World Building June

I’m notoriously bad at world building.

Characters always come first to me, and then I have to slog through edits in which I put colour and logic into the setting. But this month is World Building June so — however late to the game — I thought I’d use some of the suggested prompts to flesh out my ideas.

1. Tell us about your world, what’s it about?

This is when I’ll reveal the truth: all three current WIPs are set in the same universe as the YA science fantasy novel Above Ground.

Two of the current WIPs — the YA urban fantasy DS and the paranormal erotica PD — are set in a world and time parallel to the real world of today. The third as yet Untitled WIP is a near-future dystopian police procedural, perhaps a couple hundred years from now. And lastly Above Ground is in the very distant post-apocalyptic future. (I’m shaky on timings; I told you I’m bad at this stuff.)

Four different subgenres, all linked by the same universe.

2. Who lives in your world?

During today’s time, it’s mainly humans, ghosts and demons. In the near-future, ghosts and demons are basically extinct but a new virus/drug triggers abilities in certain humans. And in Above Ground, you’ve got all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures: witches, ‘pyres, werekin, ewtes…

3. What’s its history?

I’m still working on piecing together the timeline but the overall summary is that as diseases become more resistant to antibiotics, humans develop new and crazier drugs, with unintended side-effects. Of course, there’s always going to be someone who wants to take advantage of those side-effects… If you’re interested, Belonging offers a glimpse of Above Ground‘s origin story.

4. What sorts of civilizations fill your world?

In the distant future, Above Ground features a fragmented society.

Humans live underground in a high-tech purpose-built city, their social classes roughly divided by how close/far you live from the surface. There are multiple underground cities linked by tunnels ruled by a central government: on other continents there probably are other human civilizations that I haven’t thought about.

The infected live above ground in a low tech environment (magical interference being a killer for electricity) and have multiple races of magical beings who are often at odds with each other. They generally try not to mix unless they have to. The story itself is set on the edges of unclaimed territory (elsewhere there is at least one dragon monarchy).

5. How does gender & sexuality work in your world?

This is an important theme for me. When taking on the challenge of writing a contemporary paranormal erotica, I was determined to break the mould: the protagonist is a kick-ass demon hunter who knows what she wants. I didn’t want any power plays or subservience to her love interest, but for it to be a meeting of equals.

Not to mention, the demon hunting society is very old-fashioned and patriarchal, so her presence certainly challenges the novel’s status quo, where women are considered too weak to fight demons.

6. What are the religions and cosmology of your world?

In Above Ground, there’s an entirely new set of mythology to help explain each race’s origin stories. I haven’t really had to map them out yet (other than this werewolf myth). However I’ve spent some time thinking about what I’d cover in the sequel, particularly looking at the Guild’s (a telepath society) belief structure. Their idea that a telepath never truly dies links back quite nicely to the origin stories for ghosts in my present-day WIPs.

7. What technology is used in your world?

I get to have the most fun technology-wise with the humans in Above Ground. I force upon them my silly near-tech ideas, such as t-shirts that are entirely LCD screens that advertisers can pay to hire. Then there’s the more common items like integrated home AIs.

8. What magic exists in your world?

This is the piece I’m working on the most right now, for the paranormal erotica. How do demons and ghosts cross over from the other side? How hard is it for them to remain as manifestations in this side? How are demons born? What is the “other side”, anyway?

I don’t want to rely on the traditional Christian explanation of Heaven & Hell, so finding my own path through this is a little complicated.

9. What do people do for work in your world?

With the paranormal erotica, I had hit a real roadblock when I realised the protagonist couldn’t live off of killing demons in her spare time. I struggled to think of a perfect job and seriously considered Airbnb host (flexible working hours = more time to hunt demons). But eventually I settled on hotel receptionist, a position that means she can easily monitor new arrivals in town for any suspicious activity.

The dystopian police procedural I’m outlining is the most work-oriented piece of fiction I’ve planned to date. The main character is a homicide detective, chasing down a serial killer who experiments on his victims. But the closer he comes to finding the killer, the closer he comes to finding out a dark truth about himself.

10. What do people do for fun in your world?

The protagonist in the erotica kills demons for fun: does that count?

What about you? Do you struggle with world-building or is it character development that comes second? What’s your favourite world to get lost in?

Breaking Down The Expectation Barrier 

​Last week, I rediscovered an old story.

It was a piece of fanfiction I wrote over 12 years ago and had been immensely proud of, featuring a protagonist who mysteriously looked and spoke exactly like me. She even owned my favourite t-shirt!

I settled down for an excited re-read. Then I spent twenty minutes wondering what drugs convinced my younger self that this was good writing.

Eventually the realisation hit me: this story wasn’t merely good, it was brilliant.

I’ll tell you why in a minute.

As I’ve mentioned before, my own expectations have blocked my writing. I’d decided that my current project would be traditionally published. I even had an agent who wanted to look over the finished manuscript. So the pressure mounted. I missed deadline after deadline. And now it’s too late.

Ultimately I’ve lost what could have been an amazing opportunity, and I have no one to blame but myself.

Which brings me back to my terrible fanfiction, and why that cringe-worthy story is, in fact, BRILLIANT.

You see, writing is like climbing a mountain. At the very summit are your Neil Gaimans and Frank Herberts, sipping mojitos in the brilliant sunshine. I’m somewhere along the twisting, turning crags, toiling in the shadows.

My endless expectations mean I spend most of my time looking upwards. All I want is to wrap my fingers around a mojito, but the summit is distant. Unreachable. Disheartening.

That horrible fanfiction made me stop and realise how much I’ve already accomplished.

The pressure of my own expectations can also be a force for good. It pushes me to improve. I might not be sipping mojitos any time soon, but I’m a damn sight closer than I was 12 years ago.

This experience has taught me that I might never be as good as I want to be — and I have to be okay with that.

So I’m faced with a choice:

  • Keep writing stuff I’m not 100% happy with, and in another 12 years have even more stories to shudder over.

  • Write nothing at all, and let the mountain defeat me.

It’s a non-choice, really.

Maybe I’ll never be the next Neil Gaiman. But if I keep writing, there’s a 0.01% chance that I’ll find myself sipping mojitos on that mountaintop.

And who doesn’t like a good mojito?

The Expectation Barrier

In elementary, I played the piano.

I loved it. The sound of each note, the click clack of the keys beneath my fingers. My feet could barely touch the pedals. I would listen to music and ache with an intense hunger to know how to make something so beautiful. But I dreaded recitals, performances.

In middle school, I started horse riding.

I grew to love the smell of leather, the tack room, the soft velvet of a horse’s nose. The freedom I felt when riding, how my stresses were trampled away under thundering hooves. But my riding instructor wanted me to compete, said there was no point riding otherwise.

In high school, I did cross country.

This time, I knew it was a competitive sport. I knew that the goal was to run fast, to win the race. But once again, I didn’t see it in that way. I loved the harmony of my limbs moving together, the adrenaline spike after a long run. I hated the timers, the metrics, the comparisons.

Today, I don’t play piano, I don’t ride, and I certainly don’t run.

Today, I write fiction.

I love the adrenaline rush of a new idea, of new characters unfolding. I love the freedom, how it burns away my stress. I love writing those climactic scenes that make your heart ache.

Writing gives me everything my previous hobbies gave me, and more. It’s the ONE. It matters.

Yet… I stopped writing recently.

Why?

Last month I talked about the lies I told myself: that I didn’t have time to write. I realise now that it’s my responsibility to change the status quo, and part of that will involve holding myself accountable.

Thinking back, I fell out of love with the piano, riding and running once they became competitions. Once I became good enough that either those around me — or I myself — began to expect more. Once I realised that I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. That I might never be as good as I wanted to be.

Every time I’ve set myself targets (x number of words per day, finish the novel by this date, etc) — I’ve hit a wall, and failed.

And now that I’ve been struggling to write, I wonder: have I hit this same wall? The barrier of my own expectations, the pressure to win?

Perhaps.

So I’m going to start small, and promise myself one thing: Tuesday night is writing night. It doesn’t matter how many words I write, or which project I work on.

I’m not here to win anything; I’m here to rediscover why I love writing.

Because, after all, writing is THE ONE.

The Lies I Tell Myself

I’ve been lying to myself.

We all tell lies, little stories, versions of the truth that comfort us somehow.

We justify our behaviour. Tell ourselves we don’t care about something because we’re afraid of losing it. Tell ourselves we’re more important/prettier/better than someone else, because we know we’re not.

Me? I’ve been lying to myself about not having the time to write.

The little story I’ve been telling myself is that there are two sides to me:

  • Writer Anna, a creative daydreamer who loves stories and romance
  • Work Anna, an efficient, no-nonsense print production manager

In the last few years, my job has grown rapidly. The more success I have, the more responsibility I’m given.

Yet this eats into my mental energy. By the time I step out of the office, my brain has turned to mush. I’m drained; I cannot face writing.

That’s why I haven’t been writing, I tell myself. No time, no energy. There’s nothing I can do about it.

That simply isn’t true.

I see authors on twitter juggling jobs, kids, partners, friends and writing without batting an eye. If they’ve found a solution, why can’t I strike that balance?

The truth is, “it’s a scheduling conflict” is a far more comforting story than “I’m lazy and/or lack motivation”. (Ironic, really, given that my day job is all about workflow management…)

Yes, work is tiring, and I need to pay the bills, and I need a social life… but it’s a lie to say that I’m doing everything I can.

Ultimately I have two options:

  1. Keep lying to myself, and pretend there is nothing I can do to change the status quo.

  2. Or admit that however I ended up in this creative rut, this dry spell of blank pages, it’s my responsibility to find a solution — because no one else will.

Now, let me get those schedules out…

Let Them Write Cake

Last Sunday I baked a batch of jam tarts that failed spectacularly.

I rolled the pastry too thick, didn’t put enough jam, and proceeded to overcook them. My boyfriend kindly described them as “interesting” — I’d show you a photo if I wasn’t so embarrassed.

It’s rather ironic, therefore, that one of my most viewed posts is this delicious analogy comparing fiction to baking cakes.

The truth is, I consider myself both a good baker and a good writer. Not brilliant at either, mind, but certainly past novice level.

Writing credits aside, I’m a brownie queen. A chocolate chip cookie ninja. I’ve successfully made jam tarts numerous times.

Yet last weekend I screwed up. My skills are rusty. I’m cake-deprived!

Before you start questioning my sanity and/or blood sugar levels, I’ll get to the point:

Writing — and baking — take practice.

I’ve no qualms about throwing a failed cake into the bin. I didn’t let those jam tarts prey on my mind, or give me baker existential crisis.

There’s nothing wrong with having an “off” day: I know I can do it, I’ve learnt my lesson, and I’ve moved on.

Yet when it comes to writing, I take each failure personally.

I come away from an unproductive writing session with nothing to show for it and feel DEFEATED. Plagued with doubts.

It was only when I was surveying the desolate landscape of overcooked crumbs, that I remembered to stop beating myself up.

While writing means a lot more to me than baking does, the principles are the same: practice makes perfect.

Instead of letting my failures knock my confidence, I should treat each writing setback like that batch of jam tarts: learn and move on.

Eventually, I will write cake.