Ashe Elton Parker

A Writer of LGBTQ+ Characters in Speculative Fiction

Tag: Brotherhood A: Stirrings

Science Fantasy

Chraest is actually not pure fantasy. It’s science fantasy. If you happen to be a reader or writer who thinks this can’t be done . . . I’m happy to say, it was done before. Probably several times over, but the series/world I’m most familiar with is Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series.

And I’m sort of treating Chraest the same way. Oh, I make reference to different things which make it clear Chraest isn’t pure fantasy, but they’re subtle until the third volume of TPOM. In the middle of Measure of Resistance, in a scene from Asthané’s point of view, I make blunt reference to the fact humans are not native to Chraest.

I had a great deal of fun writing that little bit. Had, in fact, been seeking a way and a place to make it absolutely clear humans aren’t native to Chraest. And, even after the other little hints (references to the hours of the day, the length of the year, naming plants native to Chraest) my blunt statement is still just the tip of the iceberg. There’s much more to Chraest and its universe than even I’m aware of at this point.

How did Chraest end up a science-fantasy world?

There’s a story to this development, and here it is:

I like to develop calendars as part of my worldbuilding for my fantasy worlds, and Chraest was no different. The last science fantasy world I developed, I meant to write stories from the natives’ pov, so I had complete freedom—in my mind—to do what I wanted with the calendar, and I had fun with it. With Chraest, it was a bit different. I kept trying to mash it into one of our years, and it just wasn’t working out. I could not, for the life of me, figure out why Chraest wouldn’t function on a 365-day year.

So, I decided to fiddle with the months. I was, to make it clear, in Forward Motion for Writers chat this particular night I was working on Chraest. I wanted to settle the calendar so I could use Aeon Timeline to list out the stories I had planned and a number of events and such I’d worked out in my worldbuilding over the course of TPOM1&2 and Stirrings (whose title will be changed once I figure out what fits better). I fiddled with the months and ended up with twelve—but three of them shorter than the other nine—and still not fitting our Terran year.

At this point, I made a frustrated comment about this issue in chat, and Zette suggested I play with the number of days in the year. At first, I hesitated, then I decided, Why not? and threw myself into it. I forget all the convolutions I took Chraest’s year-length through, but I finally ended up with a year-length of about 540 days. The first month of each third of the year is a two-week Sacred Month, and the other nine are six-week-long Secular Months; weeks all have nine days.

When I announced that I’d figured this out (and the resultant worldbuilding “facts” I’d learned from this process), Zette went on to say that perhaps the days weren’t 24 hours long. At this point, the knowledge Chraest wasn’t a pure fantasy hit, and I mentioned that in chat—along with even more worldbuilding facts which landed in my head at about the same time.

So I blame Zette, but with a big grin, because her suggestions opened up an aspect I hadn’t been looking at and made what I know of Chraest possible.

“Write What You Know”

This writing “rule” is a real bitch. It’s the one which gave me more worries and stress than anything else.

I came across this bit of writing advice in the early 90’s, before getting a home computer. It was in a writing-advice book, and it wasn’t qualified. What I mean is, the writer of the book didn’t explain what it could mean—because there are different interpretations which can be made from this statement—they only put in “write what you know.”

And I thought, “I write fantasy and science fiction. I can’t know most of what I put in my books.”

Most of the time, I did my best to ignore this bit of advice, but it always came back. When it did, it invariably interrupted my writing. It brought to me the first real doubt I had in my writing. It was hell.

Over the years, and particularly once I found Forward Motion for Writers, I came across various other interpretations of “Write what you know.” I’ve discovered there are probably as many interpretations of “write what you know” as there are writers, but my favorite interpretation is to write what I know on an emotional level.

This affects my writing. On the stories I really care about, I develop complicated relationships for the characters. I delve into their psyche. Not to say other writers don’t, simply that I do it to a depth I don’t see (or recognize often) in others’ writing. It’s part of the reason why Mercedes Lackey’s The Last Herald-Mage trilogy is still my absolute favorite of all time. In all three of those books, the MC is affected by his circumstances and relationships with other people much more deeply than her other characters seem to be to me.

And I go deeper than that. Nearly all of my characters have some sort of dramatic emotional or psychological upset over the course of their stories. I’m writing what I know in these books, and I know deep, disturbing emotional/psychological turmoil. It’s kind of difficult not to when you’re mentally ill. No matter my determination to remain calm and confident and patient, my mental illness doesn’t permit me that ability. I experience deep despairs over the most shallow things. There are times when the least provocation causes me to fly into a rage. Sometimes I weep for no apparent reason and it takes me days to identify what the trigger was. And, always, always, when I feel something, whether it be positive or negative, I feel it deeply.

I try to put that depth into my characters’ lives and emotions. It’s the best I can do to make the story as good as it can possibly be. To me, if my characters aren’t deeply emotionally affected by the events in their lives, I haven’t written the story well enough.

So my characters aren’t all going to be emotionally stable. Kaj in Fairy-Touched isn’t. Not all my characters are going to come from happy home lives. Gildas, in my July Novel Writing Month WIP this year, Where There’s Always Sunlight doesn’t. And even my most even-keeled character, Doéna from Stirrings, has a breakdown due to the stress of his situation.

“Write what you know” still hits me the wrong way sometimes, but by keeping in mind the knowledge I have which fascinates me when I put it into stories, I’m able to avoid the depression this advice gives me.

Writing “Soundtracks”

A fair number of the writers I know from Forward Motion for Writers create and use music to help them focus on their stories. One I’m close to (as close as one can get over the net) uses Techno blasted at incredibly loud levels to unhook her mind enough to be able to write. Another creates playlists whose songs either match the “epic” feel of what she’s writing, or specific character emotions and the plot.

Occasionally, I’ll use one song to help me focus on a story or project. For instance, recently, I’ve been listening to “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane to help me write scenes in Degrees of Subtlety. Don’t know why this song is working for me, but it works a lot better than the rest of the playlist it’s from at present, and has been for the past week or so. It doesn’t have any tie to a particular plot point or scene, though it does reflect Arrowroot’s feelings, particularly once he’s separated from Sweetbriar; it seems to be a song which describes regrets and a longing for an earlier time, and though he’s firm on his “need” to be away from Sweetbriar, Arrowroot does nurse these emotions.

On the other hand, when I get ready to read through anything in the Discordant Harmonies series or to do anything related to it, in fact, I’ll put on the full playlist. Recently, I’ve been opening this list and manually selecting the first song to play, which has typically been “Stairway To Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. The only relation to anything in this story the song has is the fact Géta’s father, who is on his deathbed, tithes Géta to the Temple. That’s all. However, the mood of the song is what induces me to play this one first, because so much of Géta’s life as Asthané’s musician rides on the fact he has no choice in his status. Yes, he could have chosen not to accompany Asthané—but at the cost of something he loves dearly, something which gives him peace, comfort, and happiness and which he has always dreamed of pursuing. Another song from this playlist, which I listen to before going to sleep at night, is “Follow You Follow Me” by Genesis. This epitomizes in a lot of ways the way Géta comes to feel for Asthané, particularly in the later books I have planned for this set of books. I don’t listen to “Stairway To Heaven” primarily because the volume of the song fluctuates too much for me to find a comfortable listening level where I can hear all the lyrics without half of them blasting my ears out—something I definitely don’t need when I’m trying to relax before falling asleep.

I typically acquire my story/series specific playlists by turning on my Daily playlist (the one without Christmas music), and announcing to myself I’m listening for songs which seem to fit a specific story. I did this to find the songs which seemed to fit DoS a few weeks ago, when I returned to working on it. The playlist I had at the time for it consisted of fewer than ten songs (I think only about half a dozen, in fact) and some didn’t really fit as I now saw the story. I removed those songs from the list, put on my Daily list, and listened to the randomized music until I finally had a playlist of over ten songs for the story.

I have, once, gone through my Daily playlist with a deliberate intent to hunt out the songs which I thought might best fit a story. I did this for Unwritten Letters. And I found plenty of songs which fit the story. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best solution to finding a playlist. I detested the playlist for the first week I listened to it, but my creative mind refused to work on UL unless I was listening to it, so I couldn’t avoid it. This was not a pleasant experience, though it did not turn me off the story or the music. I did eventually come to like the playlist, but I don’t intend to ever go through my Daily list on a deliberate hunt for songs; I’m much more comfortable with the playlists I develop with my standard “notify subconscious of search” and random play method.

For an example of the reasons why certain songs “click” with a specific story/idea, I’ll provide one playlist and the reasons behind why the songs worked for the story I wrote while they played. (Spoiler Warning)

Story: Brotherhood A: Stirrings

Playlist:

1. “Baby Come Back” by Player – Doéna develops a romantic relationship with another character, and it ends badly; this song describes how they both feel about their separation afterward.

2. “Ballare” by Cirque Du Soleil – Essentially represents how Doéna’s romantic interest feels about him.

3. “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee – Pretty much every prominent relationship in the story.

4. “Hope Has A Place” by Enya – Why Doéna doesn’t give up on anything until absolutely forced to.

5. “Hopelessly Devoted To You” as performed by Olivia Newton-John – Doéna’s conflicting feelings for his prince and his romantic interest.

6. “I Melt With You” by Modern English – How Doéna feels about his romantic interest.

7. “I Want Your Love” by Chic – The reaction Doéna’s love interest has to Doéna’s unswerving loyalty to his prince.

8. “Joanna” by Kool & the Gang – It’s an ode, and if nothing else, Doéna’s love interest is sappy over him unless they are disagreeing on his loyalty to Lorien.

9. “Lost In Love” by Air Supply – Doéna and his love interest . . . when they aren’t disagreeing over Doéna’s loyalty to his prince.

10. “Misery” by Maroon 5 – Lorien’s relationship with Necée; how Doéna feels about his separation from his love interest and, at the beginning, about his unwelcome feelings for his prince.

11. “Missing You” John Waite – How Doéna feels after he and his love interest break up.

12. “Moondance” by Van Morrison – Mood, something which hit the heart of the relationship between Doéna and his love interest—the simplicity their relationship could have had if they hadn’t been at odds over Doéna’s loyalty to Lorien.

13. “One Of These Nights” by Eagles – Doéna’s hopes for all the conflict in his life to settle favorably for himself.

14. “River” by Sarah McLachlan – Doéna’s despair when everything goes badly.

15. “So She Dances” by Josh Groban – How Doéna’s love interest feels about him.

16. “Somebody’s Baby” by Jackson Browne – More of how Doéna’s love interest feels about him.

17. “Still Loving You” by Scorpions – The lingering feelings Doéna and his love interest have for each other after the fallout which separates them.

18. “Suddenly” by Billy Ocean – Apt characterization of the way the relationship between Doéna and his love interest begins.

19. “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin – How Doéna feels about, at first, his prince, then, later, his love interest.

20. “Tender Is The Night” by Jackson Browne – Mood, pretty much fits how Doéna feels about Lorien at first and his love interest later.

21. “Walking On Sunshine” by Katrina & the Waves – Doéna’s moments of joy, when things are going well between himself and Lorien or himself and his love interest.

22. “When It’s Love” by Van Halen – Mood, Doéna’s sappiness over, at first his prince, then, later, his love interest.

Now, if you’re still with me (LOL), I’ll add a bit more.

The more songs I can fit to a particular story, the better my focus on the story. It sometimes bothers me I have so many relationship-oriented songs in my story playlists (this is typical of all of them thus far), but I find I’m better able to concentrate with longer lists, so I try not to fight my discomfort too much. Usually, I find when I start a playlist and get into a scene, the act of writing enables me to focus past any discomfort I may be feeling, which is part of why UL’s playlist worked so well despite me detesting it for the first week or so after creating it.

Sometimes I can listen to my Daily playlist, but that’s rare. The utter randomness of the songs which can go from Enya to Ozzy Osbourne to Danny Elfman breaks into my concentration too much. I’m also for the most part mainstream in my music selection. This is not because I’m afraid of stretching my music tastes, but purely because what little time I spend hunting out “fresh” music to add to my Daily playlist is still, even after years, focused on finding music I’m already familiar with in some way. I’m always happy to find new songs I like to add to my music collection; I simply haven’t found the time or attention necessary for finding them unless I’m passively listening to the radio in a friend’s car or while I’m showering (both methods being the ways I discovered any of the more “recent” songs on my example playlist or mentioned in this post).

When Plotting is Going Well

I used to “pants” (write without planning) every story.

I didn’t complete many stories that way. It didn’t matter how long the story was supposed to be; most of mine are longer than the SFWA definition of 7,500 words, for a short. I write novelettes, novellas, and novels. Mostly novels. And most of them are beyond 40,000 words. I’d frequently hit the halfway point (40k-60k) and fizzle out between there and the three-quarter mark. Because the ideas would fizzle out, and the stress of need another scene to write would block me to the point of abandoning the story.

Then I started reverse outlining incomplete stories I most wanted to complete. Reverse outline cards typically consist of a one or two-sentence summary of the written scene. When I reached the end of the written-out scenes, I’d traditionally outline (do the plot cards before writing the scenes) the rest of the story. I completed a few stories this way.

There were also a couple of stories which I started and abandoned, but which needed full rewrites. Most of the time they had plotting issues. Events happening out of order, periods in the project where I focused on one subplot to the exclusion of every other plot, including the primary one. Stuff like that. These I entirely outlined prior to writing them, and I completed the rewrites. I know now I was able to complete these outlines before writing the stories because I already had almost the entire stories written in some form prior to reorganizing the plot to be workable.

Then I started outlining stories before or as I wrote them. So, I may start, get two scenes; these I’d reverse outline, then add two or three fresh plot cards before writing one scene. Outlines I started before writing began with that pattern. Two or three plot cards per scene written. I completed more stories this way.

When plotting is going well, I find I’m most comfortable working plot cards about ten or twenty cards “ahead” of where I’m writing the scenes from the cards already done. This has been hard to accept, because I’ve been, of course, trying to cling to the RULE that The Outline Must Be Complete Before Beginning Writing. But I reach a certain point in my fresh stories—my speculative fiction stories—where I hit a block in the outline. Usually this block harks back to an earlier point in the outline, and involves an aspect of the story which my subconscious hasn’t presented to my conscious mind. The best way for me to unlock these plot points, I’ve found, is to write out the earlier scene.

So I have a plot card like:

Stirrings Plotcard

This is for Brotherhood A: Stirrings, as you can tell according to character names. The snippet this card covers is on the project page for Stirrings. I would not have been able to write this plot card if I had not worked out already Lorien’s psychology on the wedding, Doéna’s reactions to Lorien’s behavior, and the behind-the-scenes (in my head only) of Necée’s feelings about the situation. I didn’t even know Necée would be this way and why until after I worked out Lorien’s response to the marriage arrangements. I wrote a description of a small portrait of her Lorien received in an information packet, and I can remember thinking at the time, “What if she’s got a sweetheart she’d rather marry?”

That’s all I had on the sweetheart until I included the first scene with Karé, the story’s antagonist, who plots to destroy Lorien’s faith in love and happiness—and Lorien’s standing in Imperial Court. I had no idea just what he’d mean to the story until the moment he introduced himself, and I wouldn’t have had that without first writing the previous scenes out. In writing those scenes out, I learned of the Éecinis, Doéna’s status and standing in the Vénari Court, and the pitfalls he expected in the Imperial Court. Without those, I’d have had nothing to write after the point where Lorien and Doéna arrive at the Imperial Court, at which point I’d have hit my block and been unable to write past if I’d been pantsing the story.

The scenes I’d written gave me the basis for Karé’s presence and conniving nature.

My plot cards have evolved somewhat since then. I now include “dates” on the top margins of the cards, as on this plot card for Degrees of Subtlety:

DoS Plotcard

“2” indicates which plot card this is, which is the second scene in the story. “Arrowroot” is the Point of View character; this story alternates between his and Sweetbriar’s points of view. The “date” is “Fruiting, Rowan 1,” which is the name of the month, day of the week, and which week. I’ve determined, much to my discomfort, the people of Hatu Napor have a 364-day year divided into 13 months of 28 days apiece. Those in the area of the world where Sweetbriar and Arrowroot live have named the months after various natural events which occur throughout the year, and the days after trees to be found in various locales. No year date yet because I haven’t worked out the year-dating system yet, at least not for this hemisphere. I suspect I’ll use something the whole world adheres to, which will most likely have to do with either the appearance or disappearance of the fairies; both events are rather prominent.

The scene summarized includes the snippet I have on DoS’s page. As you can see if you compare the card to the snippet, I didn’t write the scene exactly as described in the card. This was another thing I had to learn, that the scene did not necessarily have to follow the card precisely. Allowing such flexibility enables me to come up with workable scenes which do their jobs. I’ve gotten so flexible I don’t even care if a scene I write matches the plot card which was supposed to inspire it any at all. What I usually write in those unexpected scenes generally serves the story much better than what I’d planned in the plot card. And, if I need, I can later plumb the card for any plot-pertinent info to include in later cards I haven’t yet written.

It bothers me that I’m not completing the outlines before I write the stories, but this is the way my mind works, and, I’ve discovered, I have a tendency to get blocked on plot cards if I’m not writing earlier scenes out. This is why I write ten-to-twenty plot cards ahead of where I’m writing out the scenes. Frequently, I’ll get one or two plot cards and be unable to see just what should happen next. Sometimes letting things percolate in the back of my mind works for moving past such blocks, but more often, I find that if I write out an earlier scene and read through the plot cards between it and the point where I stopped, I’ll come up with a decent idea much, much sooner, and the idea will be much stronger than it would have been if I’d forced myself to outline past the point of when I felt I had to stop.

I occasionally use other methods of plotting, but I won’t go into them here. This post was about my basic Everything Is Going Well plotting method.

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