Paul Welch

On Fantasy, Writing & the Journey to Publication

Category Archives: world building

Time to Update

Hi friends,

I sincerely apologize for not being very active on the blog over the past two months. I’ve been a busy boy – working full-time at a job that gives me tons in tips, rehearsing full-time for a show that’s in the Edmonton and Vancouver Fringe Festival, and launching my own theatre company – Third Street Theatre (www.thirdstreet.ca).

So I have been quite busy, with so many projects on the go. Last count had me at 95 hours/week of work, and I don’t think I’ve had a day off in six weeks. It’s a pretty rigorous and exhausting schedule.

That being said, I have had continued interest from the literary agent in my book, and he is working with me on fixing some of the issues regarding pacing. My only challenge is to grab some time to dedicate to revisiting the manuscript.

I have had a seven month break from the book, which I am sure has given me loads of perspective. I am hoping that in the next couple of months I’ll be able to find a couple of days to really dedicate myself to editing again, so that we might be able to continue on this path.. and hopefully lead to official representation.

There are so many exciting things going on in my life, and the Universe seems to keep sending more projects my way. It’s hard to complain about it (although, I find myself complaining that I am tired, have no time, and no social life.. which isn’t a fun story to be telling all the time).

I can make no guarantees that I will be blogging every day, but I will do my best to write a post now and then – especially as I move forward with editing the manuscript.

All the best, and cheers.

Paul

An Injection of Conflict

I currently live in Calgary, Alberta (that’s in Canada, for those who aren’t in the know), and we’re knee-deep in provincial elections right now. There are numerous political parties vying for the win, each with their own mandate as to how they wish to represent Albertans, and how they wish to shape our province and move forward.

There have been a lot of contentious debates surrounding key issues of abortion, gay marriage, equality, the rights of women, health care, arts and culture, and economic survival. Some of these issues hit pretty close to home for a number of people – and (particularly if you’re involved in social media websites and follow the news) the debate is getting pretty heated.

I try to stay abreast of current events, and I have been paying attention to what’s going on south of the border. It looks like the same key issues are surfacing in the States.

One thing that stands out is the level of conflict. There have been debates about personal beliefs vs. public beliefs, personal (religious) beliefs vs. political beliefs. It is challenging to watch or participate without your heart rate rising and getting all worked up. And that’s because it’s personal, no matter what side of the fence you fall on.

A group feels attacked and discriminated against – targeted, even – and they feel that their rights, welfare, and safety could very well be compromised if the election results show up as predicted. Other groups (even those in the majority) feel that any criticism of the political platform set forth, or the personal/public/religious beliefs of the politicians involved, is also an attack and a discrimination.

It’s a big ole hot mess, and it’s difficult to reconcile.

The flip side of it is that it is very interesting (and some would argue scary.) So many people are engaged, and a lot of apathetic citizens are being moved to stand up and voice an opinion, take a stance, and get out and vote. Many are encouraging their friends and colleagues to vote in an effort to ensure a future for a province in which they’d like to live and thrive. It will be interesting to see the outcome – both of the provincial elections here in Alberta, and the federal elections south of the border in the USA.

I bring this up because it is on my mind a lot these days, and it reminds me of when I used to administer/run my online text-based roleplaying game, The Towers of Jadri (which, if you’ll recall, is the world in which my stories are set.)

The biggest challenge I faced in trying to create a dynamic, interesting game for my players to play had to do with conflict. People gravitated towards happy, peaceful times. Others tried to play conflict, but often failed – falling into stereotypes, archetypes, and unmotivated cruelty.

We would try to find interesting plot lines, clear-cut aggressors, threats from dangerous places, invasions, explosions, and even war. We’d do our best to create realistic motivations for the key players involved, and we tried to ensure the conflict suited the current climate of world politics, the players’ roleplay, and organizational interests, all the while keeping the big picture story in mind.

The problem? The conflict was usually resolved immediately.

People had fun during the times of conflict, because there was something to do. They could band together, unite, create strategies, and take steps towards a common goal. It was active, exciting, and uniting.

But when the conflict was resolved, things would inevitably slow down and people would get bored – and we’d struggled to find new ways of injecting conflict back into the mix.

I give all this preamble as a way to focus in on your stories.

Examine the story from a point of view of the conflict. Does each scene have conflict? Is the conflict strong? Is it external, or internal? How do the characters respond? What steps do they take? Is it something that can (or should) be resolved quickly? How does it fit into the bigger picture?

Conflict makes things interesting. It is something to which we can relate and respond. If your story is low on conflict, it might be worth revisiting to see if there are ways to inject a little more conflict into the mix. Give something for people to fight for, or fight against. Something to fear, and something to root for. Your story will likely be stronger as a result.

Have you ever read books that were painfully low on conflict? Did they manage to keep your interest in another way? If so, how did they succeed? What are some examples of your favorite books where the conflict is impeccably handled? Please comment below, as I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Geeking Out: From Gamer to Writer

I have mentioned before that I’m a bit of a geek.

Growing up, I spent countless hours playing, administrating, and running MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons). These were the text-based roleplaying games where I would whittle away my hours, interacting with people around the world by playing at being a Druid, a secret magic user, a nefarious rogue, a troubled artist, a religious Warband leader, and a powerful manipulator of the elements who had a huge distrust of authority. I spent countless hours developing skills that have proven exceptionally useful in my writing. I’d like to share some of that experience and those skills with you here today, and put forth my argument that certain types of gaming can be a writer’s greatest gift.

Character Planning. When we begin a roleplaying game, we have to think about the history of our character. Or rather, we do if we hope to create a solid character that will have longevity in the world. This involves figuring out who our parents might be, what are our religious beliefs, which gods or goddess we might like and dislike, what is our skill set, what events in our youth might have shaped our attitude and outlook in life, and what our aspirations are – our super-objectives that drive us through the world.

Druid

How would you describe her in words?

How do we feel about other nationalities/races/religions? What style of clothing do we choose to wear? What is our economic status, and how will we interact or move through the world?

Asking these questions help create the dynamic, interesting characters people will want to interact with and include in their roleplaying world.

And the same questions apply to planning our protagonists and antagonists and indeed our secondary and tertiary characters. The more fleshed-out a character appears to be, the more seamlessly they fit into the world. It creates a subtle impact, and readers pick up on it. The characters will have attitudes, personality, prejudices, and allegiances. This will affect how they move through and interact with the world. It creates for a more immersive storytelling experience.

Writing and Reading Descriptions. When I administered and ran MUDs, my duties included building the descriptions of rooms, objects, and monsters. As a player, my duties included describing my character for others to see and read the world around me. I had to examine how others described themselves, what the rooms and areas we played in looked like, and whether there might useful clues we might devise from the world around us.

On some MUDs, the descriptions are pretty limited. They are stunted, do nothing to further our understanding of the world, and are often times laughable. The same can be said about a good deal of gamers out there. But when you come across the players who have good descriptions and the MUDs where a true atmosphere has been evoked in the way everything has been described… Well, it is thrilling.

Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I can write some killer descriptions. Pages of them, if need be. Unfortunately, this usually causes problems, and I end up spending time paring the descriptions down in order to ensure that they drive the atmosphere forward, rather than bog the reader down and create obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

Personally, I like to rely on descriptions that involve a sensory experience. Our senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell all help immerse the reader into the world. Often times, though, less is more – and this becomes crucial with writing strong stories.

Atmosphere can take center stage

Atmosphere can take center stage

There are moments where the atmosphere or locale needs to take center stage, where an anticipated character gets the opportunity to wow the reader with their carefully put-together attire. We just need be careful that it doesn’t add obstacles to the enjoyment of the story.

World Building. When I began designing my MUD, The Towers of Jadri, I started from scratch. I had a common look-and-feel in mind, as I wanted to create a unified world for my players to immerse themselves in.

I built dozens of areas – likely 80% or more of the playable zones on the MUD – for the characters to explore and live in. I spent countless of hours writing help files for players to be able to read to further understand the culture, history, and abilities. I’d even pay players in the form of special in-game points to go through all the game’s commands in search of missing help files, or scanning the current help files for things of interest which could be elaborated upon to assist in the understanding of the world.

Ultimately, I don’t know whether the players appreciated the several hundred help files that the MUD had. However, when I stop by other MUDs, I am often dumbfounded by how non-user friendly they seem to be – simply because I am unable to get the answers to the questions I have in order to successfully develop the depth of my character.

Now, the hours I spent fleshing out the world served another useful purpose, as I still have those areas and help files. Since the Towers of Jadri was a MUD set in my world, everything I built – from rooms and objects to monsters and help files – furthered my own understanding of the world, the history, the nations, races, special and magical abilities, etc. This was serious world-building, and as a result I believe that when my stories are read, there is a sense of full immersion into the richness of the world. My beta readers seem to agree.

Okay, it sounds like I’m tooting my own horn a little bit, and I apologize. I’m proud of the world I created, and I often find myself a little blown away by the fact that, 15 years later, the game I created has turned into an honest-to-goodness book. It’s allowed for me to create a fully-realized world where the metaphysics and history make sense, where the way people interact with each other is plausible, and where the stories have become quite easy for me to share.

How has your involvement in gaming helped develop your craft and the stories you tell? Have you had any special experiences that have led to your worlds being fully immersive and highly developed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below – it’s pretty nifty hearing how other people came to develop their worlds.

Alchemic Nameology – The Challenge of Fantasy Names

When reading or writing fantasy, we’re often faced with the challenge of character names. Some names roll off the tongue, while others trip us up and become recurring problems throughout the duration of the text.

There’s an expectation in the fantasy genre for names to sound a little heightened – a little more exotic – and if a name is too common, it’s scoffed at and frowned upon. If it’s too complex and missing vowels, it’s equally dismissed as distancing. So we must find the right balance.

Some family friends recently read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Stieg Larson’s subsequent books, and most of them commented on the challenge of keeping track of all the similar-sounding names. Far too many character names began with the same letter, or had nearly identical construction with l’s and j’s and b’s. I know I’ve seen similar problems in some fantasy novels (particularly those involving a non-humanoid race), so I understand the complaint.

The names just don’t work. Or rather, they create obstacles for the enjoyment of the story – and that’s never a good thing.

During the beta reads of my novel, I, too, received some feedback that two character names sounded too alike, and it became a challenge keeping track of who’s who.

Both were secondary – or perhaps tertiary – characters, and they appeared in the same locale. In a couple of instances, I even made the mistake of typing the wrong character name – which definitely added to the confusion. In case you were curious, the names were Corella and Corinna. I’ve since changed Corella to something else.

Part of the problem stems from how our brains read English text. Our brains don’t read every single letter. They’re highly efficient (or perhaps lazy) so they try to make sense of the word based on an image-capture of the word. The order of the letters within the word doesn’t seem to matter – the brain gets a “hit,” makes sense of it, and moves on. If you’d like to see for yourself, check out this example at Help.com.

On the flip side of the coin, readers would also comment on a name sounding “too common” – that it would take them out of the mythic realm and send them crashing back to the real world.

We’ve likely all encountered some characters with unpronounceable names, or names that simply roll poorly off the tongue. There has to be a balance. But what is it, and what’s a writer to do?

Fantasy Faction posted an article back in September, 2011, called What’s In A Fantasy Name?, and they brought up some valid observations.

“The temptation is to develop names that are imaginative and unique to the created landscape. That’s a great idea but remember to keep the names pronounceable. Imagine someone reading your work aloud. Will the names detract from the flow of the story? A short common name can often allow for a character’s formal title to be a little more imaginative.”

So how do we go about choosing a name?

Some authors choose historic names or names from mythology, and tweak them – changing the vowel sounds, adding in additional letters here and there, etc. Some will scour foreign-language dictionaries or documents, looking for names that have a specific meaning in another language. Others will seek out names with sounds that evoke the character personality – or the base stereotype or archetype they’re trying to conjure. These are all valid tools, and can lead to some wonderful names.

For me, I look for names that suit the style of my writing. Some cultures in my world have very specific name constructions (and name lineage), while others are vowel-heavy. And as a voice, speech, and text specialist in the theatre, I understand the impact of vowel and consonant sounds, so I tend to make use of them to help underscore or produce meaning. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it falls flat. But for the most part, I’m always game to tweak the names until they’re just right.

Have you ever encountered names which turn you off? What are some examples of overly complex names? If you’re a writer, how do you choose your name – and how much does that name define the character for you? Would you be heart-broken if a publisher asked you to change the character name? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

A Map of the World – The Magic of Maps in Fantasy

When I read fantasy books, there’s nothing I love more than the maps.

Well, maybe the story. But the maps are definitely right up there. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s because my first exposure to fantasy was at the age of 10 when I jumped with full abandon into The Lord of the Rings series, followed by The Hobbit. (I still remember my parents being astounded seeing me walking around with the massive 1100-page ‘complete trilogy’ at the cottage. How does a boy go from reading nothing but Calvin & Hobbes to something of that size?)

Maps complete the world for me. Even though our imaginations are incredibly powerful, there’s something wonderful about having a piece of the author’s vision at our disposal. It’s like a sacred secret. They’re sharing with us how they see the world, and it transcends – and completes – the story.

I’m guilty of flipping back to the map every time the characters travel to a new locale, or talks about a distant territory. I love seeing the topography, the rivers they might have had to cross, whether it’s plains or forests or mountainous terrain. It’s a little bit of magic, and a fantasy wouldn’t be complete without it. Some favorite maps include Tolkien and Robert Jordan.

J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

A map of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth

When I was 15 and started world building for my fantasy realm, I started with the maps. Well, to be honest, I started with the titles. Titles have always come first to me, whether I’m writing blog posts, books, short stories, or plays. But the map was a close second.

That summer, I sat at the picnic table that served as our dining room in our tiny little cottage and started to doodle. I didn’t really have an idea of what I wanted the world to be at this point, but I knew I needed a map. I knew the map needed nations, and those nations needed cities. And there had to be conflict. And isolated areas complete with secrets of their own. And cool names. You can’t forget that.

I suppose it should come as no surprize that I value maps so much. I’m a professional actor and writer, and one of the fundamentals of storytelling in both art forms is setting. In my opinion, there is no clearer setting than the world as described by a map. I am amazed, however, at how many stories were born out of this seemingly haphazard – or perhaps careless – doodle of a 15-year old mind.

But perhaps that’s exactly how it should be.

There’s a wonderful saying – and, to be honest, I don’t remember who said it, or which nationality it is attributed to (I believe it is the Native Americans, but I may be wrong) – about the nature of story and storytellers. It goes a little something like this:

“The stories exist; this much is true. They exist always, constantly searching for the right storyteller to introduce them to the world. When – and only when – the right storyteller is found will we finally be given the gift of the tale.”

And perhaps the innocent vessel of my 15-year-old self was tapping into a story that chose me as it’s teller, thus giving birth to the map that would shape and define the stories I would inevitably write. I’ve already written one book (the first of a trilogy), and I guarantee you there are at least 30 other tales for me to share.

And in case you’re wondering, an exceptionally talented friend is currently creating a digital version of my hand-drawn map. I hope to share it with you one day soon.

How important are maps to you? Have there been books where the map has added nothing to the stories, and others where the map nearly completes the story for you? Who has succeeded, and who has perhaps failed to deliver? Please share your thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear your thoughts.