come.

I like to imagine myself as a keeper of lore, akin to the story tellers of the past who entertained with the tales preserved through eons. Each time a legend is spoken, something changes, a small detail that shifts the perspective of the future.

Everyday I sift through my vast collection of scraps and half-plots, wondering when I will have the chance to give them all the attention they demand. Perhaps one day, the well of inspiration will dry up, and my racing fingers can stop the toil. But that day is far out of my reach.

Photograph: nasa/E.S.A./J.P.L.-Caltech/U.C.L.A./C.X.C./S.A.O.

Breaking down World Building

Breaking down World Building

Tenet 1: Build only what you need 

So you want to write a fantasy story? Great. One thing you’ll need is a world to set it in. The term for doing this is world building. It’s a bit of a misnomer because the world part isn’t what you think. It’s a frame of reference thing.

For example, the Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time and many other stories require a whole world to tell their tales. But Thieves’ World doesn’t. For that, you need a very detailed city and lots of characters.

Harry Potter, on the other hand, only requires the bits that are different from the modern world. So you need the school he goes to and some idea about magic and potions and the back story of some characters.

My point here is world building varies from story to story and gets me to my first point: build only what you need because building a whole world can take months or years and drive you mad with all the details. So I’ll repeat myself: build only what you need.

How do you do that? Well there’s no one way to do it. You can read articles online and even a book entitled, Planet Construction Set, which will outline aspects to consider. But all that’s not needed to get started. A simpler — and in my mind — an easier way is to think of the world as a character in your story. Is the world modern? Medieval? Futuristic? Steampunk? Ancient Greece? Set in a specific period or location? In each case you’ll need different information to define the world.

What’s the technology level? What races or groups exist? What religions and government? As you answer these questions, you’ll quickly sketch out and define the world and provide yourself with a skeleton for the information that will come later. Of course, to answer these question you may have to do some research on religion, government, technology, and so on.

Don’t be afraid to do it. I will serve you better later.

That begs the question: how do I know when I’ve built enough? Answer: you won’t. Or more precisely, you can’t know, at least unless you start writing. You’ll hit points where you need more than you’ve got. That’s okay. You can stop and work those parts out. I don’t recommend skipping over that point in the story; it will likely lead to extra rewrites and revision. I also don’t recommend that you start writing until you have a general sketch of the world; otherwise, you’ll be working without a net and decisions you matter later will introduce inconsistencies, which will lead to rewrites.

Example

  • Here’s how I’d answer these questions for my fantasy world:
  • Is the world modern? No
  • Medieval? Yes with magic thrown in.
  • Futuristic? No
  • Steampunk? No
  • Ancient Greece? No, but there are influences of ancient Greece in the world like the name of the country, Thalacia and its capital Andropolis.
  • Set in a specific period or location? Specific period, no? Location yes; Thalacia
  • What’s the technology level? Medieval, no black powder weapons. But magic which can simulate modern technology if I let it. I decided not to because it would ruin the flavor I am trying to achieve. Magic as seasoning, not entree. When I write stories focused on my favorite wizard, then magic can be the entree.
  • What races or groups exist? Lots of them: elves, humans, dragons, giants, dwarves, gnomes, lizard men, goblins, and other associated fantasy races.
  • What religions and government? Religions: several, the christian sect, jewish, muslin, and various pagan religions, plus most other races have their own beliefs. There are also older religions that have died out from humans of past centuries.
  • Governments: Most races have some form of government, monarchies mostly. Humans government vary worldwide; in Thalacia, the feudal monarchy prevails. And most other races have a similar form of government with a strong single leader, like a king or thain or tribal chief or matriarch, depending on the race.

Once you know all this, or at least some of it you can think about maps. And that is the topic for another post.

Choosing to Physically Hurt your Characters

Choosing to Physically Hurt your Characters

(expanded from a blog post written in 2016)

Maybe it’s because I am a physical therapist and my husband is a physician, but we really hate medical shows. We recently rewatched DOCTOR STRANGE and both of us started yelling at the TV during a scene where Strange and another doctor are looming over a patient in the OR as they are about to do brain surgery and neither of them are wearing masks.

If you ask me to suspend disbelief over magical portals into multiverse realms, I’m there, but get something so basic wrong and you’ve lost me.

So back to the movie. . . After a brief cut-away, the scene continues and we next see both doctors wearing masks. AARGH. Continuity, anyone? (There are other continuity issues in the movie, but that’s a different blog post.)

But even worse than the medical care being depicted wrong, I get really bent out of shape when injury, illness, and disability is done poorly.

Injuries need to serve a purpose in your narrative

Choosing to injure your character is like every other choice in a story. It has to exist for a reason. Preferably more than one reason. Does the injury deepen characterization? Drive the plot? Limit your character’s abilities? Force your character to problem solve more fully? Change the way others relate to them?

If the only reason the character is injured is to engender sympathy, then the injury is a thin device and adds little to the overall narrative. One of the dangers of incorporating injury and disability in a story is falling into the cliché of the ‘noble victim.’ Equally problematic is when the character is injured or disabled simply to motivate the actions of the non-injured protagonist. Both choices remove agency from the character and render that person into a plot-device.

But injury and disability can be written well. One of my favorite depictions of physical disability in speculative fiction is the Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. The protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, was exposed to a poison in utero that prevented normal growth of his bones. He is considered a mutant by many in the rigid conservative society in which he was born for his deformities and has fragile bones. His frailty forces him to compete in a vicious political landscape using his wits and his will. He is both brilliant and insufferable and a wonderful, fully realized character.

Injuries need to have consequences

A second pitfall in writing injuries is when the injuries serve the needs of an immediate plot point but have no follow through or consequence in the story as a whole. This is something common to thrillers where the hero gets shot only to be patched up by a sympathetic side character and then saves the day when any mere mortal would be writhing on the floor waiting for emergency services. Getting injured hurts. Even if no vital organs are damaged, the shock post gunshot or stabbing or burn can easily take down the strongest, most fit individual.

Shock is a protective reaction by the body and is part of a complex series of reflexes that take place without conscious thought. Typical shock reactions include: decreased blood pressure, rapid, weak pulse, lowered core temperature, rapid, shallow breathing, nausea or vomiting, dilated pupils, and loss of consciousness.

It’s far more likely that your injured character will go into shock than run into the lair of the bad guys, rescue the damsel, and ride into the sunset. And shock, if untreated, can actually be fatal.

One of the protagonists in my Halcyone Space series is dealing with the aftermath of a head injury he sustains in DERELICT, book 1. His impairments are disabling. He experiences nausea and vomiting, crippling headaches, vertigo, and is unable to focus on his computer screen or read. His experience of his injury and the choices he makes as a result of not improving drives his plot arc in ITHAKA RISING, book 2. He believes only a neural implant device will help him, but his young age is a contraindication. So he finds a black market source for one. There are consequences to his actions, ripples that effect him, his family, and the political landscape.

The cover character in PARALLAX (book 4) is an upper extremity amputee. In the world of Halcyone Space, technology allows for prosthetics that are nearly indistinguishable from physiologic limbs, but she chooses a more primitive looking device. She has specific reasons for that choice that are critical to her character, backstory, and plot.

Injuries need to be written realistically

Another problem in writing injuries is when the author gets the physiologic details wrong. Absent magical healing or hugely advanced tech (and even those need to have limits and consequences), injuries take time to heal. Even the mildest of tendon strains can take several weeks to fully heal. Broken bones can take six to twelve weeks or more depending on the severity of the fracture and the overall health and age of the person. Deep cuts and penetrating wounds are a huge infection risk, as are burns. Infections can be fatal, even in a technologically enhanced world.

I had a 25 year career as a physical therapist before I became a writer. My specialty area was orthopedics and chronic pain management. When my characters get hurt, they are well and truly hurt. Their impairments continue to have consequences throughout the series.

My advice to writers wanting to show the realistic consequences of injuries, illness, or disability is this: Work backwards. That will keep you focused on continuity.

Decide the impairments and limitations you need your character to demonstrate first. Then build the mechanism of injury to get there. There are a multitude of websites that discuss symptoms of various injuries, illnesses, and disabilities. Some include:

These sites are a great starting point. To go deeper, speak to a medical professional (if you ping me on Twitter @lisajanicecohen I’ll do my best to help out), and someone who has dealt with the condition you are considering. And, like anything else, know that one person’s experience will not be generalized to all. This is especially critical in writing a character with a disability.

Want to harm your character? Remember three key issues: It must serve a purpose, it must have consequences, and must be portrayed realistically. Otherwise, you risk weakening your story and losing your reader.


LJ Cohen is a Boston-area speculative fiction writer. After a 25 year career as a physical therapist, she now uses her anatomical and medical knowledge to harm the characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. You can find her work at http://www.ljcohen.net

A Guide to Scripting Combat in Your Novel

A Guide to Scripting Combat in Your Novel

Your characters have just finished sizing each other up, and inevitably, you need to figure out how they will go about beating the ever-living tar out of each other. Below I have illustrated my thought process on how I construct these scenes.

I begin with two timeline points: the start (X and Y are standing in front of each other), then the result (X has Y in a headlock). In between is a multitude of points that bring the scene together, like frames in a zoetrope. The next step would be to draft a play-by-play of how the conflict takes place.

Performed by https://senshistock.deviantart.com & https://jademacalla.deviantart.com

There is an underlying flow inside every combat engagement, and decoding that flow is key to effectively communicating a scene to your readers through narration. Not every graphic detail needs to be drawn out either, just enough to create a chain of action-reaction-action steps until you have reached your result point.

As you draft each point, consider where each limb is at that moment, followed by where they will be at the next step. From there, you can link the actions together to form one fluid sequence.

I tend to work directly in my draft when sketching out the scene, but for those that like more visual organization, you can illustrate these points on a flowchart, or draw out a bird’s eye map of the scene:

A pushes B in the right shoulder -> B steps back and slaps A with left -> A steps inside B -> B pivots around and hugs A’s neck

Once your sequence is drafted, polish it with descriptors to make it sound like sentient beings are fighting, not rock-em-sock-em robots. Don’t get too hung up on left versus right as well, it could clutter the prose, and eyes may glaze over keeping track of what hand slapped what nostril.

An important detail you do want to consider is how a body moves when something smacks it around. A slap versus a punch will yield two different results in skull motion, and require a different length of recovery time. Consider a shove in the shoulder versus a shove to the hips, or other balance points on the human body. For inspiration, get a couple jointed posing models you find in art supply stores and play around with them to get a better sense of range of motion.

Questions to ask yourself:

Are joints locked, or are they limber? How hard was that strike, exactly? How have their feet shifted, what noises did they make? What happens in the background, are there obstructions in the way?

Expression is also an important piece of communication, letting the reader know how the combatants feel about their opposition. Are their jaws clamped? Did their eyes widen as they realized an error in calculation? Are they looking at something in the background, or projecting their attack to their opponent?

You should also decide how much of a disciple of authenticity you want to project on your writing. There is a certain degree of reality that can be foregone for the sake of entertainment. If movies were painstakingly accurate, a lot of people would lose their appreciation (and possibly lunch) for action.

Your worldbuilding can also help smooth out a fight and buffer the suspension of disbelief. Supporting technology/magic you have created might let a character last longer or give them an edge in their fight, if they are an alien race that is stronger/weaker than humans etc.

Ultimately, it is a challenge to be an absolute expert at EVERYTHING, so go easy on yourself and trust in the suspension of disbelief. You can’t please everyone, and someone will be ready to point out how you are wrong in twelve different languages. The sooner you are comfortable with that, the easier writing combat becomes.

Research is also your best friend. Some of my favorite sources:

  • Google specific questions like “how long does a choke hold last?” Be prepared to wade through an ocean of conflicting opinions. (Also, spoilers: not very long unless you want to kill, and even then, you’ll be holding on for several minutes.)
  • Fighting forums, especially if you are looking for specific disciplines or fight styles.
  • YouTube: there are a lot of martial art videos that display specific throws and sparring sessions. Play them on slow speed and analyze the combatants, limb positions, bent joints, where tension and force is held.

  • Analyze action films with choreography that display the fight clearly, without a mashup of jumpcuts and overly edited effects. Google for ideas on good films if you are looking for accuracy (The Duellists from 1977 and Act of Valor recommended for a start)
  • Find local martial arts schools and ask to observe sparring sessions. Explain your intentions and what you are looking for in terms of research (weapons, unarmed, etc). They may be willing to let you sit in on a session, and even participate in demonstrations (after signing a waiver).
    • One practice of import is the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance (HEMA), a group dedicated to the study of medieval combat, both armed and unarmed. Though you might not think it relevant to a SciFi world, a lot of the core mechanics of historical wrestling can be applied to modern fighting.
    • You can find their page here: https://www.hemaalliance.com/club-finders/
    • The Mass chapter is called the Boston Armizare.