Dec 04

Hey! It’s 1725! or Three Techniques to Add to Your Worldbuilding Toolkit

One of the first books I ever wrote takes place on a pirate ship in 1725. The 1725 part is important, because that was the end of the Golden Age of Piracy and several countries were combining their efforts to hunt down the last of the big-name pirates; specifically, one of the pirates in my story. As a first-time author, I struggled in my attempts to let my readers know this important worldbuilding information. Some of my early tries basically boiled down to:

The Captain reached the end of his letter: “We are not able to careen at Tortuga,” he wrote. “As you know, I’m being viciously hunted down. 1725 has certainly has had its challenges!”


“So, [name of character], here we are in 1725, and we certainly are being viciously hunted down, are we not? That is because I am a very important pirate.”

*delete with extreme prejudice*

You absolutely 100% had to know this picture was coming.

You absolutely 100% had to know this picture was coming.

The problem is I was dropping information in without any motivation for it—creating the notorious “info-dump,” where the author basically stops the story dead and tells the reader a bunch of information. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear your readers rolling their eyes while they put your book down.

So I spent a lot of time studying this aspect of the craft. To this day, I still look at how other authors handle the balancing act of letting the reader know the when, where, and why-it-matters of worldbuilding without “telling.” Three techniques I’ve noticed effective authors using over and over are:

a)    To avoid “telling,” write information in such a way that it sets up story questions the reader will ask and then reveal world information that answers them.

b)   When possible, use concrete, world-defining objects to answer story questions.

c)    To keep readers reading, keep raising immediate story questions and answering them, but only to raise more.

Eric Nylund’s book The Resisters is the first of a YA science fiction series, which is, in my mind, possibly the most difficult worldbuilding situation you can find yourself in. Here’s how he uses these three techniques to show me his world. These are the first three paragraphs of his book:

1) Ethan Blackwood prepared for battle.

This seems straightforward, at least at first. We know battles mean some kind of war. So Ethan is involved in a war.

2) In the months to come, Ethan would look back and marvel that there could be a fight in which someone didn’t get hurt…or his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk.

Rather unexpected, yes? And so Kick Ass.

Rather unexpected, yes? And so Kick Ass.

In (2), Nylund presents a brief inner flashback. Although it might appear to be, Nylund’s flashback isn’t “telling.” It’s a response to the question raised in the first sentence: “What battle is Ethan preparing for?” But I have no way to contextualize the information the flashback gives me and so it raises more story questions—“in which someone didn’t get hurt” [wait, so the battle Ethan’s about to be in has no casualties? What kind of a battle is it where no one gets hurt?] and “his life or the entire human race wasn’t constantly at risk” [WHAT? The entire human race? And why isn’t his life at risk in this battle?].

3) At the time, though, he did think of it as a battle. No one ever thought of it as a game—not when you strapped on six hundred pounds of nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit.

(3) answers one question raised in (2)—why this “battle” isn’t a battle (it’s a game)—but it raises another immediate question: “What time period am I in?” Nylund doesn’t tell me, he shows me, in (3), by introducing a concrete, world-defining object—manned robotic exoskeletons used to play sports. He could have just told us about the exoskeleton: “Ethan put on his six hundred pound, nuclear-powered exoskeleton athletic suit and charged out onto the field, ready to play.” “Oh really?” the reader says, “It’s six hundred pounds, is it? And it’s nuclear powered? Well, thanks for telling us that, Mr. Author! I see we are not in 2013.” EYE ROLL. We have this reaction because there is no story question driving the description. It’s just dumped in there.

But the appearance of that suit is motivated by the question “Why is this game, whatever ‘it’ is, considered a battle?” This gives us a totally different encounter with the world-defining exoskeleton: “Oh holy crap! Why are they wearing those? What is this ‘it’ they’re playing?”

Now let’s get back to (1), and its apparent straightforwardness. (2) and (3) make us we realize we no longer understand what “battle” means there. In fact, that battle now appears to be some kind of game! And that’s how we get to the story question: “What is this game, this ‘it,’ which is considered a battle and requires Ethan to strap on a six-hundred-pound metal suit?”

Nylund’s given me so much story information in such a short amount of time without me really even noticing. My attention has moved from story question to story question and so I am fully engaged as a reader—I want to know why Ethan’s life and the whole human race are in danger, and I want to know more about this mysterious game/battle and these suits. I also want to know what battle Ethan’s headed for, and whether or not I’m on earth, so I’m motivated to keep reading. But most importantly, not an eye-roll in sight because all the information was generated naturally from story questions Nylund led me, as the reader, to ask.

And now back to those pirates…

Nov 03

Writing Romance as a Radical Act

“Hey, girl! Break free of the chains of the ‘virgin/whore’ dichotomy and get in touch with your power and sexuality! Um, you’re ultimately going to have to die for it. But you’re OK with that, right?”

This is the way it was in literature (and sometimes in life) for women for a long time. Any spark of power, either of the self-determination kind or the sexual freedom kind, in a female character had to end with the woman in question either returning to her “natural” place in the social order through a complete rejection of what she’d done as evil or, if she refused to repent, through death. This served as a warning to any woman who dared, in real life, to try and follow her literary sister’s journey.

There has always been the dichotomy of Angel and Devil, Virgin and Whore, in the history of women’s roles. Even in our “modern” society, we still look down on women who refuse to suppress their natural, healthy sexuality. We view them as shameful and the new name we have for them isn’t new at all: ho. And god help the woman who is authentically assertive; the name we give her has been around for centuries: bitch.

This history is one reason why the romance genre is so ground-breaking and something we would do well to keep in mind as we create our heroines. But to get where we are, we had to break free from where we were.

In a recent presentation, Sara Hackenberg[1] dissected a very specific, and interesting, manifestation in the history of women in literature: the rebirth, in Victorian literature of the mid-19th to early-20th centuries, of the lamia. A lamia is, for all intents and purposes, a female vampire. Whether she is sucking away another’s speech, life energy, or blood, the traits of the lamia are thought-provoking—she’s beautiful, powerful, and powerfully sexual, both with women and men. She is the ultimate uncaged female unleashed on the world.

Lamia, by John William Waterhouse (1909)

The beauty of the lamia is that she isn’t just a manifestation of the Devil/Whore. She is much more powerful and romantic than the traditional “fallen woman.” There have been versions of her in every sacred tradition in history and in her Victorian incarnation, her self-determination and sexuality echo the women-centric religions found in ancient Egypt, Greece, and other pre-Christian societies, as well as modern sacred cultures in India and Asia. And she’s immortal, so she doesn’t have to die for the “sin” of being an actual woman with actual self-will and sexual appetites.

Her re-emergence at that time is interesting. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and the political and social suppression of women’s innate will in this time period is legendary. It was also an age in which women were told “it was permissible to take part in physical intimacies within marriage, so long as it was done ‘without a particle of sexual desire’”[2] and oft-quoted men of science made statements such as “I should say that the majority of women are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind”[3]; is it any wonder this über-female arose in response? The lamia is one hell of a reaction, exploding the suffocating strictures within which women were expected to live. The time was ripe for the vengeful spirit of women’s suppressed power to burst out on the page (and it’s interesting that men wrote of lamias as well).  The lamia gives voice to, and flaunts, women’s power and sexuality.

She proclaimed loudly that restricting women to angelic, and powerless, roles was a form of violence in itself. Many lamia stories play out a confrontation between the “ideal” version of women and a more real (albeit hyper-real) version, where the “angel” is sucked dry by the lamia, symbolizing, in part, how draining the angelic role is. If the angel had been at all empowered—if these two aspects had been balanced—she could never have fallen prey to the stronger side of herself.

So yes, the lamia represents female power out of balance. But when the pendulum swings, it destroys everything in its path as it screams toward the expression of the repressed side. And as is the case with all extreme expressions, it needs to be re-integrated.

And this is where the romance genre comes in. This lamia is, I am willing to argue, one root of our romance heroines. She is one of the underpinnings of our genre, and shows how what we are doing is so very, very radical in the history of literature.

Our female protagonists are the synthesis of the explosive power of the lamia and the nurturing nature of the angel. Both sides have something women need and we are weaving them back together by creating women who are a balanced mix of the lamia and the angel—they are self-willed, caring, have great sex, nurturing, and are in charge of every aspect of their lives, even down to which men they will and won’t have sex with and even what kind of sex they’re going to have, and they are not only allowed to live at the end of their stories, they are expected to go on having interesting and exciting lives and great sex. In the process, they do not suck others dry because they have the balancing aspects of the angel. They make it OK to be real women, not caricatures. What a radical premise!

The words of Dr. Maya Angelou. Nobody argues with Dr. Angelou.

This, my writer friends, is nothing short of a revolution. It may well be one reason why “the romance genre” is so maligned in our culture—we might be hearing a cultural echo of the censure against self-determined women interested in owning their power and their sexuality. Nice women just don’t do that! No, instead, romance must be some silly genre we should all look askance at as we proceed to the Literature section of the bookstore.

Where you can find all the books where women have to die for trying to live the very lives we create on paper every day.

So I’m all for bringing the knowledge of the history of women’s roles in literature to the forefront so we can consciously integrate the lamia and the angel into the souls of our heroines. It shouldn’t be a radical statement to create such characters, but it appears there are still many reasons why it is. So I raise my glass to all of us, who are showing, every day, that the new femininity is the radical notion that being a real woman can, and should, include both nurturing and sexual and personal power—and live to tell the tale.

[1] Ph.D., Stanford University 19th C. British and American literature; narrative mystery; popular and visual culture.

[2] Mary Wood-Allen, in her popular and influential book What a Young Woman Ought to Know, published in 1913, as quoted in Bill Bryson’s book At Home.

[3] Sir William Acton, The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life, Considered in Their Physiological, Social, and Moral Relations, first published in 1857, and quoted in Bill Bryson’s At Home.

Oct 16

Why Stories Matter

This month I found myself, in the midst of reworking a story, wondering why I bothered. There are times when this feeling surfaces in me where I think of the long hours I put into my art, my craft, and wonder if the balance of a story’s existing is worth the effort. Wouldn’t my time be better spent volunteering at a women’s shelter or writing non-fiction articles about issues I’m passionate about? Is my writing fiction just a way of softening the edges of the injustices and suffering I see in the world around me (or in myself), a way of couching dirty realities in pretty language paintings?

For these moments, I have two notecards covered with quotes. I take those cards out and read them when I start feeling like this, like there is just not a story in the world that could possibly matter more than teaching starving people how to grow food. What they remind me of is that stories are, in their own right, a very necessary kind of food—a food without which we cannot live any more than the kind of food we put in our mouths.

Stories aren’t just passive entertainment. We turn to stories to tell us how to make it through those times we don’t think we’re going to make it through. In college I needed to see Scarlett O’Hara and Madame Bovary live through loving the man they couldn’t have (in my case, the man I couldn’t get back). Sometimes I need to watch Holden Caulfield and Beloved wrestle with their versions of despair so I can contextualize mine. And sometimes when a darker emotion has me in its sway, I want a story full of sparkle and sass, a life raft from the shadowy depths of my internal ocean, reminding me there is a surface, after all.


That’s perhaps the most important reason to write—stories are our collective wisdom regarding how to make it through any and everything. There are endless reports of rescue workers in the depths of war zones and the scenes of natural disasters holding frightened children close and telling them stories. Yes, they’re also providing life-saving care, but stories are a part of that care. They help knit together shattered safety. Stories can help us form a context for understanding what’s happened to us.

Stories also help us explore, or discover, who we really are and what is at the root of our struggles. The meaning we ascribe to a story reflects this perfectly. To me, Hamlet isn’t about hesitation—it’s about what happens when we let our intellect overrun our heart. “Being too much in your head” is one of my biggest challenges and Hamlet reminds me of the cost of living there. And that’s why a good story isn’t just a fun read—it’s a journey of self-revelation: how many times have you been reading and thought “I’m totally like that” or “I’m nothing like that” or the ever-popular “Oh crap, I didn’t think I was like that, but really I am”?

A good book will hit you like this–out of nowhere.

I read a book recently about a woman who was in a great marriage…and then an ex-lover showed up. I love my husband, he’s amazing, but I learned a lot about my own longing from that book, and the way I can get trapped in a fantasy world just like that woman did, imbuing past lovers with magical qualities when my husband and I aren’t connecting the way I think we “should.” Danger, Will Robinson! Note to self: watch the gossamer-myth spinning. It distracts from what I need to pay attention to in the present.

And that’s why I have those quotes. When I forget the power of our collective storytelling, my reminding factors poke me and say, “Stories help us live, and make sense of, our lives. Keep writing.”