A few quick updates...



1. I'm back to blogging on Mondays! Yay! We will see how it works out.

2. For those of you who were out doing normal non-Internety things this weekend, I shared my submission story for House of a Thousand Dolls. There's also a stone penguin and some lolcats.

3. Do you like backpacks, books and board games? Have you entered my Thank-You Contest of Amazingness yet? (Hint: the answer should be yes. *grin*)

I think that's it for now. Happy Monday!

A Submission Story with Revisions (and lolcats!)

I've gotten all kinds of requests for the story behind the selling of House of a Thousand Dolls. It's actually a very simple story: Jenn sent out the book, some people said "no", some said "we loved it, but no" and eventually someone said "yes."

*pause*

Okay, maybe not that simple.

We went on submission around the first or second week in March. On the first of April, Jen sent me a note asking to talk on gchat.

(Just realized that was April Fool's Day! Never occurred to me at the time, lol.)

When I got on gchat, Jenn gave me a rundown. We had some serious interest from an editor! Her name was Sarah and she loved the book. In fact she could make an offer right now, BUT...

*cue scary music*

She wanted...REVISIONS!



Sarah felt her chances of making a good offer would be better if I would be willing to do some revisions on the first eight chapters. She wanted something she could take to the acquisitions committee to show them her vision of what the book could be.

Well, I've been around the Internet long enough to know revisions are part of the deal. And I knew if we sold it to Sarah, she'd want to make the changes anyway. So I agreed to work on it while we waited to see how the rest of the submissions panned out.

After all, I thought I'd handled Jenn's revision notes pretty well. I could deal with whatever Sarah threw at me.

(Hear that sound? That's the universe laughing at me.)



When Jenn sent me Sarah's notes, I was stunned. She was super enthusiastic and lavish in her praise of the book, but the revisions she asked for were daunting. Things like reducing the number of characters and making the mystery and romantic arcs stronger. These were deep changes, dealing with things that I had never considered before.

It was absolutely terrifying.


I told Jenn I was intimidated. I told her I didn't know how to do any of the things Sarah was asking me to do.

Jenn, being the awesome voice of reason that she is, pointed out that it was late on a Friday night and perhaps I should think about it over the weekend.

So I did. I let it simmer for a few days, and lo and behold, the ideas started to flow. (My subconscious is so much smarter than I am.)  And I started to get excited. I'm a sucker for people who not only tell me how good I am, but challenge me to be better. Sarah's notes were the most challenging thing writing-wise that anyone had ever asked me to do.

Once I had an idea about how to make the biggest changes, I got systematic. I took the first chapters and cut them up into scenes, assigning each of them to a specific change I wanted to make. (Scrivener was awesome for this, but I could have done equally well with just different highlighter colors in Word.)

Then I went through the letter, point by point and change by change. I smooshed two characters together. I cut out some things and added in others. I rewrote Nisha's love interest yet AGAIN. (Long-time readers will remember him as the character I hate.)  I tried to be brave--Jen had told me early on that I wasn't bold enough in revisions--and I gave myself permission to experiment.

And when it was done, I let the chapters sit for a week and then reread them and sent them in. Jenn asked a couple of clarifying questions, I made a few tweaks, and then she sent it to Sarah.

Two weeks later I had an official offer for TWO books, House of a Thousand Dolls and its unwritten sequel.  My revisions were exactly what Sarah needed to push the deal through.



I know revising can suck. I used to hate it. Every time I had to go back and change something, it felt like a slap, a big red handprint of failure. It hurt, having to tear apart my babies and feeling like it was ALL MY FAULT because I hadn't done it right the first time.

But I was wrong.

No one gets it right the first time.

(I'm going to say that again.)

NO ONE GETS IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME.

I think writers tend to view writing as drawing something that we're constantly being asked to rip up, paint over and draw again. Instead, I invite you to view writing as sculpture. A first draft is just the rough shape of the story, and every revision you do allows you to chip away more stone; to find the story you were looking for in the first place.

In other words, revision is a lot like THIS:



So that's my story. Any questions?

Thank-You Contest of AMAZINGNESS!

 This is a re-post from yesterday, since Blogger is being kind of funky.

Can I name a contest or what? :-P

Once again, thank you, thank you, thank you to all of you who shared in my good news this week. And in celebration of both my book deal, and all my awesome friends, I'm throwing this contest.

There will be three winners, a grand prize winner and two runner-ups. The grand prize winner will win THIS:



A shiny new backpack! With books inside!



- A hardback copy of The ABCs of Writing for Children: 114 Children's Authors and Illustrators Talk About the Art, the Business, the Craft & the Life of Writing Children's Literature.

- A copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style

- A journal

- A pocket dictionary/thesaurus

- A research guide, for all your worldbuilding needs!

-And because books and coffee just flat-out belong together, a lovely coffee tumbler, which you can see nestled in the backpack's side pocket.
 _______

NEW CHANGE!!

The backpack will also contain the following books:



- An ARC of The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

- How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (a Prinz-winning book)

- Fat Kid Rules the World by K.L. Going (a Prinz Honor book)

- Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen

- The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (a National Book Award book)
__________

The first runner up will get something amazing. I found it while I was packing the other day and decided that I HAD to put it the contest.



- Trivial Pursuit, the Book-Lover's Edition! (Which I bought new and never played because all my bookish friends are online.) AND a new permanent plastic cup w/straw, which as long-time readers know is my favorite way to drink water.

(Unfortunately, I can't ship the backpack or the game internationally, but I DO have a special prize for out-of-country entries, so don't let that stop you!)

________

But if you don't win the first two prizes, don't despair! The second runner-up will receive a $15 Amazon or Barnes and Noble gift card, so you can buy ebooks (or print books!) on the platform of your choice.

The contest will close at midnight, June 8th June 15th PST. To enter, just fill out the form below.


Thanks to everyone who entered! The contest is now closed. 


Also, telling the submission story won hands down over finishing the worldbuilding series as the next thing I should do. So come back on Saturday to read how we sold House of a Thousand Dolls!

Monday thank-you and a question.

Wow guys. Wow.

You blew me away this weekend with your awesome outpouring of support and congratulations. Sometimes I didn't know how to reply, I was so stunned by it all. "Thank you" doesn't seem to go far enough, but I'll say it anyway.


This thank-you has been brought to you by: the Department of Crazy Morning Hair and the letters T and U.


Now, a question. As many of you know, we're in the middle of my worldbuilding series. There are at least two posts to go. But some people have asked for my submission/selling story. And I have a thank-you contest planned for Wednesday as well.

(Make sure and come back for that. It's gonna be EPIC.)

So should I do the submissions story first and finish the worldbuilding series at a later date? Or should I finish the series first and then go on to other things?

What do you think?

AHHH!!!! WE SOLD A BOOK!!!!

Actually we sold TWO books!!

From Publisher's Marketplace:

Miriam Forster's debut HOUSE OF A THOUSAND DOLLS, about a servant who lives on a sprawling estate where orphaned girls are groomed to be anything from assassins to courtesans; when a rash of mysterious deaths occur, she must find the killer or else be sold as a slave, to Sarah Barley at Harper Children's, in a two-book deal, by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary Agency (World English).

HAPPY DANCES FOR ALL!!!!

Worldbuilding, part 3: The Secret to Worldbuilding Success (according to me).



I have a secret principle when it comes to worldbuilding. It's a private policy that I take very seriously and don't really talk about. In fact, this is the first time it's ever come up on the blog.

It's also something I haven't seen in many other places. This could be because I'm in the wrong places, but it could also be because it doesn't work for everyone. (As always, your mileage may vary.)

My personal secret to successful worldbuilding is something I like to call "the principle of internal consistency." It goes like this:

Everything in your world should mirror the real world as much as possible, with deliberate exceptions.  

This rule applies more to fantasy than to science fiction because science fiction starts with the same basic rules as the real world. It just takes them in a vastly different direction. (Like creating and describing the life on different planets.) Because of this, well-done science fiction already has a lot of internal consistency.

Fantasy, however, doesn't operate by the rules we know; so the principle of internal consistency is vital.

I'll give you a personal example.

The world of The House of a Thousand Dolls is called the Bhinian Empire. While it is based on Southern Asia, it's a fake world. I made it up. It has magical creatures who can turn from human to animal and a sky that's always gray. Totally not the real world at all.

HOWEVER, one of the most solid pieces of writing advice out there is "use specific details." Don't just say tree, say elm or cypress or palm tree. So when I went to write a scene where the main character goes into the forest and meets a monkey, I needed to decide what kind of tree to use, and what kind of monkey it should be.

The tree was easy. Nothing says South Asia/India like a teak forest.

found at theinteriorevolution.com

But the monkey took some digging. And quite a few people told me not to bother. "It's a fantasy," they said. "You can make it any kind of monkey you want."

Except...I couldn't. Partly because I'm obsessive like that, but also because then it wouldn't have felt real. And I believe that the best way to write worlds that FEEL real is to MAKE them real as much as possible.

Steampunk wouldn't be nearly so cool without the background of authentic Victorian society. J.K Rowling didn't make up railway carriages and preparatory schools and British politics. She simply made them wizardly.

Of course, if the monkey had been magical, or special in some way, then I could have described it as purple or brown with green spots and gotten away with it.  But if you're going to depart from reality that much, you really should have a reason. Like...all poisonous animals in your world are bright red, including the deadly viper-monkey!!

*horrified scream*

But even then, you're borrowing from reality because it's very normal in our world for poisonous animals to have bright or unusual colors. (See what I did there?)

The advantage to basing your world as much as possible on the real one is that it makes vivid description easier.  The monkey I settled on is called a gray langur and it looks like this:

found at wikipedia.com

So all I had to do to describe it was pull up a few pictures and look carefully.  And I ended up with this scene:

Nisha spun, her heart jerking in her chest. A gray monkey with a black face sat on a low branch. It seemed neither startled, nor afraid, but regarded Nisha with an expression of benevolent curiosity. 

"Hello," Nisha said, not sure what else to do. 

The monkey chittered back, inching closer along the branch. Its narrow tail twitched, and its dark eyes never left the orchid in Nisha's hand. 

"You want this?" Nisha said, holding it out. The monkey bobbed its head and leaned closer to the flower. Thin bones moved under silver-tipped fur. Nisha held the flower closer. 

"Go on," she said on an impulse. "You can have it."

A dark paw flashed out and then both monkey and orchid were gone. Nisha watched the long-limbed form of the monkey pulling itself through the branches of the trees until it was out of sight. Then she turned and walked away, the cool air like a silk coverlet on her empty hands.

I don't mind telling you that this is far more vivid than anything I could have imagined up on my own. And there is nothing wrong with my imagination. *grin*

In essence, the principle of internal consistency acknowledges that there is a whole complicated, beautiful, vivid world out there for us to use, and then demands that we use it whenever possible.

So that's my worldbuilding secret. Any questions? Do you have a worldbuilding secret too?


EDIT: The always-awesome John just pointed me to a great example of similar worldbuilding, Janice Hardy's post "Building a World from the Ground Up."  You should go read it, there's some excellent stuff there.

Worldbuilding, part 2: By the Power of Grayskull...I mean Research!

found at onlinetvshow.org
Research is a superpower.

Seriously.

There's an idea out there that serious in-depth research is only something historical writers have to do, that if you write science fiction and fantasy, you can get away with the bare minimum. After all, no one can tell you it's wrong. You made it all up.

The problem with that line of thinking is that wrong and unrealistic are not the same thing. If you can't make the reader believe in your world, it doesn't matter if it's "right."  And research gives you a huge amount of believability for one simple reason:

Research kills stereotypes.

No one knows everything about everything.  And as humans, we fill in the gaps of what we don't know with other things: stuff we've heard, impressions we've gotten, what we've read or seen on TV. The result can be shallow characters and unexciting worldbuilding.

Research can help fix those problems. For example, I didn't seriously start researching ancient India until I'd actually written The House of a Thousand Dolls and realized the two worlds had a lot in common. But once I did, I found a lot of details that made the story much more vivid, like clay lamps, rope sandals and a teak forest rustling with monkeys.
__________

If research is important, HOW one researches is also important. There's a lot of misinformation out there. (I once wrote a whole article about origami based around a 'fact' I found on the internet. That fact turned out to be wrong. Oops. Fortunately I discovered that before I submitted the article.)

Last year I wrote a middle-grade fantasy that I called Black as Ice, White as Bone. Because it was set in a real place (Nome, Alaska) and in a real time (1899), I became VERY obsessive about research. These are the stages I went through.

1.  Reference sections

Home encyclopedias--or the encyclopedias at your local library--are great places to get a broad overview of something. While they are short on details, they can give you the basics on things like historical periods and give you an idea of the kind of information you need to find.

2.  Libraries and University libraries

While the nonfiction section of the public library is usually a great resource, our small town library didn't have the information I needed. So it was off to the university library. They had scolorly studies on both Alaskan history and on the Inuits who lived in that area. Soon I had a MUCH  better idea of the details I was looking for.  I made tons of copies and took a lot of notes.

The important thing here is that you are looking for actual books or papers. You need solid information, published by people with fact-checkers, and deemed reliable enough to be placed in the library.  If you start with that, then you'll have a framework to evaluate the rest of the information you find.

3.  Primary sources

When looking at printed resources, pay careful attention to primary sources, books where people have firsthand knowledge of what they are talking about.

For example, in the university library I found a book called The Eskimo Storyteller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska. The book was written by Edwin Hall, and is a collection of folktales as told by two Noatak elders: Edna Hunnicutt and Paul Monroe.  The stories were told directly to Hall, who not only wrote them down, but also made notes on Inuit living patterns and different themes within the stories.

This book had a profound impact on the writing of Black as Ice, White as Bone. It not only gave me details about how my characters might have lived, it got me into the mind of the culture I was writing about and helped me understand what they valued.

4.  Fiction

Sometimes you can get a better handle on a culture, time period or religion by reading other fiction that deals with similar subjects. I read a lot of fiction set in India when I was rewriting Houses, not so I could copy details, but so I could catch the flavor of the setting and see how other people made it come alive. I did the same for Black as Ice, White as Bone. (Though finding good fiction about the coastal Northwest Inuits was a bit of a challenge.)


5.  Google

Ahhh, the internet. The greatest information distributer man has ever known. And it is a wonderful research tool, but ONLY after you've laid the proper groundwork. Once you have a solid foundation of primary and reliable secondary sources, the internet is your best friend, for several reasons.
a. Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia because it's so random. There's always some little bit of information in an article that I hadn't picked up on before.  Sometimes the information holds up under research, sometimes it doesn't, but I almost always get a new idea out of it.

b. Pictures. 

One thing I did before I rewrote Black as Ice, White as Bone was google and save a whole mess of pictures. Pictures of historic Nome, pictures of tools and houses and hunting equipment. And lots of pictures of people. Then every time I found a vague passage of description, I just pulled up a picture and used it as a reference.

(I highly recommend browsing the U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library. I found some amazing old photos there.)

c. Widening your net

There are details and ideas on the Internet you might not find in other places. The trick is already knowing your subject well so that you can spot misinformation. And there are primary sources on the Internet too. In my case, I visited several Inuit culture sites and picked up interesting details, like how to use a marrow pick and what kind of feathers were used to fletch an arrow.


A lot of people hate research, and in a different post I'll give you some tips to make it less onerous. But if you're writing speculative fiction (or any fiction) and you can't seem to get away from stereotypes, I strongly encourage you to try a little research. You might be amazed at what you find.

How do you stand on research for worldbuilding? Do you love it? Hate it? Do YOU think it's necessary?

Please discuss!


(Also sorry for the Sunday post all. The posting schedule has to flex a bit until my Saturdays slow down. But it will stay on Wednesdays and weekends)

Worldbuilding, part 1: It's not just for science fiction anymore!

Worldbuilding. What is it exactly? Why is it important? How do you do it?



Ahem.

Anyway, there are lots of definitions of worldbuilding, like this one from Wikipedia:
Worldbuilding is the process of constructing an imaginary world, sometimes associated with a fictional universe....The term world-building was popularized at science fiction writer's workshops during the 1970s. It describes a key role in the task of a fantasy writer: that of developing an imaginary setting that is coherent and possesses a history, geography, ecology, and so forth.
This is great as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. So for the purposes of this series, I'm going to give you my definition. (As always, this is one writer's opinion. Your mileage may vary.)

Worldbuilding is the process of creating an authentic setting in a place and time where the reader has never been.

And unless you're writing about a place and time EVERYONE has been to, then you will eventually have to do some worldbuilding. It doesn't matter if your setting is a fantasy world, a spaceship or a Tibetan palace in the sixth century. Even a small town in the badlands of Wyoming needs good worldbuilding to make it come alive.

 "But Miriam!" you say. (Or at least the imaginary you in my head says this.) "Worldbuilding is only for worlds you invent! Those other settings just need research."

Fair enough. But my point is that the actual process of putting vivid worlds on paper--and the tools you need to do it--are universal to every story.  In fact, if worldbuilding is not your strong suite you can learn a lot from other genres.

(Also, don't knock research. Good worldbuilding needs research and  I'll tell you why in the next post.)

Let me break down what I see as the four basic types of worldbuilding and maybe you'll see what I mean. 

Scientific Worldbuilding:

This is the building of a world in its most literal sense. Scientific worldbuilders are the people who know how dense their planet is, how far it is from the sun, how long the days and nights are. They know how all the creatures on their planet evolved and why each one looks the way it does.

Later, I'm going to talk about a worldbuilding principle I call the principle of internal consistency. Scientific worldbuilders have internal consistency in spades. Every part of their physical world fits together, everything makes sense.  There's a reason that "hard" science fiction is the oldest and most popular form of sci-fi; people like plausible worlds. Especially ones that are different from their own.

Of course, the downside to this kind of worldbuilding is that all the rules are different, which means you have to come up with a way to communicate the rules without slowing down the story. (Large chunks of exposition need not apply.)

Magical Worldbuilding

Magical worldbuilders deal in making the impossible seem possible. You want giants? Dragons? Mythical flying horses that poop rainbows? We can do that. You want talking cats or a city in the clouds? Done. In a fantasy, anything is possible.

And in a weird twist, this means that magical worldbuilders--more than anyone else--have to set rules and limits for their world. When anything is possible, there is no tension. If everyone is powerful and immortal, there is no risk. Magic has to have a price, and many of the most enduring fantasy novels are about the price of magic and how much people are willing to pay for it.

So in addition to all their crazy dreaming, magical worldbuilders spend a good deal of time figuring out what people can and can't do and why. Then they follow those rules religiously.  (Of course, communicating the rules is still an issue, but that's a different post.)
________

It's easy to stop here. You figure out the rules, hammer out the magic system and then say "Look I came up with this awesome world! Yay!" Then you throw in some magical creatures, draw a map and call it done.  Meanwhile, your characters are eating stew (the official food of Fantasyland), wielding magical Mcguffins and generally doing all kind of generic things.

Or say you want to write a paranormal romance, a la S. Meyer. You know agents and editors are swamped by such things, so you try to come up with something different. Like a ghost-selkie! Or a were-platypus! Meanwhile, your characters lack spark and your settings are blah.

Here is the truth: if you want to create a world that draws readers in and doesn't let go, basic fantasy and sci-fi worldbuilding is often not enough.

Yeah, I said it. 

Don't despair though. There are a couple other kinds of worldbuilding you can look at to help you.

Historical Worldbuilding

Good historical fiction writers are the best worldbuilders around. They have to be. If you're taking your reader to a time they may not know anything about, you need to communicate how things work. What are the rules of the society? What is the level of technology? Who has the power? Why? And so on.

Historical fiction writers are detail oriented. They know that every little part of their story--what the characters eat, how they travel, what they sleep on--needs to be authentic. And because of that,  historical fiction writers also know the value of research.

When you're writing historical fiction, it's really, really easy to get it wrong. Historical fiction is a different beast then speculative fiction. It can be googled and researched and double-checked. And these writers know that if you want to be taken seriously, the person doing the googling and researching and double-checking had better be you. 

Cultural and Sub-cultural Worldbuilding

Cultural worldbuilding is everywhere, from John Grisham's legal novels and Robin Cook's medical thrillers to more literary books, like Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Any time you write about a specific culture, subculture or profession, you are engaging in cultural worldbuilding.

Like their historical counterparts, cultural worldbuilders are very specific. They use the appropriate jargon, they find telling details about their character's lives and routines and use them. And they're either experts in the field they're writing about, or they've talked to people who are.

The expert part is important, because good cultural worldbuilding isn't just about physical details, but about attitudes and values. It's about how people think.

An example:  In traditional Inuit culture, cooperation is so important to their survival that it's extremely rare for anyone to live alone. In fact, refusing to share is almost a crime in social terms.  On  the other hand, people in modern North America place a high premium on privacy and private property. If you have an Inuit character in your book and he gets angry that someone used his knife without asking, you've just undermined your world's authenticity.
__________

At its heart, worldbuilding isn't just about creating an entirely different world. It's about writing that world in such a way that the reader is drawn in. It's about making your world--whether real, historical or imaginary--feel completely real.

And we'll start talking about HOW to do that in the next post.

In the meantime, do you guys have any questions? Does this make sense? And can you think of any books that show really good worldbuilding?

Worldbuilding series starts on Wednesday!

I was going to start it yesterday, but this week at work was a little...um....



 GRADUATION STAMPEDE!!!



Busy.

You know how it goes.

So again, if you have any suggestions or questions on the process of worldbuilding, leave them in the comment thread. And also,

Happy Mother's Day!!!

Querytracker interview and lessons in perfectionism

You almost didn't get this link.

Really. I almost didn't put it up, and here's why:

I wrote this interview last week in a stress-induced haze. It would take a long time to explain why, but basically everything in my life was overwhelming me, to the extent that I was having anxiety attacks almost every night.

So on one of my days off, I filled out the interview. I read it through, ran it through spellcheck and emailed it back. But when I clicked on the link yesterday I was horrified. THERE WERE TYPOS EVERYWHERE!



And not misspelling typos either, but wrong word usage. The sort of thing where you spell a word and it auto-corrects to something else, making you look mildly illiterate. 

Now I'm a bit of a perfectionist. There are things you're supposed to do and certain ways you're supposed to do them and if you fail THE WORLD ENDS. So there was no way I was going to send all of you to an interview with *gasp* mistakes in it.

Except...I'd already told you it was coming. And friends have said that reading those kinds of interviews encourage them and there is some cool stuff in there about how I got the idea and it's not like anyone is going to hate me for a few typos, right?

Right?

(Who am I kidding? There's probably a lynch mob out there right now lighting torches and grabbing pitchforks and shouting "BURN THE GRAMMAR HERETIC!")



*hides under bed*

Unfortunately for me, I have a strict policy about doing scary things: I try to do them whenever possible. And that includes showing people my mistakes.

So for your enjoyment, my delightfully imperfect Querytracker interview. Enjoy!

Any other perfectionists out there? How do you handle making mistakes?
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Fabric art in the header by Carol Riggs.