“The New Hire” is a story inspired by the ridiculous things we’ve all had to do just to make ends mete. When you are desperate, how far is too far?
Creating religions part 1
For better or worse, religion is a driving force in our world. From art and philosophy, to war and politics, religion inspires both beauty and ugliness in humanity.
Writers can tap into this potency for their own stories by creating fictional gods and religions. Creating believable religions was difficult for me, so I’ll share the tips I’ve accumulated. This is going to be a multi-part post to keep things short and readable.
Religion is closely tied to at least three things:
Religion is used to justify certain cultural beliefs. Human sacrifice among the Aztecs is well-known. They believed that sacrifice was necessary to perpetuate the existence of the world. What cultural beliefs do your characters have that are rationalized by their religion?
The history of a people contributes to how they view themselves. History here also refers to “mythic” history – tales we tell ourselves that may not actually be true. What is the history of your characters’ culture? Were they invaders, slaves, nomads, outcasts? How do they perceive themselves and what explanation do they give for their history?
The connection between culture, history, and religion is obvious, but remember that the environment also plays a role in how people perceive the divine. The ancient Egyptians saw god in the yearly flooding of the Nile and the much-needed nutrients it brought to the parched landscape. The Norse lived in a harsh realm and their mythology reflected this. How does the environment interact with your characters’ beliefs?
Use the interplay of these three points to create a believable religion with a past that influences the characters’ present – and be on the look out for the next part of this post where I go further into the nuances of creating a religion for your story world.
From the world of Harry Potter to the Marvel cinematic universe, mythology is all around us. No wonder: these ancient tales encompass the whole range of human experience – stories of vengeful deities, epic tales of adventure, terrifying monsters, romance, and plenty of poignancy.
To draw upon this rich well of inspiration, learn about the stories and the characters, then put your own twist on it. Authors frequently use Greek or Roman myth as this is what Western readers would be most familiar with, but the world of mythology is vast. Look for inspiration within other ancient cultures, such as the Egyptians, Hattians, or Norse. You can even find ideas within a modern religion’s ancient mythology: Neon Genesis Evangelion is an example of an anime/manga series that uses a lot of Christian symbolism. To avoid cultural appropriation, it is probably best to steer away from drawing directly from closed religions, and sensitivity is a must if you wish to use ideas from a living religion or culture that is not your own.
There are a few ways you can incorporate mythology into your writing:
Using mythology in your writing is a great way to add realism and depth. They are a rich source of inspiration, just remember to be polite to living cultures that are not your own.
What makes a reader afraid to turn the page of a book, hands shaking in terror? What makes a reader cry with the protagonist in a story?
The answer is mood! Crafting mood — or an “atmosphere” — in writing is key to creating an unforgettable reading experience. Writers have at least three tools to create mood: setting, diction, and tone.
One of the most powerful ways to create mood is through setting, the physical location of the story. In book two of Strange Spark, the characters discover an abandoned subterranean laboratory. This setting is perfect for creating a dark, creepy mood. The characters and reader alike wonder what lies in the flickering shadows.
This kind of mood-creation is used to great effect in many Japanese horror films. Dark, dank areas — like the well in “Ringu” [or “The Ring” as it was known in English] — are common motifs.
Another example of a different type of mood can be found in Charles Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers.”
“The river, reflecting the clear blue of the sky, glistened and sparkled as it flowed noiselessly on.”
The details of a clear sky and a glistening, quiet river evoke a serene mood.
Think of a few details your setting contains. Then pick specific verbs and adjectives to convey the mood you want. For example, if Dickens sought a sad mood he could have written the above passage thusly:
Storm clouds twisted in the river’s bone-white waves.
Diction is word choice. Listen to how the words sound together. Select euphonious words that flow well together to create a happy mood, or select jarring, cacophonous words for a negative mood. Take note of emotional associations [“connotations”] of words too:
Bunnies bounced in the garden as clouds loomed overhead.
The word “loomed” doesn’t work very well in this sentence because the connotation is of something scary or impending. A better choice might be something like this:
Bunnies bounced in the garden as clouds floated across the horizon.
Sentence construction is another part of this. Short, clipped sentences can add to a tense scene. Long, flowery sentences with lots of semi-colons and commas slow down action; they work well when you are trying to convey a pleasant mood. [See what I did there?]
Tone is how you approach the theme. It helps you create the mood of your story. Your viewpoint character’s attitude toward story events is key in achieving tone. Manipulate tone by manipulating your character’s attitude: what do they see and how do they feel about it? How do their reactions change as the story progresses? Use the viewpoint character’s reactions to sensory perceptions to build up your mood.
Take a look at this description of a first kiss:
The cramped car seat pinched my legs. Dread curled in my stomach. She leaned in, matted hair falling across her eyes, and opened her mouth. Hot, cloying breath rolled out and I nearly gagged.
Doesn’t sound pleasant, right? The viewpoint character is in an awkward position and trying not to vomit.
To create a tone that works, be sure that your character’s reactions make sense in the moment.
By building mood, you can clarify themes and evoke a powerful reader response. How do you convey mood in your works? Tell us in the comments!
NaNoWriMo is almost wrapping up. As you know, my story’s main characters are animals. When I first began my writing venture, I sought ways of representing how non-humans see and experience the world. As a reader, I’m a big fan of stream of consciousness writing and other techniques that help get inside the heads of characters. The idea of strategic use of experimental punctuation was inspired by the wonderful non-fiction book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe. He uses a series of semi-colons ::::::::::: to great effect. “House of Leaves” is another well-known book that uses experimental typography — such as text color, size, and layout — as punctuation.
Herve Bazin was a French writer who invented several adorable punctuation marks:
In Strange Spark, I sought to continue the tradition of experimental punctuation without making the narrative too bizarre or difficult to follow. Examples of some punctuation that I use in the series include:
1. Herve Bazin’s lovemark. I use it to express love, gratitude, and similar states.
2. The well-known interrobang: ‽ this useful mark — an exclammatory questionmark — needs no introduction.
3. Daggers: ‡ I use these usually in pairs as a visual representation of fear and the smell of danger.
4. Strategic use of color, layout, asemic writing, and textboxes.
Some people may object to such experiments, calling them gratuitious or unnecessary. I understand these objections. However, writing is a creative pursuit and I value any technique that can express a character’s state of mind. Alternative punctuation is one way of doing this, and I particularly enjoy it because of how visual it can be. Animals do not think in words or language. Instead, their thoughts are filled with instinct, smells, colors, images, and sensations. By using color, textboxes, and similar visual and experimental techniques, I can further explore their minds.
Of course, a fine line exists between experimental and interesting and experimental and ridiculous (I’m looking at you, “Alphabetical Africa”). This division seems to come down to a single point: does the gimmick further the story, the plot, the characters, or does it exist just to be different?
Hopefully readers will find Strange Spark’s experiments to be of the enlightening kind!
How To Make a Modern Novel (www.theguardian.com)
NaNoWriMo 2013 was a fantastic experience. I stumbled forward, unsure of my ability to write a decent novel…but fastforward several months, and the book I doubted has transformed into a trilogy! I’m excited to say that I have finished the rough draft of book two. The trilogy will be called Strange Spark. As for the individual books, I have tentatively began calling them Squall Line, Starfall, and Severence — though these individual names could change.
I love the name Strange Spark — it works perfectly to describe the spark which is the source of animal magic in my world. The mysterious villains have access to a different type of technology- and radiation-based magic, one that the animals don’t understand; they call it “strange spark.”
The next NaNoWriMo is only a few months away, and I eagerly await the camraderie, heart-pounding deadlines, and hard work. My vow is that by this time next year I will have 3 publishable novels, complete with cover art! Wish me luck!
Here are the current designs I’ve been tinkering with. This looks so much better than the original design, don’t you think?
And here is the second book’s current cover:
“I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I am inspired every morning at 9:00.” – Peter De Vries
It’s inevitable: every artist sometimes feels stuck. Whether your medium is the written word, colors, or video, everyone must battle “the block.” So how do you hunt down inspiration?
Keeping your thoughts and plans organized is one way to stave off writer’s block. Every author has their own technique. Here’s how Laura Lippman, mystery author, does it:
[Ms. Lippman] creates elaborate, color-coded plot charts, using index cards, sketchbook pages, colored ribbon and magic markers.
The diagrams vary from book to book, but Ms. Lippman says she can tell a novel is off-track if her chart lacks symmetry.
She first used the technique on her ninth book, “By A Spider’s Thread,” which had two lines of action. She assigned a color to each point of view and made a chart with alternating blocks of color. For her novel “To The Power of Three,” which had seven different points of view, she bought seven different colors of ribbon and assigned a color to each character. Then she created a grid and strung colored ribbon representing each character between chapters where that character appeared, creating an intricate colored lattice.
Ms. Lippman says she becomes “somewhat obsessive” about her charts.
“Every time I show people these things they seem to find them mildly disturbing,” she says.
Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? Color coding your notes is a creative way to keep organized – just looking at such an elaborate scheme could help you feel inspired to write more.
Here are some techniques I use when fighting writer’s block:
1. Establish a quota: even if it means rewriting or adding to previous work instead of penning something new, establishing a reasonable quota helps overcome bumps, forcing me into writing mode.
2. Set a deadline: I need deadlines – tight, difficult deadlines – to do my work. Whether it’s school-related or writing-related, deadlines get my blood pumping with urgency…and for me that is one of the best things to finish areas where I am stuck. But I have to remember to take a breather in between tough projects. [See point number 12.]
3. Move on and come back later: A well-worn trick, sometimes I just have to work on a different section. Don’t get stuck in one area.
4. Go back to the outline and let my mind wander: in my outlines, I keep lists of “heart-pounding” moments, images that inspired me to write the story in the first place. I find that when I am stuck, going back to these helps me refocus.
5. Change things up: writing is often a lonely affair: we sit at our computers with only our characters for company. But when inspiration is lacking, I find going outside with a notebook really helps me out. The local park is a great place for this. A lot of my characters are animals – and the action is mostly in the great outdoors – so that is probably why this technique helps me get back into the flow of things.
6. Sketch, color, scribble: my sketchbook is a powerful tool in battling writer’s block. It’s filled with sketches of my characters; photographs from magazines that remind me of my setting; and random bits of color, texture, and ideas. Writing is not very visual or kinesthetic; keeping a sketchbook helps all parts of my brain stay engaged.
a. I strongly believe that authors should engage in something kinesthetic to help them through dry spells. Whether it is sculpture, theatre, gardening, or scrapbooking, the kinesthetic, hands-on approach to creativity can really help your mind think in creative new ways if you find yourself stuck at your keyboard all day.
7. Music: not just for background noise, selecting the right tunes can help you feel the mood you
are trying to evoke. Youtube is a treasure trove of musical inspiration, so take your pick! Another use for music is creating theme songs for your characters. This is a good way to get into your characters’ heads.
8. Research: when I am severely stuck, I take a step back with research. Since I write science-fantasy, a lot in my story needs to be researched anyway. Research helps me stay productive while also taking a step back. By looking for new ideas, it helps kick the creative gears into overdrive.
9. Dream journal: My dream journal is another source of inspiration. I keep it by my bed and jot down interesting tidbits from the previous night as soon as I wake up. The symbols and bizarre imagery feed my creativity when writer’s block strikes.
10. Practice creativity: choosing to be creative throughout the day when I am away from the keyboard helps keep writer’s block at bay.
11. Read a dictionary: I know it sounds boring, but picking up a nice word trove [like the stupendous “There’s a Word For It”] can be enlightening, entertaining, and just the thing to break a spate of writer’s block. Words are a writer’s tools, our medium. Learning and using all different kinds of words is vital to our success. And sometimes a strange, evocative word can inspire a line of dialogue.
12. Take a break: let’s face it – sometimes you just need a break. After trying every tip out there for breaking the block, sometimes it becomes obvious that you just need time to rest and recover. Work on a different creative project for a while. I had to take a break after NaNoWriMo – no matter how hard I tried, my prose was stilted and awkward, painful to read and write. It was awful because I really wanted to try to finish a rough draft of the entire trilogy in three months…a ridiculous goal, I now understand, and part of the reason why it was so hard to write anything at all.
Do you ever have to battle writer’s block? What techniques do you use to overcome it? Or maybe you are like Booker-prize winner Michael Ondaatje, who once said, “I don’t understand this whole concept of writer’s block.” [Lucky you!]
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