Creating a Story Bible

There’s a common adage that a story is like an iceberg. What the reader sees is only ninety percent of what the writer knows. While that is more a rule of thumb than an absolute rule of writing, there is a fair amount of truth to it too. Not everything you dream up is going to make it into the story, or at least, it shouldn’t. I know I certainly don’t want to read three hundred pages of backstory to let me know the current political climate of your world. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t be interested in three pages of political backstory unless you can make it interesting and important to the story.

But you as the writer, need that information. And no matter how much you claim you won’t forget it, you will forget certain details. That is why it is important to write down what you want to remember. I can’t count how many times I’ve looked through old notes of stories of mine and been, ‘Huh, I had forgotten I planned that.’ Sometimes it was semi-absorbed anyway, sometimes it wasn’t.

That is what a story bible is for. What is a story bible? Essentially, it’s your notes. All the work that goes into your story. This is where you keep the master record of everything from how you spell a character’s name, to their bios, to maps, and how the world works. All the info you came up with, and what you need to know to write your story. What your research has found, and maybe where you got it from. A bible is particularly necessary if you are writing a series, a television series, and/or writing a collaboration with others.

Why should you keep a story bible? Isn’t is a lot of unnecessary work? It’s not like anyone else will read it anyway, right? It is work, I won’t lie. But I argue that it is both useful and necessary work. I tend to brainstorm while making notes. I come up with ideas on where to take the story, and how to give the story more depth. Re-reading through notes can sometimes help with writer’s block. It’s also useful to double-check small details like eye color, hair color, etc. without having to search through your story. Particularly if you are writing a follow up book or story.

Will anyone else read it? Well, that’s up to you. If you become popular enough, people might actually be interested in your notes. And while you probably won’t share your bible wholesale, you can put some of your notes and snippets on your website or Facebook page. Maybe even Twitter. It could be a useful bonus for your fans, or a way to get people interested in your works.

What format should this bible take? Should each story or series have its own bible? What about short stories? How long should they be?

That is very much up to you. I’m very disorganized, and frequently just open a new word document and start freewriting. Sometimes I write in notebooks or journals. (I strongly recommend making a point of carrying around a notebook. I have a nice pocket sized one.) But that’s why I’ll find my notes years later and be surprised at the differences. It’s something I need to work on especially since I have times I have to check multiple files to find the information I’m looking for. Other people are much more organized and have sections for characters, plot, world, etc.

Length? As long as it needs to be to work for you. While it isn’t uncommon for a comprehensive bible to be longer than the book it is for, that also isn’t necessary. Though the further your story is from reality, the more notes you’ll need, and the longer your bible is likely to be. Longer stories will require more extensive notes than shorter ones. While you may not wish to make separate bibles for each work, I do recommend separating stories into different sections unless they are connected.

However you take your notes, be they electronic or paper, make certain to safeguard them. Have backups. Some years ago, my computer was stolen from me. Due to various computer problems, I had gotten into the habit of emailing my completed stories to myself. But I lost all my notes. Well over a hundred pages of it. It was a severe blow, and I still haven’t made up for it

I’m almost reluctant to include this, but I feel it’s only fair. When searching for a link to a good definition for story bible, I found this blog post which covers this topic, probably better than I did. In my defense, I did write this post before I found the one I just linked to.

Diversity in writing

The world we live in is a rich, diverse place with people who come in different genders, from different national and cultural backgrounds, and different races. (Yes, we are all of the human race, but it still makes handy shorthand). That doesn’t even consider different sexual orientations, political factions, or religious affiliations. So, shouldn’t our writing reflect that?

This year’s Oscar nominees are the most diverse group yet, and I applaud that. While at the same time, I wonder why we aren’t further along. I can’t change the world, but maybe I can do a little to help, and so can you.

Your main characters are going to have to fit the story. Everything about them, from their age, gender, nationality, religious, and political leanings can be important and plot relevant (but might not be). But not every character should be a clone of your main character (unless this is a story about clones, which would still get boring and confusing if you can’t differentiate them). What about other characters? If your protagonist absolutely must be a white male Republican for the story to work, don’t try to force it by making the protagonist a black female Democrat. But unless the story takes place exclusively in a club for white male Republicans, shouldn’t some of the characters he interacts with be different? Maybe his neighbors are from China, and his best friend is a Democrat who likes to debate politics with him. Maybe his wife is a Polish immigrant who runs a daycare with her best friend who happens to be black. Perhaps there is a synagogue a block away that throws the absolute best book sale twice a year. All of this is perfectly possible and can add flavor and depth to the story without changing the character from who he is.

This can be taken too far. If your story takes place in a sixteenth century Irish monastery, the characters should be predominately white and male and any deviations should have a logical and relevant explanation. But even if you are writing a historical fantasy, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to white male characters. Even back then, women did do things, and people did travel, though not as much as they do now.

I like to try to throw in some casual diversity in my stories. For Moon Fox, I made Todd’s best friend and his sister Jamaican immigrants. At first it was just to throw it in, but it did offer me some plot opportunities. In Pawn’s Play, one of Violet’s friends, Denise is mentioned to be darker skinned and from the Bahamas. That hasn’t become plot relevant yet, but it might be at some point. Both stories take place in schools, so of course, some of the professors are female and some are male. Violet definitely has a more diverse list of professors, including a troll, a medusa, a leprechaun, and others. Liska’s professors are all humans, at least.

One book I’m still writing, I have a pantheon of nine gods, four male, four female, and Death which is neither. The main characters are a group of four, two male, two female, with one of them being half one minority, and half another minority. They spend the book traveling and rarely interact with others. I was quite pleased with the balance of the book. Then I realized they had gone at least five chapters without so much as mentioning them seeing another woman. Since the land is mostly gender equal (though definitely not class equal) that was a problem. One I hope to fix more in the rewrite. But I am trying to be more careful going forward. There is no reason they can’t get a blessing from a priestess instead of a priest. Nor any reason that shopkeeper can’t be a female. And why in the world should they be the only travelers on the road? I mean, excluding the fact that travel is extremely dangerous and time consuming.

Can your story pass the Bechdel Test (language warning)?  Do you have two named females who talk to each other about something other than a man or men in general? How about going further. Do you have two named minorities who talk to each other about something other than a white person, or white people in general? How about (if relevant to your story) two named non-humans who talk to each other about something other than a human or humans in general? While passing the test doesn’t mean you have a good story, and you can have a good story without it; you may want to ask why it can’t.

Can your female character pass the sexy lamp test? If your female character can be replaced by a sexy lamp, you don’t have a character. She’s just there for fan service. If she’s just there to give information, that substitute a sexy lamp with a post-it note. No, I didn’t come up with these tests. But I try to use them. One fanfic author summed up the first Harry Potter book with Harry Potter substituted with a Mr. Potato Head doll. The story worked scarily well. If your character, major or minor, can be replaced with an inanimate object, or an inanimate object with a post it note, you may have a problem.

Now, not every character has an important role. Sometimes you need a character that fulfills a specific role, and moves on, never to be heard from again. First body for the Sly Ferret god to possess. The shuttle pilot who just ferries the characters to Mars. Mr. Exposition. Fine. Don’t try to make them as important as the main character. But why not make them a little more interesting? Yes, it could be considered unfortunate implications (language warning) if only your bit characters are females or minorities, but why shouldn’t some of them be? Not to mention some of your more important characters?

‘But can’t make this unpleasant character a woman, minority, etc. People will think I think they’re all like that.’ Yes, they will. If that’s the only one. But why should it be? Okay so, if you make the hysterical, paranoid teacher a black woman, shouldn’t there be at least one or more calm, competent black women as well? They can be flawed in different ways, like every character should be.

Write the characters your story demands, but don’t forget that our world is rich and your characters can and should be too.

A Lunatic Post

A Lunatic Post

So, last week’s post didn’t seem to go over well. I’m disappointed but not surprised. I had trouble writing it, and it didn’t seem to go where I wanted it to. Hopefully this one will be better. I’m afraid it is a little ramble-ly, though. This post also contains minor spoilers for Secrets of the Moon Fox (Available on Amazon), and small plot hints for The Pawn’s Play (Available in November). Nothing that should spoil your enjoyment.

I read a fascinating article last week. This month, in the Western Hemisphere, there will be two new moons in the month of September. September 30th will be the second new moon. In the Eastern Hemisphere, October will have two new moons. The article proposes calling the second new moon be called a ‘black moon’ to go along with the second full moon as a ‘blue moon’. Personally I loved the idea.

I also found it ironic because in The Pawn’s Play, set in an unspecified year, I put a blue moon at the end of September. Actually, I probably cheated a little, as I don’t think you can have a blue moon on the 28th of a month. Not with a moon cycle of 29 days, but I thought it was 28 days at the time, and I’m leaving it for plot reasons. Then again, as strange as that school is, a slightly different lunar cycle would be the least of differences.

Secrets of the Moon Fox has a Werefox as a protagonist. But, as she eventually explains, being a Werefox is not anything like the stereotypical Werewolf movies. It is a purely genetic condition. One is born a Were, or one is not. Also, they have discovered in the past hundred or so years that it actually has nothing to do with the moon, but rather with two chemicals that are found in Weres but nowhere else in nature, and peak in a 28-29 day cycle. Yes, this is my own invention, but there are explanations in the book. Because of this, Weres do not always change on full moon, but each has their own cycle. Many believe there is some type of magic involved, because despite the fact that a Were’s first change isn’t until they are five years old, they almost always (95-99% chance) change on the lunar phase when they were born.

But as I was considering this yesterday, I realized that there would have been centuries where they did believe it was affected by the moon. So it only makes sense that there are a host of beliefs and superstitions about the moon and the changes involved. I’m having fun developing that.

According to the Kikisutai Clan, it is unlucky for twins not to share a lunar cycle. It is unlucky for a husband and wife to share a lunar cycle. That one is based of practicality. If they are both running around as foxes, who’s watching the children, etc. And, there is a personality theory based on lunar cycles.

Those who change on full moon are the performers, the show-offs. They thrive on having every eye on them, and they know how to keep those eyes there. Last quarter changers are the questioners, the philosophers. They ask the questions about life, and are always searching for knowledge. New moon Weres are the behind the scenes people. They see what needs to be done, and they do it, without seeking the public eye. First quarter people are the ones who are always striving for a challenge, always trying to do more.

Those who change between the four phase days are a combination of the two phases they are between. It is considered lucky to change on one of the four phase days. Naturally, like all attempts to diagnose someone’s personality through external forces, it is only so accurate.

After coming up with this theory, I went and looked up what the lunar phase for the day of my birth. I am almost exactly between last quarter and new moon. That… is actually semi accurate. You can find out the lunar phase for your birth by doing a google search for ‘Lunar phases’ and your birth year. What are you?

Contest is still open. You can win a free personalized autographed copy of Secrets of the Moon Fox, if you can tell me what the original planned release date (July 12), the actual release date (September 9) and the sequel planned release date (January 5) have in common. You can win a personalized autographed copy of either Secrets of the Moon Fox or The Pawn’s Play, if you tell me the easter egg based around the release date in the book. Because it is currently Kindle exclusive for ebooks, Secrets of the Moon Fox is available to be read for free in the Kindle lending library. I only ask that if you like the story, please leave a review.

P.S. Please tell me you understand the pun in the title.

Worldbuilding 101: Governments

Worldbuilding 101: Governments

Okay, every society, large or small, has some form of hierarchy. Even animals who live in groups tend to have an Alpha. Human governments come in four basic flavors with almost infinite variations. Basic divisions are: Rule by the many (or all), Rule by the few, Rule by the one, and Rule by none. In human societies, neither the first or last work well long term on a large scale. There are a couple cities that still practice direct democracy, where every citizen votes on every issue. I imagine they are very small cities. Rule by none, also known as anarchy, is basically chaos, and frankly, a frightening concept. Someone has to provide the framework. You may have some groups, say a group of friends who hang out, where no one is ‘in charge’ but even then, there is some form of leadership. Perhaps a temporary leadership that trades out, but leadership none the less. Someone makes a suggestion, others agree, and it happens. I imagine that in most groups, a leader forms anyway. “Let’s ask __, he/she will know what to do.”

A quote I read once that has always stuck with me, even if I don’t remember the source goes something like this, “When two people ride a horse, someone has to sit in front.” Someone will take charge in every situation. Not always the same person, but without someone making a decision, nothing gets done.

Now what’s really interesting is the way that Rule of the few and Rule of the one seem to intertwine. In every committee, every congress, every council; there is one person who is above the rest, making sure everyone follows the rules, choosing who speaks, and just generally trying to form order out of chaos. And when you have one person in charge, usually there is a small group of people who put him there. So really, who does have the power?

Leaving philosophy aside for a while, let’s talk variations. Is the Law, whatever that Law may be, sacrosanct or can whoever is in charge adapt it? That is a vital question, the difference between an absolute king and a constitutional monarch. Interestingly enough, the idea of even the leader(s) being under the law is not a new concept. You may have heard of the law of the Medes and the Persians. Once the law was in place, even the King himself could not repeal it. Remember Daniel and the lions’ den? Even if you doubt that story actually happened, it is an account from an ancient source of a ruler who was actually bound by law.

How did the leader or leaders end up in charge? Is this a hereditary position? Were they elected by the people, or chosen by a small group? Were they chosen by a magic artefact, ala the sword in the stone? Was it a computer algorithm chose them? Chosen by lot? Does gender matter? Is your society patriarchal, matriarchical, or egalitarian? Are they chosen, supposedly or actually, by the gods? Did they win the position because no one dared challenge them, or they won the challenge against the previous leader?

It is also worth remembering that every human has an agenda. No, agendas are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but it does affect the way people see the world and the priorities they have. If some stranger popped up and gave you a five dollar bill to give to your favorite charity, where would you give it? Assuming you are honest and do indeed give the money to charity, there are almost endless possibilities. Health groups, religious groups, educational groups, sports groups, rehabilitation groups, ecological groups, etc. Where I would chose to give the money may not be where you would chose, but that doesn’t mean either of us are wrong. It simply means we have different hot buttons.

Let’s pretend for a moment that we have a list of five organizations. One is a children’s hospital, one is an animal sanctuary, one helps veterans, one is a literacy group, and the last provides clean water in third world countries. I think I can say without controversy that those are all good causes. Now, let’s pretend we are on a committee to determine funding for those organizations, and we only room on the budget for three. Which two get cut? That would get controversial very quickly, because we all have different agendas, different worldviews, and different priorities. Honestly, I am very glad I am not having to make a decision like that.

Another thing to remember with humans is that Lord Acton’s Dictum is a little too close to the truth. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Everyone has seen it happen. People who let a taste of power go to their head. Yes, there are people who manage to resist. I applaud them. And maybe you don’t have humans at all, but some other race that is totally immune to the temptation of power. Have fun.

Government is not always on the large scale. Sure every country has a leader of some sort, but so does every city, town, moon base, etc. Often there is an official leader. A mayor, governor, foreman, elder, etc. Sometimes there is an unofficial leader. A priest, a soothsayer, a wisewoman, the villager that’s lived forever and knows everything. Sometimes there’s both and they aren’t the same person. Isn’t that fun?

So, how do you develop a government? Research! And research some more. The place and role of government in various civilizations is fascinating. Rome went through several forms of government in a few short centuries. The ‘Time of Troubles’ in Russia, the period between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the start of the Romanov dynasty could be a novel in its’ own right, having imposters, a tsar elected by the nobles, and people claiming to come back from the dead. Recognize that it essentially has all been done before and there is only so far you can go to make it original. But since we are writing speculative fiction, there are ways to add flavor that aren’t available in a more ‘realistic’ book. I’ve mentioned a few possibilities and would love to hear your ideas.

My contest, mentioned in my last blog post, is still open, and will remain open until someone wins.  As previously mentioned, Secrets of the Moon Fox is available both in print and kindle format. If you want to help, but can’t afford to buy the book, than please help spread the word.

 

Why I chose to Self Publish

Secrets of the Moon Fox is a self published book. I don’t think I’ll surprise anyone by saying that. So, why did I self publish instead of publishing through a publisher? Is the story worth less because of that? What are the advantages of each?

Let’s start with the worth. There is still a bit of a stigma for self publishing, that only those that can’t be published traditionally do such a thing. And places that do that are frequently called ‘vanity presses’. That stigma is shrinking as more and more excellent books, fully the equal of traditionally published books are self published.

A good story is a good story regardless of who puts it out. I have read fanfiction that was better than the story it was based on. But, like fanfiction, self publishing is so easy to do that anyone can put out something, regardless of skill, ability, or quality. Presumably traditional publishing has had at least an editor go through it and correct spelling and grammatical errors. I experimented with self publishing some years ago and released a book before it was ready, and it shows. No, I won’t tell you what it is, but it is still available. I haven’t gotten around to taking it down. This time I made certain to hire an editor, something that is highly recommended for any professional who chooses to self publish.

A commercial publishing company is concerned with being able to make a profit. They don’t like to take chances on unknowns. Be that a story that doesn’t quite fit their divisions, a subject that might be a little too controversial or an author they have never heard of. They are however particularly interested in self published books that develop large audiences. For example, Eragon, or The Martian. Both were self published books first. Though it is worth noting that those stories are known so well because they are exceptions to the rule.

What are the advantages to traditional publishing? Well, your book is more accessible. Secrets of the Moon Fox will not be available in your local bookstore or library anytime soon. CreateSpace is a print on demand company. They only print a book when someone orders it. They don’t supply to bookstores, because bookstores don’t want to buy them because they can’t give them back if they don’t sell.  It’s a process called remaindering. No one denies that a book published through a traditional press is truly published, so there isn’t any of the possible stigma. The larger presses offer an advance on royalties that the writer gets immediately (though if a book doesn’t out-earn its’ advance, the publisher will be much less likely to sign on a second). They will send out copies for review and do a little advertising for you as they certainly want you to succeed.

What are the disadvantages? Time. If Secrets of the Moon Fox were accepted by a traditional publisher tomorrow, it could be somewhere between a year and a half and three years to end up on book shelves. Minimum would be eight months to a year if they had incentive to hurry, like believing the book topical. Control. As an unknown writer, I have very little leverage to negotiate with, meaning the publishing house could want to make changes in the story, and has final say on the title and the cover art. If I had a good agent, I might get a say, but the publisher generally has control. Speaking of an agent, most of the larger publishing houses won’t even look at your manuscript without an agent. I am not denigrating the role of agents, they are very important. One writer at Marscon put it this way. “The right agent is worth their weight in gold. The wrong agent is their weight in gold around your neck while in the ocean.” An agent also has to be paid. Ten to fifteen percent is current standard. So ten to fifteen percent of what you make would go to your agent. And what you make is a much smaller percentage per book sold than you can make through self publishing.

So, with self publishing you mostly flip those. You are on your own. If you want something done, you either do it yourself or you hire someone to do it for you. I hired an editor and probably should have hired a cover designer. When I had time to do so, I didn’t have money and when I had money, I didn’t have time. So I actually used a photograph I had taken. I am on my own to promote this book (which actually isn’t much different than if it was traditionally published). I did have to put out money to do this, as opposed to traditional publishing. Not to CreateSpace, but to buy ISBNs, to hire a proofreader, etc. But I didn’t have to wait years, and considering I started this story over ten years ago, I think it has waited long enough. I was able to pick the exact date I wanted the story to come out. I picked September 9th for a reason. Actually, my original plan was for July 12th, but life was far to chaotic at the time. My next book is due to come out November 1st because the sequel states that the school the series is about was founded then. Which is itself an Easter egg, because November 1st is my birthday.

Fun Contest: July 12, September 9, and the date the sequel is currently planned, January 5, all have something in common. I will send a free personalized autographed copy of Secrets of the Moon Fox to the first person who can tell me what that is. It is plot relevant but you don’t have to have read the book to figure it out. I also planted an Easter egg in the book about that date. I will send a free personalized autographed copy of either this or my next book to the first person who tell me that one. Winner’s choice. Yes, that one you do have to read the book for.

This is getting really long, so I think I’ll end this post here. Please remember to check out my website here. Secrets of the Moon Fox can be purchased here or in print or kindle on Amazon here.

 

 

I’m Back!

Back from camping. We didn’t get eaten by bears! Yay! We didn’t even see any bears. Or much of anything else. Very little wildlife, and even fewer people. The entire time we were there, I didn’t talk to anyone but my sister. Still, we had fun.

Website is up, but still a work in progress. For some reason, it looks completely different on my computer than on my Mom’s tablet. If you have any viewing difficulties, please, please, please tell me. I’m still learning. I am at hjharding.com

Thank you!