MUSES OF ROMA was recently in the Spotlight on DaveBrendon’s Fantasy & Sci-Fi Weblog. He asked me to write about where I got the “Big Idea” for the book. Short answer: Harry Turtledove. And the Muppets.
Worldbuilding is the process of creating a novel’s exotic setting — its history, geography, cultures, religions, etc. For the purposes of this post, I’m referring to made-up worlds in science-fiction and fantasy novels.
So which is better to create first: the world or the story? Well it’s different for every writer and every story.
For me, it started with the world.
A Strange Old World
“What if the Roman Empire had interstellar travel?” That was the germ of the idea that became MUSES OF ROMA. I wrote down most of my ideas in long brainstorming sessions–and created a 50-page encyclopedia–before I ever decided on a particular story or set of characters. So in my case, the worldbuilding came first, and then the story.
Except that’s not exactly accurate.
World Inspires Story
I did a lot of brainstorming on where we are, but not so much on how we got there. How did the Romans establish interstellar colonies? What was the one event in Roman history that diverged from our timeline and enabled such an outlandish, science-fictional situation to occur? I wanted that “terrifying secret” to be the core of my novel.
That’s when my story began building my world. I updated some of my initial worldbuilding so that my universe conformed to the event that changed Roman history. I abandoned most of my brainstorming because my story was more important than adhering to my original encyclopedia.
Story Builds World
Once I settled on the “terrifying secret” my heroes had to discover, I began adding more nooks and crannies to my world that I had not thought of during my initial brainstorming. What were the implications of this secret? How would real people–specifically ancient Romans–accept it, and then how would their culture evolve because of it?
Even while writing the first draft, when I thought I had all the big questions answered, the story forced me to ask more and more questions, which only added to the richness of the MUSES universe. At that point, the story was in firm control of my worldbuilding.
The Third Degree
Whether you build your world and then write your story, or vice versa, always ask, “How?” Every bit of history, culture, religion, etc., has to be a logical progression of what came before it. This is what I call giving my world the Third Degree–I must be able to answer the how at least three questions deep before a piece of worldbuilding goes into my novel.
For example, the Romans in my universe have interstellar colonies, so my Degree questions would go:
First Degree: How do they travel to those colonies?
Answer: They use wormholes that they call “waylines.”
Second Degree: How did they discover the “waylines?”
Answer: The gods told them.
Third Degree: How did the gods tell them?
Answer: The gods talk to the priests and College of Pontiffs, who relay the information to the people.
Leave the questioning to three degrees unless more questions/answers will impact the story; otherwise, if you’re like me, you’ll end up with a 50-page encyclopedia loaded with info you’ll never use!
I once read a fantasy novel where the heroes encountered a group of nomads “famous for their winemaking.” But the author never explained how these nomads made their wine. I was left to wonder if the nomads stored their vineyards and fermentation barrels in their horse-drawn wagons. 😉
So the author’s winemaking nomads failed the First Degree of questioning–how do nomads make wine? If he had asked at least that question, he would have noticed the problem and solved it by offering a plausible explanation for the nomads’ winemaking fame (or would’ve removed the reference altogether).
Step Away from the Encyclopedia
It’s very tempting to lose yourself in worldbuilding and research (“Hello, my name is Rob, and I’m a chronic worldbuilder….”), especially when it’s a topic you love. Remember that the story is the most important thing–build your world until it passes that Third Degree of questioning. After that, let it go and move on.
Tobias Buckell writes about a book blogger who struggles with how to keep his reviews original after reading huge volumes of books. I write reviews for The New Podler Review of Books, so Buckell’s piece hit home for me.
1) When you get to a point where you’ve read an amazing number of books, you change. You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change.
2) If you’re able to either unconsciously or consciously navigate the above, what you’re left with isn’t a raw, initial passion for reviewing what you love, but a more craftman’s-like examination of the book for an audience you may no longer really be a part of, but can remember being a part of. It’s easy to slip into this vein, by will or luck, because it does allow you to keep reading a ton while reporting back on the basics of what you read.
What those reviews are basically covering is “If you like X sort of thing, this hits X okay, with some additional Y and Z, if you also are into that.” Do they feel sucked dry of a bit of the reviewer’s authorial voice? Yeah, probably, because the reviewer has had to step back out of necessity in order to report back to a larger audience.
I see lots of queries at New Podler for well-written books. But lately I find myself passing over queries that I may have once grabbed simply because they sound like books I’ve already read. And when I do take a book, I feel like my reviews are “craftman’s-like” as Buckell described.
I still love discovering new authors and reviewing books. But how do I learn to see the unique wonder in each book I review, rather than its similarities to other books I’ve read? Buckell touches on the answer:
At a workshop not too many years ago a newer writer began to condemn a best selling novel, pointing out all its flaws and jagged edges. I listened for a long time, nodding.
“All those things are true,” I said. […] “But until you learn what the good parts were that excited the reader, you’re always going to be bitterly upset about what is wrong with that bestseller. Learn to spot what worked in that book, and you’ll be able to move forward. And you’ll be a lot less upset all the time as well.”
I love books on writing. I have over three dozen on my bookshelf right now, and I’ve checked out numerous writing books from the library over the years.
My writing process is a mish-mash of the techniques I’ve learned from all those books, so I in no way claim the following is original. It sits atop the shoulders of giants, so to speak.
1. The Question
I start with the Question — what is my novel’s core conflict in one or two sentences? Jim Butcher wrote an invaluable template that helps me find that conflict:
*WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS*, *YOUR PROTAGONIST* *PURSUES A GOAL*. But will he succeed when *ANTAGONIST PROVIDES OPPOSITION*?
For example, the Question for MUSES OF ROMA would go like this:
When a high-ranking Roman official wants to defect to Libertus, former Liberti security agent Kaeso Aemelius infiltrates Roma to help the official escape. But can Kaeso succeed when Roman and Liberti agents want to stop the defector from revealing how the last thousand years of human history were built on a lie?
For me, it’s much easier to write this before I start my book than after I finish — while writing queries or cover copy — because I don’t have all the other plot threads I developed bouncing around in my head.
2. Who gets screwed?
The book’s main characters should be the people who get screwed the worst. I mean, who wants to read about characters where everything goes right in their lives?
My Question in step 1 comes with characters built in — Kaeso Aemilius, the defector, and Roman and Liberti agents. Kaeso is the protagonist and “Roman and Liberti agents” are nebulous antagonists (for now). I use a Character Sheet to detail their backgrounds, wants, inner conflicts, and traits.
3. Plot Points
I spend one to three pages outlining the book’s major plot points. Many of my plot ideas come from the Character Sheets, especially the “Conflicts” and “Change” sections. These plot points typically change as I write, but I like to get them down so I have some idea where the book is going before I start my main outline:
- Inciting Event — The event that gets the story rolling.
- End of Act 1 / Start Act 2 — The hero accepts the story’s “call to adventure” and makes a decision that turns his world upside down.
- Big Middle — Another suggestion from Jim Butcher – have something explosive happen in the middle of the book, something that turns the plot on its head and forces the hero to make decisions that further complicate matters.
- End of Act 2 / Start Act 3 — The hero figures out what he needs to do to resolve the book’s main conflict (see the Question) and sets out to do it.
- End of Act 3 — The hero resolves the conflict and is changed because of it (i.e., “I learned something today…”).
4. Scenes and Sequels
Many authors shudder at what I’m about to describe, but trust me — this technique changed my writing. This is another Jim Butcher suggestion, but I also found similar suggestions in Dwight Swain’s classic Techniques of the Selling Writer.
A well-constructed story is made up of Scenes and Sequels:
- A Scene is where a character has a specific goal, he engages in some sort of conflict while trying to achieve that goal, but then fails to achieve the goal (or he succeeds, but his success creates a new problem that he needs to solve).
- A Sequel is where the hero has an emotional reaction to the failure, reviews what happened, wonders what his options are, and then decides on a new goal.
So the order goes Scene/Sequel/Scene/Sequel/Scene/Sequel…until the final Scene where the hero resolves the story Question.
This is a gross oversimplification of the Scene/Sequel concept, so I urge you to read Jim’s web site and pick up Dwight Swain’s book for more details. Feel free to use my own Scene/Sequel template.
5. Write the first draft
The first draft is the easiest part for me because I’ve already done my “thinking” in the Scene/Sequel phase. I know exactly what’s going to happen; all I have to do is write it down. Some writers can’t imagine doing it this way (“I’d get bored if I already knew what was going to happen!”), but for me it is comforting and essential to have that Scene/Sequel map.
I typically average 1,000 words per day, which takes me about an hour (an hour is usually all I have!). To accomplish my word quota, I keep in mind Anne Lamott’s liberating advice from Bird by Bird — accept the fact that first drafts are shit. Your goal in the first draft is to just write it down and then fix it later.
After celebrating my novel’s completion with an expensive steak dinner, I move on to the “fix it later” phase. This is where I fix plot holes, reign in and/or eliminate characters who don’t serve the story, and just ensure the whole thing makes sense. I tend to read the entire book out loud in this step.
7. Beautify and tighten the prose
There are actually two phases in this step: language edits and copy edits.
The language edit is where I read through the book again and make the writing as powerful, beautiful, and cliche-less as I can make it. I only focus on the language and not plot/character/etc. (which should have been addressed in step 6).
Copy edits are next. For this phase, I use another little book that transformed my writing: Ken Rand’s The 10% Solution. Rand provides a list of keywords and letters that tend to weaken prose, such as “of” or “-ly”. I search for those keywords and, in most cases, rewrite the sentences where I find them. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary words from the manuscript and reduce the word count by at least 10% (in my case, it’s usually 15%-20%). I never realized how bloated my writing was until I used Rand’s techniques.
And that’s it!
Simple, but certainly not easy.
What’s your writing process? If you’re not a writer, what’s your process for your favorite creative passion?
It helps that I love all things ancient Rome; I’ve spent almost as much time researching my MUSES OF ROMA series as I have writing it. From books to web sites to pod casts to multiple viewings of the HBO series Rome (both seasons), I’ve covered a lot.
Obviously I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the available material, but here are some of the resources I found helpful and/or interesting during my research.
The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt
Concise and entertaining history of how Rome went from a backwater trading post in 800 BCE to the world’s greatest empire in 1 AD.
Ancient Rome by Simon Baker
Looking for an overview of Rome’s entire history? This book covers the entire history of the Roman Empire, from its mythical origens to the abdication of the last Emperor in 476 AD.
Roma by Steven Saylor
It’s Everitt’s Rise of Rome meets a John Jakes novel. Roma follows two Roman families from the founding to the rise of Octavian Caesar Augustus. I took a lot of inspiration from this one.
A Gladiator Only Dies Once by Steven Saylor
Short stories about Gordianus the Finder, an ancient Roman private investigator. Great look at life in everyday ancient Rome.
History of Rome Podcasts by Mike Duncan
Better than the college history courses I took on the subject! Mike is passionate about Rome and he knows his stuff.
Nova Roma: Choosing a Roman Name
Lots of Roman names in my books, of course, and I would’ve been lost without this web site’s explanations of Roman naming customs and lists of common Roman family names, first names, and nicknames.
My goal is to write a post each week about my experiences writing my current work-in-progress, the third book in my MUSES OF ROMA sci-fi/alt-history epic. I’m going to call this series “AmWriting,” after the popular Twitter hashtag of the same name.
What do I hope to accomplish with these posts? Well…
Goal #1: I need content!
Coming up with blog ideas is hard, folks, so I need something to write about each week. I may detail my writing process, provide an interesting gem I learned from my Roman/scientific/etc. research, talk about marketing/social media ideas for authors, or simply whine about how hard writing is, and that I should just give up now, and that I feel like one of those American Idol contestants who don’t know how bad they are–
Whoa. I’ll save that for a future post.
Goal #2: Paying it forward
I’ve been studying the fiction craft for over ten years. I’ve learned a few things here and there. If any of my posts inspire one budding writer to start the first sentence of her first novel, then I’d consider goal #2 accomplished.
Goal #3: Buzzzzz…
I got the idea for this series from the CreateSpace Community blog, which suggested that writing about your experiences while writing a book is a good way to generate buzz about said book before it’s published. Whether I go traditional or indie with my MUSES OF ROMA series, any pre-publication buzz, such as it is, will come in handy.
So. I can’t guarantee every post will be helpful, but I’ll sure try to make it interesting.
A great book cover inspires readers to ask the question the book seeks to answer. Since my design skills scream “amateur” (to put it kindly), I hired professionals to design great covers for two books I will publish in 2013. I think both designers did a fantastic job conveying the question of each book, and it was a pleasure to work with them both.
ZERVAKAN is a fantasy novel set in a world with 19th century technology — steam engines, guns, telegraphs — where two magical bands of light suddenly appear in the sky one night, spanning the horizons like rings around the planet. A scientist and a priest must discover the mystery behind the rings before their world is consumed by an evil they’re not ready to fight.
Given the setting, I wanted a cover with a 19th century feel, but one that said “fantasy” and not “historical.”
TJ Lomas brought my vision to life. He found an old photograph and added two bands of magical light on the horizons. He added color to the bands so they stood out. It’s simple, but elegant. It grabs your attention and makes you ask, “What’s with those two bands of light?”
ZERVAKAN will be released in January 2013, but you can read the “pre-published” version on on this site.
UMBRA CORPS (a working title) is an alternate history/sci-fi novel about a Roman Republic that survives its true-life fall and reaches the stars. A star ship crew of rogues must help the 12-year-old Consular Heir escape Rome with the terrifying secret behind the Republic’s god-like technology.
For this cover, I worked with professional illustrator Stone Perales. My idea was to combine something iconically Roman with an anachronism that told readers it was alternate history.
The result: Mark Antony holding a musket while looking down on his Legions as they sack Rome.
Stone did a wonderful job capturing the ethereal look on Antony’s face and the subtle detailing of his armor. My hope is that readers will see the cover and think, “Why is that ancient Roman soldier holding a musket? I’ve got to read this book to find out!”
UMBRA CORPS will be released in 2013.
Cross-posted at New Podler Review of Books.
I may be among the few sci-fi/fantasy writers who was never influenced by Ray Bradbury’s stories. Oh I respected his work, like most writers do, but his real influence on me came from his writer-to-writer advice.
It was advice that finally helped me put a leash on my internal editor.
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I spent my childhood and high-school years writing knock-offs of my favorite books and movies — basically the same stories with alternate endings. But I was always stymied when trying to create something original. My internal editor over-analyzed every idea, or tried squeezing perfection out of each sentence to make it sound like the authors I admired. All before I wrote down a single word.
Then in 1991 I read How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction, a compilation of essays from successful genre authors, with Ray Bradbury being one. He mostly advised creating word lists of things that scare you, and thus from those lists would emerge story ideas. That was a cool trick — and one I use today — but it was the following passage that opened my eyes:
In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for style, instead of leaping on truth, which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.
“Really?” I thought after reading that. “I don’t have to obsess over the first draft or make it perfect?” I glared at my internal editor. He gave a nervous chuckle, and then fled the room.
Bradbury’s advice to essentially “write fast without thinking” liberated my writing. Cliché, I know, but that’s how it felt. Many authors have offered the same advice over the years, and I would’ve figured it out eventually, but Ray was the first person who articulated it to me in a way that clicked.
With that one simple concept in mind, I can now write a thousand words per hour on most days. My stories may not be brilliant examples of high literature, but at least I can finish them.
And then unleash my internal editor on the second draft.
Thanks for the career-changing advice, Ray.
Cross-posted at New Podler Review of Books.
In a recent email conversation with fellow author David Drazul, I mentioned that I’d grown tired of large fantasy/sci-fi “door jam” novels (books so big they could prop open a heavy door) due mainly to their emphasis on minutiae world-building over fast pacing.
When I think back to what I’ve read over the last year, books three and four of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series are the only door jam novels I finished. Erikson is a brilliant writer, but by the time I reached the middle of each book, even his work had me antsy for the end.
I’d love to read Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings, as I’ve heard good things about it, but at a thousand freakin’ pages, I can’t help but think of all the slimmer books I could read in the time it would take to finish that one.
The only door jam fantasy I want to read is the last Wheel of Time book. I started the series back in the ’90s because I heard it would be three books. Then three turned into six, which turned into nine, then twelve…until it’s now at the fifteenth and final(!) book due for release in January. I’m invested at this point. But I’d never start the series right now considering its length.
It took my discovery of Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series for me to see that a fantasy/sci-fi novel doesn’t need to be a door jam to have quality world-building. Colin McComb’s debut Oathbreaker, Book 1: The Knight’s Tale (which I reviewed) is another example. Both Cook and McComb present their complex worlds and characters with visceral, compact prose that keeps their books under 250 pages without making them feel “thin.”
What are your favorite fantasy/sci-fi novels, with quality world-building, that are relatively short (e.g., under 300 pages)?
Or do you love the door jam novel? If so, why?
I just got a nice review of my mystery novel ASPECT OF PALE NIGHT from the Good Book Alert review site. An excerpt:
Rob Steiner describes mystery ASPECT OF PALE NIGHT as having a similar voice to Stephanie Plum, which drew my interest right away. Plum is a quirky character with a lot of spice and a big heart. Steiner’s Toni did not disappoint either….Honestly, it was hard to believe a guy wrote this. Steiner did a fabulous job of writing emotions from a female perspective. Absolutely, no cheese dripped from the heart of his main character, Toni, very genuine.