An Awesome New Worldbuilding Tool

If you write secondary world fantasy in a pre-modern, pseudo-Medieval setting, you are going to find thisverycool:

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World

What is it?

It’s like GoogleMaps for the ancient Roman world.

You just enter in your parameters and voila!  Orbis calculates the best route for you and tells you how long it will take.  And there are a lot of parameters: not just departure point and destination, but time of year, method of travel, relative expensiveness of travel, etc.

In other words, this is really cool.

A word of warning, though: it only appears to work with a fairly updated browser (like IE 9 or a more recent Firefox installation, and you’ll want to temporarily turn off any script blockers you might have on). 

This is going into my worldbuilding and inspiration toolkit along with:

I just wanted to share this with you all.  I haven’t had a chance to play with it much, yet, but what I’ve seen of it is pretty cool.

Oh, and all those other things I just linked… I’ve shared them around here before, haven’t I?  No?  Oh.  Well, those things are cool tools to help your worldbuilding, too.  Check them out if you haven’t seen them.

Interrogating the Text #3: Michael Corradi Wields a “Ghiling Blade”

This is a continuation of my occasional series on what I can learn on the craft of writing from reading the stories of accomplished professionals and examining and understanding my reactions.

For an explanation of what I’m attempting in this series, go here

Michael Corradi’s “The Ghiling Blade”, which appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is a story that stayed with me and haunted me for some time after I finished reading it.  It was a powerful story taking place in a world that was rich with wonder and amazement.  Unfortunately, as it appeared in a print mag, I can’t link you to it (but if you can track down back issues of the magazine for a reasonable price, I’d recommend it just for this story), so after reviewing the story I’ll try to provide a little context about the story before getting to the writing lessons.

So, the review:  I absolutely enjoyed this story.  Oftentimes, though, when I enjoy a story I can still find some little thing that wasn’t quite right, that didn’t set well with me.  That is not the case with “The Ghiling Blade”.  I can honestly say that this story was a nearly perfect execution of style, ideas, theme, character, and plot.  It surprised and delighted me, and its world has already wormed its way under my skin.  It has been quite some time now since I read this story, and I still think back to it, and have already been comparing my ideas and my stories against the sheer wonder this story induced in me.  My only caveat to this uncompromisingly positive review relates to the main character’s name, which falls into the trap of the fantasy-cliche-pointless-apostrophe.  The only other word of caution: this is a dense story filled to the brim with things fantastical and amazing.  The world it portrays is very far from the mundanities of our own reality.  If you’re familiar and comfortable with fantasy fiction in general, or with the unusual and the bizarre, this will be a comfortable and exciting read.  But if you’re not, there’s a lot to take in and process in this story.

So, that dispenses with that.  But what was this story about?  Well, for starters, it was a fantasy.  There was magic.  There were epic battles between the massive armies of powerful nations.  There were bizarre and alien gods inhabiting otherworldly temples. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Lessons

At first I was a little embarrassed that I was going to write three entries to run a full analysis of lessons learned from Lev Grossman’s novel, The Magicians.  I was able to contain a short review, analysis, and lessons learned of the short story discussed in my first “Interrogating the Text” series in a single post.  And then I realized: waitaminit… a novel is a lot longer than a short story, and there’s a lot more depth to what’s going on in a novel.  It only makes sense that a complete textual analysis for a novel is going to be longer than for a short story.  Heck… I’m probably missing a lot even confining it to three overlong posts.

That said, to get the full benefit of this post, you’ll probably want to check out the prior two posts discussing my reading of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians: here and here.  The first is a relatively spoiler-free review that discusses my initial reactions to the book.  The second is a deeper and more thorough (and far more spoilery) analysis of why I had the reaction I had.  Now, I want to bring it all together to talk about the lessons I think I can take away from all of that.

The short version, then, is that I enjoyed reading the book.  The reason I enjoyed it was, mostly, for the high-quality prose, style and voice of the book, first of all, and for the clever twists and tweaks on common and sometimes-cherished, sometimes-maligned fantasy (and YA fantasy, especially) tropes. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Analysis

Last time I picked up the pieces of this “Interrogating the Text” series and gave you a general review of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  But I wanted to talk a little about the writing lessons I learned from this book: what I liked, what I disliked, why I liked or disliked it, and what I can learn from that to apply to my own writing.

The remainder of this discussion won’t make much sense if you haven’t read The Magicians, I’m afraid.  And if you haven’t read it, and think you might like to, this post will contain spoilers for the ending of the book.  If you’re not sure if you’d like to, may I suggest you take a gander at my review in last week’s post, or this review here.  And one last warning: I’m going really in depth here, so this post is rather quite a bit long.  So settle in for an epic journey, if novel-writing-lessons are your cup of tea.

First, I want to make it clear, in case it wasn’t in my earlier post: I really enjoyed reading this book.  It was compelling and interesting.  For much of the book, it was a page-turner.  But I wasn’t satisfied by it’s ending.  Something felt off about it.

So let’s dig into that.

What did I like about The Magicians?  I liked the book’s style: while not as lyrical or poetic, for instance, as the works of Cathrynne Valente, it was nonetheless composed with a very compelling and interesting style.  It’s intelligent, and it makes no excuses for its intelligence.  It comes with a clear literary pedigree, but instead of eschewing the conventions of genre or speculative fiction and especially of YA fantasy (despite being decidedly not a YA book). 

I especially liked the manner with which the book played with genre conventions, and the clever use of a book (series)-within-a-book.  The Magicians plays up the tropes of the normal-person-enters-magical-world (i.e. “portal fantasy”) at every turn, and cleverly lampshades these conventions several times.  (For example, the Harry Potter books are mentioned by name in the course of the narrative, as is Tolkien’s Middle Earth.)  And there’s a lot of cool meta-fictional layers to the whole idea of Fillory in the book.  For example: Christopher Plover, the fictional author of the Fillory books, has a webpage.  There are even web pages for “fans” of the Fillory series.

But there were some difficult things about The Magicians as well, and they relate primarily to the characters and to the ending.

The characters are somewhat problematic in The Magicians because most of them, with the exception of Alice, are to a greater or lesser degree unlikable. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #2: Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians” – The Review

Some time ago – back in August, now – I started a new, very occasional series of posts focused on critically reading and reviewing published works of fiction that I call “Interrogating the Text”.  The series, so far, has had a grand total of one entry (on the subject of Catherynne Valente’s “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While”).  Today marks the second entry in that occasional series.

I recently finished reading Lev Grossman‘s send-up to the fantasy genre: The Magicians.  It was an interesting read – I enjoyed it but, as I say, with caveats – and at about the two-thirds mark I resolved to blog about my reactions to the book: what I liked and what I disliked and why.

I’m going to start this off with a relatively spoiler-free review of the book, in a general sense, before I load up with an extra helping of spoilers and do the in-depth analysis that someday if this series ever gets more than two entries will be thought the hallmark of the “Interrogating the Text” series.  I’ll be breaking this down, then, into two posts.  One for the review, and one for the spoilery analysis.

So… Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.  I liked it, but with caveats.  I keep saying that.  What does that mean?  It means that I found the writing and story to be engaging and interesting.  It was very well-written, stylistically.  The prose was at times poetic, clean, and evocative.  I kept reading because I found I had to know what happened next.  And yet, at the end of the story, I wasn’t satisfied. Continue reading

Interrogating the Text #1: Cat Valente & Fairyland

I read a short story recently, and I wanted to share it.  I figured: what the heck, I’m a writer writing about writing on my blog, and especially about Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and the Greater Speculative Fiction Metropolitan Area.  So I can just post a link to a short story that I think deserving of attention!  Besides, it’s my blog, so nyeh!

But then I thought about it a little more.  I don’t often give writing advice, per se, on my blog because I don’t know that I’m really qualified to do that.  I do talk about how I do what I do – how I write.  But, if there’s a story I decide I particularly like, might it not benefit me to dig a little deeper into it to try to understand why?  And, if so, might that deeper exploration be of similar value to my readers?

Hey, why not?  Long ago, when I was in a middle school art class, I had a teacher who encouraged us to learn art technique by trying to copy the works of more famous authors.  (I attempted a rendition of Winslow Homer‘s “The Fox Hunt“, committing a terrible replica of which I am oddly still a little proud.)  As it turns out, studying the techniques of more advanced, more skillful, and more worthy artists is an excellent way to improve your own technique.  (I’ll never be a famous painter – probably because I’ve put more effort into learning the craft of writing than of painting, because as much as I enjoy painting I enjoy writing more – but I’m a passably fair artist with a pencil or a brush.)  So today begins a new, occasional and periodic feature here at “The Undiscovered Author” that I call “Interrogating the Text” in which I do a little analysis on a story that I’ve read – and let’s see if together we can’t learn a thing or two about the craft of writing.  Most – possibly all – of my example stories will be Speculative in some nature, and I’ll try  to reference stories that I can link to so you guys at home can follow along.

To kick this off, I thought I’d point you all to a delightful little story called “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While” by Catherynne M. Valente.  It’s available to read for free on Tor.com.  “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland” is described by Valente as a prequel to her recently published novel “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making“, and as a bridge to that novel’s sequel.  I have not read the novel – it was on my list, but after reading this story it may have to be bumped up the list by a few slots.  This story is really quite remarkable in ways that are difficult to understand right away. Continue reading

Worldbuilding & Relevance

I’ve been doing a good amount of writing this week so far (we’ll see how things go in my weekly writing recap).  Since finishing the first draft of the short story I’m working on, all of my wordcount has been on worldbuilding for “The Book of M”.  And so I got to thinking about the subject of worldbuilding this week.

As I’ve reported previously, the topic of worldbuilding came up during author Brandon Sanderson’s Fantasy Writing Crash Course Q&A at JordanCon 2011.  The relevant question related to avoiding “Worldbuilder’s Disease”.  If you lean toward the “Planner” end of the Planning-Pantsing spectrum (or we can call it the “Architect” end of the “Architect-Gardener spectrum”), you likely know what that means: endlessly tooling around with the background world details – the history, the magic system, the cosmologies and religions, the languages, and so on – without ever reaching an end-point and saying “I have enough now to write the actual book”.  It’s really quite common, and I’ve felt that urge.  Brandon’s advice was to focus on the key elements of the conflict of your story, and worldbuild out from there.  As your worldbuilding gets less and less relevant to the conflict and the plot, you stop worldbuilding and focus on writing the story.

What, then, is relevant?  How do you find that line where the worldbuilding you’re doing becomes irrelevant? Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: The Birth of Religion

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe

National Geographic is, as ever, fascinating.  In this latest article, I found a piece that resonates strongly with me and with my writing.

I’m at an early stage of my writing “career”, such as it is, so I can’t really say there are any strong or recurrent themes on which I have frequently touched in the body of my work.  That said, I do feel like there is a pattern to it.  One strongly recurrent theme is the relationship between mythology and religion.  And religion is important to me, on a personal level as well. 

And so, this article was entirely fascinating to me, and is the subject of today’s Tidbits of Inspiration.  The article is about the excavation of an archeological site in Turkey called Göbleki Tepe (which I actually know how to pronounce by virtue of my visit to Istanbul).  What’s astonishing about the site: it appears to be a religious mecca – a massive temple complex – that dates back to the early Neolithic period and 7,000 years before the building of Stone Henge – a period when organized religion, according to old theories, had not yet developed.  The site suggests a profoundly different development of human civilization than anthropologists and archeologists had long thought: one in which organized religious worship was central to the development of human society from the hunter-gatherer period into the stable, agriculture-focused communities that gave rise to the long arc of human recorded history. Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: Culture & Kisses

For most speculative fiction writers Worldbuilding is an important part of writing – whether you do it up-front before you dive into your narrative or more on the back-end as an organic outgrowth of the writing process.  And  if you’re worldbuilding, you’ll probably have to think, at least a little, about culture.

And so it was that I was fascinated to listen to this story, today, on NPR: “Of War and Kisses: How Adversity Shapes Culture“.  The article is about a study that draws a link between national adversity (war and contention with neighbors and other problems and disasters) and population density with the relative strictness or tightness of a culture.  There seems to be, based on this study, some correlation between nations that are constantly embattled or face regular hardship and a very strict culture, and likewise between very dense populations and a very strict culture, whereas the reverse also seems to be true: nations that are not constantly embattled or which have very diffuse populations tend to be less strict or tight, and more accepting of cultural faux pas.  Although, there are, of course, exceptions.

Still, it’s an interesting thing to think about, when you get to the part of your worldbuilding where you’re thinking about the cultures you are portraying in your story.  Go take a look at the story on NPR and let it muddle around in your mind a bit…

The Maker’s Art, Part 3: Creating Mythopoeia and Anthropological Artifacts

Last week I waded into long discussion in which I tried to draw a clear line between what constitutes a work of “Mythopoeia” and what is only “Fantasy” – acknowledging along the way that Mythopoetic works can be something other than Fantasy.  My position is perhaps an arguable one, but I’m comfortable delineating Mythopoeia as separate from other forms of Speculative Fiction, and even defining it as separate from the physical “artifacts” that represent it.  Mythopoeia is an idea, something that lives in the hearts and minds of both creators and producers of artistic works.  But it is an idea that we engage by interfacing with those anthropological artifacts: be they written works such as novels, poems, epics, webpages and blog posts, or be they visual works of art, sculptures, paintings, and photographs, or be they motion pictures or music, or be they works in an interactive medium like video games, table-top games, or board games, or be they some sort of new and evolving oral history. There are a variety of mechanisms by which mythopoetic works can be expressed in physical form.  But I’m primarily interested in the written form and those that can benefit from the techniques of the written form. 

By now, you must be wondering… so what?  What does it matter?  Why did I set out to try to define Mythopoeia in the first place?  And, having done so, to what use could this definition be put?

Last time, I mentioned my contention that few writers today are consciously attempting to write something that might be called Mythopoeia.  And part of the reason is that writing Mythopoeia is hard.  It requires thinking at a whole different level, layered on top of the thinking that goes into writing a novel.  I could say the entire essay has been a long way of saying it was partly this realization that forced me to conclude that I wasn’t ready to write “Project SOA #1” yet.  Because as I’ve spent years developing background detail, filling several notebooks with thoughts and ideas on historical and mythological complications, I’ve discovered how truly difficult it is to organize a coherent, complete, and engaging mythology, and how challenging it is to weave that into the primary narrative.  Because as an idea takes hold, if you think about it for a while, you realize the idea has implications – huge implications – that must necessarily change the plot and direction of the novel itself.  This is but one of the challenges I faced with making “Project SOA” work (another being a serious grappling with clichés, tropes, and genre conventions, and better understanding them and when and whether to use them, or if not to use them, how to adjust my plot and characters to compensate).

But the whole point of coming to a better understanding of what is or is not Mythopoeia has been to better equip me with the tools to write novels that rest on the bedrock of a solid mythopoem.  Why would I want to do that?  On one level, because it’s intellectually interesting to me.  I find intrinsic value in the creation of a coherent mythological narrative.  But there’s a baser reasoning, too. 

Consider all the most popular works of fiction in the last hundred years.  I’ve talked before about the “triumph of fantasy and speculative fiction” in the larger popular culture.  But at another level, the best works of fantasy and speculative fiction – those with the most enduring fandoms and the most engaged fans – are often among those with strongest mythopoetic frameworks.  This isn’t universally true (for instance, I mentioned Harry Potter last week, and how I don’t find it to be strongly mythopoetic in nature), nor is the reverse necessarily true either: if you have strong mythopoetic underpinnings to your work you won’t necessarily write a best-seller.  But the more strongly a work is predicated on a complex and coherent mythopoetic framework, the more easily engaged its audience.

If you accept this outcome as desirable (or even better, if you find the idea of writing mythopoeia intellectually interesting and stimulating), then you may wonder: how do I do this? Continue reading