Making the Impossible Possible: Creating the Rules of Magical and Futuristic Worlds

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This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle. I attended last year and had so much fun, but this year I was pleasantly surprised to see many panels for writers (comic/graphic novel panels, and fantasy/sci-fi panels) as well as a big turnout for literary guests. I was lucky enough to meet Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicles), Kendare Blake (Three Dark Crowns series, Anna Dressed in Blood series), and Marko Kloos (Frontlines series) and get them to autograph their books for me. But while there, I attended the Making the Impossible Possible panel which focused on writing and worldbuilding for authors of fantasy and sci-fi.

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The following authors participated in the panel and gave great advice to aspiring fantasy and sci-fi authors: Charlie N. Holmberg (The Paper Magician series), Emily R. King (The Hundredth Queen series), Marko Kloos (Frontlines series), J.D. Horn (Witching Savannah series), and Jeff Wheeler (Legends of Muirwood series).

The format of the panel was the moderator, editor Jason Kirk, posed a total of six questions to the panel of authors. Keep reading to find out what was asked of these fantasy and sci-fi writers as well as to see what their responses were. I found their responses to offer great advice and writing techniques to better improve my own fantasy and sci-fi writing.

Question 1

Each author in this panel writes their own rules to govern the worlds they create. How does this work when the same rules don’t apply, even though you may be writing within a similar genre?

  • “You need to choose your main character as a one in a million type of person. You need to write your characters as the person who brings the magic to the world and not necessarily have been the chosen one.”
  • The general discussion around this question discussed how it’s important to have governing rules within your world, but to not let them overshadow your characters. Let your characters shine through in the world they surround themselves in.

Question 2

In Fantasy or Sci-fi we often find that the main character always tends to be exceptional. So, if no one is exceptional is there no story?

  • “In Sci-fi, you play within the confines of that structured society. Nobody is different from each other since they all have the same governing laws of physics and biology applying to them. So, the characters in this genre work within their existing system to prove their abilities or skills.”
  • The authors on the panel discussed how it would be even more interested to see more work of fiction in fantasy and sci-fi who fall out of the “exceptional” phase and are characters that work harder to prove themselves versus having everything be naturally gifted to them. It even makes the character more relatable to the reader, no more what fantastic setting the character may be placed in.

Question 3

Every author has their own writing process. Do you start with world-building or do you start with the character or the plot or themes?

  • “Start with the character, then the world becomes a crucible for them.”
  • “Your characters act depending on what the world is and the action or reaction they do becomes the plot.”
  • “Look for the tension, the drama. Ask yourself, why do we follow these characters? Why tell this story in the first place? First find the drama that the character will face.”
  • “If the world is complex enough, all these conflicts come up naturally and then the character, character’s motivation, etc. will follow.”

Question 4

Does your world need to be completely believable to make it work?

  • “As long as you don’t break the suspension of disbelief.”
  • “I can excuse sloppy physics [in Sci-fi] if the story, the plot, and the characters are absolutely believable.”
  • “It doesn’t have to be so much as believable as it has to be intoxicating enough to completely pull you in.”
  • “Don’t overdo the details to try to make it as ‘realistic’ and ‘believable’ as possible. Too much in the details can cause a big learning curve for your reader and can prevent them staying with your story.”
  • “Build the world and characters quickly so you hook the reader in. The strength of your story are your characters who provide the real emotions, real reactions the reader can connect to despite them being in an impossible world.”

Question 5

How do you solve your mistakes?

  • “Take a slice of humble pie from your critique partners.”
  • “Incomplete or sloppy world-building will lead to mistakes. If you ask, what does my character do now? Then you didn’t do enough world-building to throw enough cool things at your characters.”
  • The panel then gave examples from their own work where edits and proofreading provided great feedback for their novels in which they had to go back and rewrite certain parts to make the story turn out better.

Question 6

What tip do you have for aspiring writers?

  • “Think outside the box. It’s all about originality. Do something that’s less expected.”
  • “Don’t try to chase trends. Don’t write to market it. If the book is good, it’ll have its own market.”
  • “Just tell your story. Keep going.”
  • “The world around you can create something different. You don’t have to create something new, you just need to write it in a new way.”
  • “Read what you like to write. It keeps you immersed in your world. Steal little pieces of what you like and make them into your own.”

The panel was then opened to take questions from the audience. Here are a few of the questions that I found to have really good advice in their answers.

  • How do you build a society in your stories? This was answered in 4 parts.
  1. “Ask yourself, what type of government do you want? The kind of government you create governs the rules and freedoms your characters are subject to.”
  2. “What weird customs or traditions do your characters partake in? Create a history for each tradition.”
  3. “Everything is a result of what has come before. Make sure your society has a history.”
  4. “Do real research of Earth’s own history, then tweak it and make it your own for your story.”
  • How do you organize everything when you are working on a current novel?
  1. “You need a story Bible! It’s just 1 document where everything is stored and you can do a quick search.”
  2. “Use Scrivener. This allows you to keep you draft, research, notes, and edits all in one document.”
  • How do you write mundane tasks to make them see fantastic?

“Write characters’ reactions to that task. Like in Harry Potter, Harry thinks the dishes washing themselves in the Weasley’s house is magical and fantastic, but Ron just thinks it’s completely normal.”

This was such an amazing panel to sit on and I hope you found their advice to be inspiring and helpful to your own work. Below you can find the Goodreads page for each author named here so you can check out their work and get hooked onto some fun new series.

Kendare Blake

Charlie N. Holmberg

J.D. Horn

Emily R. King

Marko Kloos

Patrick Rothfuss

Jeff Wheeler

5 Things I Learned at Writer’s Digest Conference 2017

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  1. Stick To Your Story

It’s easy to get caught up in your writing and naturally drift away from the heart of your story as you start to navigate the world you are building. But, is everything you’ve written related to your story, at the heart of what you are trying to write? Or, are you just writing it and keeping it in your story because you’ve written it, regardless if it fits the story or not. I guess, as Hemingway says, this is the part where you must kill your darlings – delete anything that’s excessive or unnecessary to your story, which is probably the hardest thing to do but is also the most important thing you can do for your writing. But sticking to the story not only applies to your short story or your novel but also relates to your query letter. Don’t go on and on about your book, your experience, your credentials, etc. Stick to the story by only giving the agent/editor the first act of your novel. Give them enough to know what your book is about but leave them wanting for more. It’s not easy to make a perfect pitch, but aim for 50-100 words, because as I learned from agent Janet Reid, the whole query letter should be less than 250 words. So, stick to the story.

  1. Raise the Stakes

This was something new I learned at the conference about how to keep the story going and alive throughout your novel. Always put in conflict, especially at the beginning. If your beginning doesn’t have a type of conflict (emotional/physical/spiritual) then that’s not your beginning. Keep writing until you get to that point of conflict/crisis where your character must make a choice/ a decision about what they are dealing with – that’s your beginning. To make your story feel like a page-turner, throw in conflict every 20-40 pages to either add more conflict to your character’s journey or to raise the stakes for their current dilemma. As Laura DiSilverio said, work with the “what could be worse?” mindset. You must be willing to make your character’s lives miserable. To increase conflict in your novel, make sure to define your protagonist’s goals/needs in each scene, provide opposition to these goals, give the illusion of progress, surprise with setbacks, and when that’s all done then think “what could be worse?” You’ll be surprised with what you may come up with.

  1. Revise in Layers

This seminar by Gabriela Pereira has forever changed my outlook on the revision process. I felt like I have been editing my novel/work wrong my whole life, until now that is, which is why I’m sharing this process with you because I’m sure it’ll change the way you think about revisions and edits too. Instead of going through your manuscript one page at a time and tinkering with little changes, you need to revise your manuscript multiple times but each time only focusing on one thing. First, focus only on narration: can you distinguish between the narrator and characters? (The answer is yes; you should, even for 1st person) Is your voice consistent or does it change from scene to scene /chapter-to-chapter? Next, focus on just the characters: is it clear what protagonist wants/needs? Is your protagonist making choices, or do they seem more reactive than proactive? Then, focus just on the story: do you know where your characters are heading? Is that clear? Does your story rush up at the end in a giant rush with little room for closure? Next, focus only on the scenes: do they all relate to support the overall theme? Does the story feel real? Is there too much description? Is dialogue flat or does it ring true? And for the last layer of revision, focus only on the details: can I express concept/scene in a better way? Did I use right word/sentence structure? Are there typos/errors? It’s a lot to look over, but I feel that after doing this process of revision, your story will be as thorough as you want it and as clearly written as it is seen in your head.

  1. Never Give Up

One thing all our keynote speakers emphasized was to keep going with our writing and to keep being persistent in publishing our books. One of my new favorite writing quotes came from Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Russo when describing how to keep writing when you feel like giving up: “Every time you think the tank is empty, (you’ll find) the writing was putting more gas in the tank.”

  1. Make Friends/ Contacts

The orientation at WDC17 encouraged us to go from introverted writers to extroverted social net-workers. And, in doing so, I feel that I have made great contacts with wonderful writers who get the difficulties of the writing process and truly understand the writing journey of taking ideas and voices in your head and creating worlds out of them onto paper. So, I’ve learned it’s really important to be engaging with fellow writers and hopefully you can be each other’s critique partners and/or beta readers in the future.

Writing in NYC

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If you are like me (writing notes on any scrap of paper to later type up into your novel), then I recommend taking your writing to the next level by going to a writer’s conference. There are several taking place all of the country this summer. These might seem a little pricey, but if you have a complete manuscript ready to be viewed then these conferences are the perfect place to pitch your novel to agents. Plus, all the workshops and seminars you’ll take part in is worth the price of admission alone. At the end of August, I’ll be at The Writer’s Digest annual writer’s conference in New York and I can’t wait to hopefully make some new connections as well as pitch my novel to agents. Wish me luck and fingers crossed 🙂