Category: writing

Maps (or what to do when your characters are walking in circles)

When I’m writing I usually have a rough map by my side. Something to show where the characters are, where they’re headed and a few topographical features. If the poor characters are mostly inside, I have a sketch of layout of the house they’re in, so I’m not lost when I’m describing their movements.  I like my maps, but they’re pretty humble and usually as much a work in progress as the writing itself.

But recently I found the work of @unchartedatlas, otherwise known as Martin O’Leary. O’Leary elevates fantasy map making to a whole new level and has designed a process for generating maps with realistic terrain. Impressively, he has also worked on an algorithim for generating place names, so that they sound interesting, but cohesive, as if they had sprung from a real language.  (I usually steal my place names or use Scrivener’s name generator for inspiration)

For a real life version with an arty feel, there’s Map Stack. Here’s the watercolour version of Sydney:

Sydney map

 

And yes, all this is semi-procrastinating and largely because the latest video from Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lecture series isn’t up yet. And my small, only somewhat respectable word count for today, is possibly all there’s going to be. Ah well, let’s call it worldbuilding

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Where’s the conflict?

A story I wrote recently came back after some time away on submission, rejected but with several rounds of comments. I’m usually glad of comments, even if the piece is ultimately declined. It’s a chance to learn, to really see your work through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, of course, the comments come from a parallel universe which appears to have very little in common with your own.

One of these recent critiques struck me. Where’s the conflict? it asked. Why doesn’t the character grow and change? These are valid concerns and good questions to ask, especially if you are to avoid the dread vignette. But conflict can take many forms. Life is not all about arguments and violence. Conflict can be something perceived only by the protagonist, something internal. So can growth and change.

Perhaps I’ve counted too much on the recognition of experience. The reader’s understanding, without too much being stated, that this is how the character would feel, that this is the conflict she would be experiencing.

I’d argue, too, that not everyone grows. We become stuck in our ways, despite the evidence, despite the prods the universe gives us. That’s part of the human condition, often a sad part. I’m tempted to add that the need for overt conflict is a very male trait, though I’m not sure if that’s entirely true.

I’m rewriting that story. But not too much. Sometimes the quietest things are the best.

Onwards and upwards.

woman warrior

Only the good die young

None of us are truly good, most of us aren’t particularly trying. But there are good actions, good intentions. I’ve been wrestling with how to write about them without making them boring or schmaltzy. (not for this current story, but perhaps for the next) Marillyne Robinson does it. And possibly, on a lighter scale, so does Alexander McCall Smith. The TV show Rev manages it too, I think.

There’s an easy fix: the complicated character who does something good. My daughter wanted her nose pierced recently and, because we were on holidays and I, apparently, had made a vague promise in the past, we ended up following Google to the nearest available place. Me, with the articulated thought that if we didn’t like the look of wherever it was we were heading, we didn’t have to go in.

100 metres north, up in a dodgy lift, and we came to a small shop. We were greeted by a woman with multiple piercings (no surprise), wearing a goat’s head ring, a goat’s head necklace and a T-shirt which read something like Drink Coffee and Worship Satan.

I smiled and handed my youngest child over to her. And, as it turned out, she was the most helpful, reassuring, patient body piercer (if that’s the correct term) I have ever encountered.

So that, or something like it, was an easy story.

But we are so drawn to the bad, to the outre, to the shocking, that everything else is so easily passed over. And to be deeply good is profoundly difficult. A life’s calling and never attained. Perhaps the writing of it should be equally difficult. I will let my subconscious cogitate some more.

cemetery at St John's Gordon(The view from my hairdresser’s car park.)

The unlikeable female character

I’ve just put aside a short story which has failed to find a home. It was something true and honest, maybe a little too honest, maybe a little depressing, and, at least for now, it’s going back in the drawer. It was about a woman who, despite a magical discovery, only gets older and more unhappy. She does find something to hold onto in the end, though not necessarily something someone else would want or understand. Yep, maybe too depressing.

N.K Jemisin has written an interesting piece Tricking Readers into Acceptance about something similar, or at least the ways in which she strived to make readers accept a protagonist who was an “unlikeable fortysomething woman of color”. As Jemisin says, “The problem is that readers have been trained to like women less. Writers have to work against a weight of deeply-embedded societal bigotry which literally, actually causes readers to have trouble empathizing with anyone who’s not a straight cis white guy. We see this empathy failure everywhere and not just in fiction.” Be warned, there are major spoilers for those who have not read The Fifth Season. Jemisin makes lots of good, strong writerly arguments and I very much admire her work. I did notice that many of the comments were from readers who said that they emphasized with this character from the start. But then they too were women.

Speaking of great writing advice, Ursula Le Guin is responding to questions over at Book Cafe. And if, like me, you are in the mood to read more prickly women characters, Tansy Rayner Roberts is doing a series on SF Women of the 20th Century. This link is to her article on Octavia Butler.

Happy reading
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