Worldbuilding 101: Holidays Part Two

You guys are awesome. I don’t know if last week’s blog resonated with a lot of readers or you were taking pity on an insecure writer (I’m hoping for the first, but I’ll take the second.) but I got more likes faster than any previous post.

You may also be behind the upswing on my Pinterest account. Still didn’t sell any books on kindle, but I remain hopeful.

So, holidays, part two. The problem with putting this off two weeks is I can no longer remember what it was I wanted to say. Hopefully I can remember and put in some good points anyway.

When is your holiday? Is it by the solar calendar, the lunar calendar, always the same day of the week? Christmas is by the solar calendar. It is always December twenty-fifth. Easter is reckoned by the lunar calendar, because Passover is by the lunar calendar. It is also always on the same day of the week (Sunday), like American Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday in November. In Canada, it’s on the second Monday in October.

I can see the Weres using the lunar calendar more commonly, and perhaps the vampires wish to avoid the solar calendar as well. Do races that interact with each other more start using other calendars?

Perhaps your races use another calendar entirely? In Knightfall, there is brief mention of a Yeti holiday, First Winter’s Night which begins the Festival of Ice. Winter is declared to begin when the ice is thick enough to support the full weight of an adult yeti. But no one knows when that will be ahead of time. Also in Knightfall, Violet wishes a goblin RA a happy Mid-year’s day on New Year’s Eve, because the goblin New Year is sometime in June, based on goblin constellations. So, a stellar calendar. Maybe your holiday revolves around a blooming of a plant or the return of a migratory bird or animal.

How is time measured? Without a moon, we may not have months as we know them and it would be harder to differentiate the beginning and end of the year.

Holidays can be heavily linked to the values of the culture. Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? Mother’s Day and Father’s Day? Because as a society we are supposed to be grateful and honor our parents and ancestors. Some holidays are made up for commercial reasons. Does anyone really think there is a good reason behind National Ice Cream month other than to sell more ice cream? (I originally used National Pancake day and National doughnut day, but apparently there are reasons behind them.)

Most religions have a day they consider more sacred than others. Most Christians (other than Seventh Day Adventists) have Sunday as a day of rest. Most Jews (and the Seventh Day Adventists) consider Saturday the Sabbath. The Muslims consider Friday a holy day. This is essentially a minor holiday each week. If you are inventing a religion for your race, a weekly holy day is not a bad consideration.

When does the holiday begin? Is it at midnight? At dawn? At sundown the night before? How old is your holiday? You may not think that matters, but it does. What a holiday is meant to be is not always closely related to what it becomes after some decades of time. Memorial Day is supposed to be a time to remember those who have fallen in battle. It was originally observed by decorating the graves of soldiers (and by some partisan speeches and bickering). But it has been turned into a three day weekend which is often celebrated by cookouts. I don’t believe I did anything last Memorial Day. I’m not passing judgement, but I think we can all admit the holiday changed over the years. The further a holiday is from the original founding, the more likely that the meaning and way of celebrating has changed.

Have fun making up your own holidays and celebrating the upcoming ones!

A little note, I’ve made Hyde University pins. You can see them and read about the development of the Hyde University crest on Facebook.

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Impostor Syndrome and Writer’s Envy

Sorry about being late posting this week. Yesterday was supposed to be spent catching up on my NaNoWriMo word count, and I didn’t really succeed on that either. I also appolgize for changing the topic I had planned. I still plan to do a Holidays Part Two (probably next week), but wanted to cover an issue (two, really) that I’m struggling with a bit right now.

First off, Impostor Syndrome. The feeling that you are actually a failure, and sooner or later, everyone is going to catch on. It’s actually extremely common, and ironically, it becomes more common the more successful you become.

I’m working on a new book, and the plot simply isn’t coming. I don’t know what I’m going to write. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I definitely don’t know if I’m going to finish fifty thousand word this November. I’ve been okay with rewriting, but have had a hard time coming up with anything new for almost a year. Maybe my creativity has run out…

No, it hasn’t. And I know it. But that doesn’t stop me from feeling that way sometimes. Doesn’t stop me from wondering what right do I have to advise other writers. Doesn’t stop me from wondering why I even bother to write.

But I know why I write. Because I can’t not write. Sure, times will happen when I have a dry spell, maybe even a long one. But I’ve been there before, and that time will pass. I will come up with new ideas, and while the book I’m working on (Book three of the Moonlit Memories series) may not be written this month, it will get written.

Which comes to the other part. Will it be any good? Will people want to read it? What right do I have to convince people to spend their hard-earned money on my books? Is my writing good enough?

I re-read my work, and I see the flaws. I see the stupid typos and mistakes that somehow made it through despite the story being checked by three different people. I see the factual mistakes I made despite checking for the truth. I see the lousy sentences, the places where the plot is thin, where the characters don’t act like they should. I read the story I’m currently working on and it’s lousy in parts.

But it’s a first draft. All first drafts are lousy. It’s the nature of first drafts. There are a small, infinitesimal number of people who can write a good first draft, but most of us, are re-writers. If we get a good finished product, does it really matter if it was draft one or draft fifty-one?

I know that I am not the best writer in the entire world, because there is no such thing. Your favorite writers are not my favorite writers, and writing is subjective anyway. By the same quality, I’m not the worst writer in the world.

I believe that I am a good writer. I know that there are others who like my writing. It is my hope that someday there will be a lot more people who enjoy my writing. Will I suffer from Impostor Syndrome in the future? Undoubtedly.  But in my case, knowing that others, even ones as famous as Maya Angelou  and Neil Gaiman (Do read the Neil Gaimon link, it’s great!) suffered from it too, helps.  Hopefully it helps you too.

In a weird irony, I think Impostor Syndrome is linked to Writer’s Envy. Basically, the other side of the same coin. “I’m a better writer than …. Why are they so successful and I’m still struggling?” Or, “I deserve this award more than…” Or, “How did so and so sell ten thousand copies of their book, and I only sold three thousand? Or none.”

It takes a certain amount of arrogance to be a writer. To assume that others will actually want to read your thoughts, your stories. We have to assume that our work is worth reading.

And the cool thing is, it is! Your work does have worth, and no matter how good or bad your writing is, there will be people who love it. And there will be people who hate it. Because you can’t please everybody. And there is no guaranteed way to please the majority either.

But it can be hard sometimes, comparing yourself to others. Wondering why they get success and you don’t. I’m running a sale on Secrets of the Moon Fox on kindle, ($0.99 right now). It’s been going on for almost a week and the sale ends tomorrow. It hasn’t sold a single copy yet. Despite my advertising it here, Facebook, and Pinterest. I’ve had two new books come out, and so far, neither have sold a single copy. I don’t think I need to tell you how discouraging that is.

But it is not because I am a lousy writer. People who read my books seem to enjoy them. I get likes on these blog posts. I know I can write.

It’s because I am an obscure writer. So I continue. The only way to succeed is through continuing until I am less obscure. But only I can determine what success is for me. And if I continue to compare myself to others (“I’m not successful until I’ve sold as many copies as …”), then I will only make myself miserable. And that kind of comparison has the tendency to move the goal posts. First we have to sell two stories like John did, then, when we do that, we have to get at least as positive a review as Susan did, then we have to sell a book like Luke did…

Remember, we’re all writers. We’re all a little crazy in our own way, and while our work is just as worthy to be read as someone else’s, that someone else’s work is just as worthy to be read as yours. The writing world is big enough for all of us.

 

P.S. You could make me deliriously happy by buying a book, or even just reading them in the Kindle lending library. First chapter of Secrets of the Moon Fox is available for free online here, for those who like to try before they buy. I am also made happy by likes and comments on my blog posts, likes and comments on Facebook, and saves on Pinterest. And I love positive reviews. Basically, any interaction makes me happy.

Tricks and Treats

Nightmare’s Revenge is now available on Amazon in paperback and kindle! Yay! To celebrate that, and my birthday (tomorrow) I have a present for all of you.

From November 1st to November 8th (I don’t remember the exact hours), Secrets of the Moon Fox will be available in kindle format for a reduced rate. The rate goes up as time passes so get it early. It is so important to read Secrets of the Moon Fox before Nightmare’s Revenge that I am hesitant to even post the first chapter of Nightmare’s Revenge online like I did for the rest.  For non-spoiler-y (mostly) excerpts of both books, check out my Facebook and Pinterest accounts.

I had a lot of things I wanted to mention in the blog post about holidays, but I had to finish up in a hurry and get to work, so I’m turning yesterday’s post into Part One, and Part Two will be next week.

Happy Halloween!

Worldbuilding 101: Holidays

Since tomorrow is Halloween, this seems like an appropriate time to mention holidays. Holidays are intrical to our culture, and always have been. I see no reason for that to change, or for it not to be the case for non-human sentients. While you can ignore them completely, they can also add a fascinating layer to your stories.

Holidays are, at their heart, community affairs. Even private holidays, like birthdays and anniversaries, are usually celebrated with a group, at very least family. Some holidays are major holidays. Whether you celebrate it or not, you know that Christmas is December 25. That happens to be the only day of the year my current job isn’t open. But on the other hand, without looking it up, I can’t tell you even what month ‘National Secretary’s Day‘ is. Apparently that’s in April in this country (and is a little more complex than I realized). Is your holiday one that affects the entire community, or one that is mostly ignored?

That can change depending on location. No one cares here whether or not I wear green (or orange, since I’m Protestant and green is supposed to represent Catholics) for St. Patrick’s Day. It seemed like a bigger deal when I lived up in Pennsylvania and Delaware. And I’m told (though it’s probably exaggerated) that wearing the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood on that day in Ireland can be a good way to get hurt. When I lived in Russia, December 25th wasn’t a holiday at all. Under communism, Christmas was banned, and the holiday moved to New Year‘s. People have new year’s trees, Grandfather Frost gives out new year’s presents, etc. They do have a Christmas, which is January 7th, and that is purely a religious holiday, and generally a quiet one. Meanwhile, International Women’s day (March 8th) is a big deal over there, and it is customary to give flowers to women of your acquaintance. In the States, most people probably don’t know when that is.

Is your holiday historical, religious, or tradition? Do people get off work and school? Or is it mostly just another day? How is your holiday celebrated? Food is an important part of most holidays, either the partaking of or abstaining from. In the United States, we celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, but not other holidays for the most part. In Russia, almost every holiday was celebrated with fireworks. We would stand on our balcony and see over a dozen different displays.

How do you come up with holidays? Pretty easily. Look at what’s celebrated around the world. Most cultures have a day for remembering the dead (often, but not always, in the fall), a day for renewal and rebirth in the spring, a day for the founding of their nation or people group, a day for their leader or leaders (President’s day here, other places may celebrate the birthday of the current ruler), and at least one community gift giving festival. Your story involves a colony of humans on Mars? What about colony founding day? Or the birthday of the first leader? Your main characters are a community of Elves? Probably a few nature based holidays.

Different people celebrate holidays differently. The way my family celebrates Christmas is different from anyone else I’ve heard. Your family traditions are not the same as another’s. Different groups (racial, ethnic, or religious) will probably celebrate different holidays. Can minorities celebrate their holidays openly?

Okay, but what if you want to write a darker story? No feel good holidays here. Well, holidays have their darker side too, don’t they? Any holiday that involves drinking runs the risk of drunkenness and the assorted chaos that goes with it. Stress goes up during the holidays, as does domestic violence. Those who have lost loved ones find holidays particularly hard. And what if your holiday has a darker side built in? Who says that the vampires don’t have a few humans kept in stock for Bloodletting Day?

Holidays are what you make them. Enjoy.

Book note. Nightmare’s Revenge, the sequel to Secrets of the Moon Fox comes out tomorrow. Check it out. Warning, this is one case where you really do have to read the first book first. More information to come. Check out my Facebook and Pinterest accounts. I’ve got excerpts up and random quotes from my books. It’s fun.

Worldbuilding 101: Food and Drink

On first appearance, this might seem like too narrow a topic for a blog post. After all, does it really matter? Can’t you write a whole book without ever bothering to mention what your characters ate or drank? Yes, you can. And it might even be a good book. Will your book be any better for mentioning food and/or drink? Maybe. Maybe not.

Consider this. Eating has deep emotive roots for humans. Who we eat with, what we eat, when we eat it; it all matters. A dinner for two by candlelight, a giant cake shared by friends, chips and pretzels at a sports party, cold pizza eaten alone at breakfast. They all bring up different emotional responses. Why not spend an extra few minutes considering what your characters do or don’t eat?

Who does one typically eat with?

Are most meals communal? Do families separate? Do men eat one place, women another, children a third? Is eating an intensely private thing? What happens when characters from communities that have different practices collide?

What is eaten when?

Are certain foods reserved for or forbidden at special times? Fruitcake is generally a Christmas treat. Most Jews avoid yeast at Passover. You don’t eat oysters in a month that doesn’t have an ‘R’ in it. Is the reason for this practical (the oysters), traditional (fruitcake), or religious (yeast)? Or a combination of the above?

What is taboo?

I don’t recommend necessarily using your own diet as a guide here. We are fortunate enough to live in a time and place where we as a society can afford to be picky. Not everyone does. Americans, by and large, balk at the idea of eating insects while much of the rest of the world doesn’t blink an eye at that. Like the above, is your reason for the taboo practical, tradition, or religious? Is a sacred animal not eaten? Eaten only at certain times and in certain ways?

Salt has an interesting enough history to write a novel solely about it. There were times salt was worth more than it’s weight in gold. In some cultures, sharing salt with someone was the same as a binding peace treaty. Wars have been fought over salt and the access to it. In Russia, when a young couple marry, upon their return from their honeymoon, they are supposed to be presented with bread and salt.

If you have non-humans, things can get even more interesting. There is no reason in the world that your non-humans should have the same exact diet range as a human. In the Moonlight Memories series, Liska’s food allergies have been used as minor plot points. In the Hyde Chronicles, Violet makes a point not to pay too much attention to what others eat, because some of it is really disturbing from a human point of use. Can these differences be plot relevant? No reason why not. Maybe something healthy to one is poisonous to another. Tell me you can’t make a plot point out of that.

Even if you are using humans, if they are in a different world, they will eat different things. One of my works in progress is a fantasy world where they don’t have horses (though unicorns do exist, but they are aggressive and you don’t want to get near them), but there are giant lizards that are used as pack animals. It occurred to me that such a society would probably use as much of the lizard as possible. Lizard leather, lizard meat, etc. Much like the ancient Mongols used horses for everything, and some still do. Horse meat, mare’s milk, horse hair, etc. Can’t use lizard milk because lizards aren’t mammals, but close enough.

Consider the society you are using. Nomads should have a different diet than farmers who have a different diet than fishermen. Those who spend most of the hours of the day working aren’t likely to spend much time and effort into making the food look better, unless that is their work. What’s the level of technology? If there isn’t much in the way of refrigeration, foods have to be preserved or eaten quickly. Try some research into other time periods and see some of the things they did with food. Even in the middle ages, for banquets, the food was supposed to be decorative as well as tasty. Can’t say I would necessarily want to eat a lot of it, but they took pride in their work just as we do today.

No, I haven’t forgotten drink. It’s easy to overlook the possibilities for beverages. Water is a given, no matter how dry a climate may be. If there is no water, there is no life. Fermented beverages usually came next. Mostly from grapes and similar, but mead comes from honey, and a popular drink in Russia called kvass, is made from bread mold. That comes in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties. In places where the water quality is bad, it might actually be safer to drink alcohol.  Milk is common though not always from cows. Milk can come from any lactating mammal. Goat’s milk is relatively common even in this society, and I’ve heard of people drinking mare’s milk. Other possible sources are sheep, camel, reindeer, buffalo, donkey, yak, and moose. Why not consider some of the options in your world? Don’t forget teas of various sorts whether they include actual tea leaves or not. These can be used for refreshment, for medicine, for magic or religious ceremonies. Most fruits and some vegetables can be made into juice. Perhaps they all can but some are less appealing than others.

Some books talk a lot about food, some do not. Neither is inherently wrong. It’s just another layer you can use. Definitely something worth considering. You can always add recipes as an added bonus for your readers. Bon Appetit!

Update

Sorry I’ve been off for awhile. Sometimes I get blocked and then distracted. I hope to have a real post on Monday. But in the meantime, I’m pleased to make a few announcements.

Knightfall, the sequel to The Pawn’s Play, is now out as the second book in the Hyde Chronicles. Available on Createspace and Amazon. First chapter can be read for free here.

I now have a Facebook and a Pinterest account. Each has unique items that are not available elsewhere. With a little luck and organization, the plan is to release a blog post on Monday, new pins on Wednesday, and something new on Facebook on Friday. Being me, this probably won’t work out for long, but here’s hoping. Check them out.

Nightmare’s Revenge, second book in the ‘Moonlight Memories’ series will be available on Halloween. First chapter will be available soon. Sneak peek of the cover is available on Pinterest.

I will be a guest at Marscon (Jan. 12-14) and Ravencon (April 20-22). New announcements coming soon.

First Lines

I think almost every author will agree with me when I say that first lines can be the hardest thing to write. I can’t count how many times I’ve wanted to start a story, known what I wanted to say, and just stared at the empty document because I couldn’t figure out how to begin.

Unfortunately, first lines are also vital. A brilliant first line hooks the reader, leaving them wanting more. An okay first line at least leads them to read the second, hopefully the third… and so on.

I believe that pressure is one of the things that leads to the trouble of coming up with the first line. We look at brilliant first lines from famous books, and feel self-conscious, trying to come up with one just as good.

Honestly, I think some first lines are considered good because of what story they are from. Take the opening line of ‘Moby Dick’, “Call me Ishmael.” Definitely iconic, but I think that ‘Moby Dick’ made the line iconic, rather than the line making ‘Moby Dick’ a classic. Other stories, the first line is undeniably good. I remember reading a book where the first page left me wishing I had written it. Ironically enough, I still haven’t finished reading the book, meaning a great opening is not the end all and be all of catching a reader’s attention.

What makes a good first line? The ideal first line gives a small sense of situation, place, and/or character, while raising questions in the reader. The first line must make the reader want to read the second. Modern readers don’t have the patience to read a few chapters before the story gets good. You have to have them by the end of the first page.

Your story doesn’t have to start with a bang. No one has to get shot, or murdered. Nothing has to be stolen. The ancient gods don’t have to rise up against mortals or the space shuttles flee a dying earth on the first page. You can start with that, if that’s how the story demands to be written. But there are a few caveats.

When you write a story, you are entering in an implied contract with the reader. You are telling the reader that your story is worth the money spent buying it, and the time spent reading it. To be fair, you have to let your reader know what kind of story they are getting into as quickly as possible. A tender love story should not start with a brutal murder. A thriller romance on the other hand, can. However exciting your opening is, you have to top it later. A high tension opening should lead to a high tension book. Not that the tension won’t relax in places, but the tension should remain high and even increase.  Other genres expect a slower build. Some romances, literary fiction, etc. won’t expect, or even want a high impact beginning. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are more versatile. Good stories of both genres have been written with high tension beginnings or lower tension beginnings.

Two, keep in mind that we don’t know these characters yet. Even if this is a series, consider that some readers may not have read any previous stories. This could be their introduction. Putting a character in danger only works so well if the reader hasn’t had time to care about them yet. No, putting them in danger won’t make a reader care. Yes, we all feel something when we see the baby stroller start to roll into traffic, but it won’t be nearly as much as we feel if you show us first the parents, who had struggled to have a child for years, and are so overjoyed to finally have one, even as they grieve that the doctors say they can never have another. That, and unless you are writing a very dark story, we all know that the baby will be fine. TV Tropes calls it ‘Infant Immortality’. (possible NSFW language). If you are writing a story that dark, I recommend letting the readers know before something happens to the baby.

Back to openings. With all this pressure, how do we ever begin? Well, one exercise I enjoy doing is to open a blank document and writing ten sentences that could begin a story. Don’t hold back, don’t censure yourself. Don’t even worry if they don’t make sense. Don’t limit your genre either. It’s actually surprising the way a story can twist. The same sentence can lead to a comedy, a tragedy, or even more.

After I’ve written my sentences, I like to pick one and see what kind of story it leads to. Sometimes I find that my first sentence doesn’t remain my first sentence, and that’s fine too. Others, I haven’t written, but I hope to someday because I really want to know where they go.

One sentence I came up with was I don’t bleed anymore. I’ve written a story with that, almost two. The first version, which I enjoyed, was a rather pulpy style monologue of a woman transformed into something who was confronting her killer. The first paragraph went like this:

I don’t bleed anymore. Never thought I would miss it either. I do though. Not so much the blood itself. But what it means. When I bled, I was human. I breathed. I felt pain. I don’t do those things anymore. I don’t know what I am, either.

Personally, I think that’s a decent opening. Possibly better than the opening in the second draft, which focused more on a man who woke up in the middle of the night to find something that accused him of killing her. The first paragraph went like this:

Jacob Reaves woke up and stared at the ceiling through bleary eyes. It was a few minutes before he was able to think past the headache, and nasty taste in his mouth to realize the slightly familiar ceiling wasn’t his bedroom ceiling. Shuttering his eyes, he reached out with a leg. Yup, he’d passed out on the couch. Again.

Maybe you think the second opening is better, I don’t know. Actually, I would love to know which opening you prefer. So, why did I change it? Because I believe the second version of the story is better. The reader finds out more about the characters for one. Not everything is left to the reader’s imagination. That said, I am still fond of the first version. Perhaps someday I’ll put together a collection of short stories and include it as a bonus.

Other sentences I haven’t done anything with, but am curious to see what will happen. This is the story of how I drove to work and ended up three states away with an angry possum in the back seat. Or how about: I decided to quit chocolate the day the emus robbed the store. Personally, I really want to know how those are connected. Then there’s Helios bridled his horses, wondering again if it was time to retire. I don’t think that’s a retelling of the formation of the Milky Way, but I suppose it might be.

There are others, but that’s not the point. The point is that this exercise can give you a starting point. A way to play creatively. This exercise can also be done as a group. Maybe have everyone write three to five sentences and pass them to someone else. That person has to pick one and use it as a starting point for a story.

Most of all, remember that with writing, anything can change up until it’s published. Just start. You can come up with the perfect gem later.