Don’t Forget the Wheels

Yeah, maybe I should have leapt on the bandwagon to write a New Year’s post, but it’s all about world-building for me right now. Since the second novel in the Scod series focuses on Zalú, I need to flesh out every detail that I overlooked while writing the first book. That means adding to the map, adding new cultures, expanding the history, — and finally biting the bullet on the technology.

In Zalú, much of the land is a special kind of “wasteland” thanks to volcanic activity and frigid winters. Nothing grows there, so no animal life can be supported either. Which means travelers have to get across and into a more functional biozone before they run out of supplies. And with a war going on, speed is even more important.

I couldn’t have them floundering in ash and sand. They needed vehicles to bear the weight of the supplies and products to be sold. And those vehicles needed terrain-appropriate wheels.

I think there are two trains of thought that my readers just leapt on: 1) Well, that’s a somewhat gratuitous detail, or 2) Of course you need special wheels! Did it really take you until the second book to work that out?

In response to those on line 1 bound for Skeleton Prose, it might seem that way if you, say, designed every aspect of every vehicle and described them in mind numbing  Tolkien-esque prose. I’ll be the first to admit that too much world building is possible and detracts from the plot and characters if overdone. But.

Details are the very life spark of your invented world. Not only do they make it more believable, they’re what your readers are looking for in the first place. Readers of fantasy and science fiction all love a good story and good characters, but if that were enough for us we’d be content with realistic fiction. What we crave is the imagination, the impossible, the wondrous. We are greedy. We don’t just want to see the stars — we want to feel their glow on our faces, smell the stardust in our hair, bite down on them like hard diamond candies.

(Sorry, I’m in the middle of a sugar craving.)

In response to those on line 2 bound for Over-saturated Description, yes it did.

Details can also be really, really tiring. There’s so much to think about, SO MUCH. I’ve been filling out a questionnaire that I found online for the past few months. So far, I’ve finished about eight pages.

There are seventy-four all together.

This questionnaire asks me to contemplate such things as population density, imports, exports, the legality of magic, political alignments, common jobs, hierarchies… and that’s just in one section. It is highly thorough, and extremely boring.

That’s not to say this isn’t a useful tool for me. On the contrary, I’d be lost without it. And the details that you need not being fun doesn’t mean that you can’t add fun ones in as well. I mean, that’s why we all started writing, isn’t it? ; )

But again, there comes a point where you just stop needing so many details, and can even bog down your writing by adding them.

The key is to find the balance. Seventy-four pages is a lot, but I’m trudging through it so I can err on the side of caution. Even with three books worth of world-craft, 80% of what I add will probably never see publication. But, if I ever do need those details, they will exist. And… here’s where I cheesily come full circle with an analogy… the vehicle of my prose will ride smoothly on its wheels of detail.

Warned you. ; )


Ciphers Update and the Importance of Character Motivation

Where have I been lately? Just the usual: recovering from pneumonia, getting shuttled all over Cheollanamdo for Chuseok, sinking to my knees in Korean mudflats in search of snails to fry up in their shells, chatting with my host mom’s good-looking 27-year-old brother, watching the family pull bee larvae out of their honeycomb and eat them, getting ready to move this afternoon…

I am a horrible blogger. XD

But I’m trying not to be a horrible novelist. Once again, it is Friday afternoon and I find myself at Cafe Vill, working on Ciphers. I have just under two months until my self-appointed deadline of a query-ready manuscript, and while I haven’t been able to work on the novel half as much as I would have liked, I still have hope that I can actually make this deadline. Especially now that I’ve wizened up and remembered I have Writerly Tricks up my sleeve!

In a nutshell, my lack of productivity has been more due to being overwhelmed than anything. At first I thought the last six or so chapters of the book would need a horrendous amount of rewriting. I figured out a way to avoid that (which also happens to strengthen the villain’s character a lot) but have still been procrastinating because…

Monday: Ugh. Really? I’m too tired for so much thinking today. I’ll do it tomorrow.

Tuesday: Four classes. In a row. Sorry, novel.

Wednesday: What novel?

Thursday: Zzzzz…

Friday: Hey, I think I got this! Blog time!

I know, I know. But I promise this post is going somewhere!

Because there was a scene in there I REALLY couldn’t stand, in which one character used a kind of emotional hypnosis (“psychic persuasion”) to make another character do something. It was random, illogical, and — I realized — a total cheat. I was just avoiding letting the hypnotized character be responsible for his own actions, because I didn’t have a good reason why he would actually choose them.

In other words, I’d completely overlooked that character’s motivation.

And I couldn’t figure out a motivation strong enough to make him do what was necessary.

Solution: revisit this. My own plotting technique. I almost kicked myself for forgetting about it. Even though it’s such a simple guideline, it’s really an awesome tool for me because, as a scatterbrained author, I need the organization. Using this template forces me to break complex plot lines into individual events, and then break the events down into five very simple parts: task, motivation, method, obstacles, outcome.

I won’t get into more detail because that’s what the linked post is all about. But I will say that using the guideline I spent all of five minutes on my motivation problem before figuring out what would finally get the character to move, and exactly how that would affect the outcome.

Five minutes. After hours of dithering and weeks of cringing at that scene thinking “this needs to change” and then marking it to work on later.

In conclusion, don’t forget the motivation!

I will invent a new sport…

…and it shall be known as “Ultimate Nerding.”

Because I think it’s fun to spend my entire Friday afternoon scribbling nonsense into a sketchbook while sipping green tea lattes.

Behold, the first draft of my Ngoshib system!


If you don’t get it, that’s okay. You’re just not a conlanger nerd enough. ; )

Help me name my novel?

I realized that using any kind of fire-related word in my novel’s title (like smoldering) will have people assuming it’s a romance, which it very much is not. So after thinking a bit, I noted that the most relevant non-fire words in the book are: ancestor, madness, curse, linguist, code, world, voice.

Based on this, “Shadow of an Ancestor” describes Siph’s situation pretty well. Also, it’s a pretty intriguing title if you haven’t read the book, and actually means something if you have.

“The Ngoshir Code” would be apt if I wanted to focus on Bridget’s story. The thing is that while Bridget is a main character, this first book spotlights Siph.

“Heir to Madness” is one that I haven’t yet crossed off the list, but it both doesn’t say much and gives too much away at the same time.

I’m still playing around with just titling the book “Cipher” because of the (unintentional) duality of it being the main character’s name and a synonym for code.

So right now my favorite working title is “Shadow of an Ancestor,” with “Cipher” being the runner up. The series itself I’ve already given the simple working title “The Scod Series.”

What I’d like from you, dear readers, are your opinions on these potential titles. And I ask for this from beta readers and non-beta readers alike.

Have you read the first 17 chapters of Smoldering? Tell me which new title you think suits it best.

Never read a word of it? Tell me which title is more likely to get a second look from you in the bookstore.

Have your own suggestion for a title? I’d love you forever if you told me. 🙂

Thanks in advance!

An Anniversary

Yesterday I wrote this little entry about how I wasn’t going to write anything not related to school… being that I have a five-page essay, a forty-page essay, and a final to worry about until Thursday. Except that I was working on that forty-pager and realized I couldn’t really add anything until my partner and I had tested a couple more people.

(Coincidentally, if you happen to be a native speaker of Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Thai, or Vietnamese, passed the TOEFL or other such exam, and are currently working or studying in the U.S., we would love to interview you! 😉 )

Anyway, seeing that I was rather stuck on this paper, I did what any responsible student would do and moved on to the next one.

Ha. No, I lie. Replace “student” with “writer” and “moved on to the next one” with “totally drafted an outline of that extra story I want to put in the back of my published novel!”

Fortunately, it’s a short story, so it didn’t take that much time to do — maybe fifteen minutes, but probably less since I was really excited. Heck, I’m getting bubbly now just thinking about it.

The best part is that, like I mentioned yesterday, today marks exactly one year since the initial concept of the novel popped into my head. Now I have something to commemorate a year’s worth of Cipher’s blunt honesty, Bridget’s workaholism, and Gard’s bipolarity! What will the next year have in store for them? If things go well, I’m hoping to be a good way through the sequel by the time anniversary two comes around. Not to mention on a publisher’s “Newly Acquired” list. 😀

(For the moment, though… I really should get back to my other day job of being a student. Or else I’m going to have a lot of people coming for a graduation ceremony that I’m not in…)

A Plotting Technique: Cause and Effect in 5 Steps

Today’s been a long day and I refuse to look at anything having to do with work right now. I’ve also been meaning to post this technique I came up with for a while now — ergo, productivity without the brain damage. 🙂

I’ve mentioned a few times here that for Smoldering, I forced myself to complete an entire outline before writing any further than the second chapter. And oh, it has made writing so, so much easier. There were still some points, however, that until recently had been giving me trouble, and one in particular that had gotten too convoluted even in the outline. For more than a week, this one scene had me at a standstill every time I tried to write. And when you have as little writing time as I do, that can get very frustrating, very fast.

Eventually I realized that the problem was cause and effect — character motivation and subsequent actions.

But there were a few more components to it than that.

After playing around a little (while waiting during my lunch break for a student who never showed up), I finally settled on five key subjects that can be addressed, with quite beneficial results. They are:


Task is what the character is supposed to do, whether by their own volition or because of external forces. This can be a decision they have to make or an assignment they must complete; something trivial or something important; something that’s over in a second, or something that takes the whole book to accomplish. Let’s say, for instance, that my character Cipher’s task is to observe candidates for his organization’s new linguist position. It may be more intricate in reality, but this phrasing captures the heart of the task.

Next comes Motivation. Why does he want to do it? Even if he’s not thrilled about babysitting random people, if he at least attempts to complete the task then there is some reason for it. Maybe your character has no other choice: they’re being threatened, or controlled some other way. In this context, that still counts as Motivation. In Cipher’s case, going out into the world for any purpose gives him greater freedom than he normally has — and if there’s one main thing Cipher wants throughout the novel, it’s freedom.

Once we know the why, we can look at the how. Method is, along with Outcome, the most elastic variable in the set. It can refer to a physical method (“with a gun and a good poker face”), an attitude (“nonchalant on the surface, stomach in knots”), specific actions the character does (“charging in blindly, almost getting killed, and finally bluffing his way out”), or any combination there-of. Depending on what you already know of your plot, Method might take up a line or a page. I prefer to keep it simple, myself, but it’s really a matter of preference. Since I already know that Cipher is just reluctantly tagging along with his partner, for the write-up I just added that his  attitude is “serious yet sardonic,” as revealed by their interactions.

I haven’t come up with a Task yet that doesn’t have at least one Obstacle staring the character down. (I see this as a good thing, indicative of strong writing, but that’s another blog post altogether.) Again, Obstacle can be as little as a single, insignificant vexation or doubt, or as complex as a dozen potentially fatal trials, just as long as it fits the Task. Poor Cipher’s Obstacle is that he’s got a pair of crazy, murderous twin stalkers after him, and they find him.

Last, we consider the Outcome. If we take everything that’s come before, and everything we know about the character, what must inevitably happen? So Cipher craves freedom and is even willing to play babysitter for a taste of it, he’s humorless and a little mean and is terrified because he already knows who is trying to find him. On top of that, his stalkers pop up just when Cipher and his partner are about to make contact with a particular candidate.

So what does he do?

This is where you need to be particularly careful that you’re not just writing for the sake of plot. If the Outcome doesn’t naturally follow the other four variables AND your character’s personality, then scrap it and think of one that does. Once I had all of these things organized for myself it was really easy to see that this very thing was the reason my inner writer’s voice had shut down: the Outcome I was working toward just didn’t make sense when considering the Motivation, in particular.

Even if it needs to be fixed, Outcome is very flexible in terms of how you can write it. Because it’s so open-ended, I’ve used anything from the binary “pass/fail” to very specific conclusions. Also, the Outcome of one set, unless it is the final event in your book, should naturally feed into the Task of the next. In other words, “Cipher is forced to escape, dragging Bridget back to headquarters with him” as an Outcome will have its own consequences and thus will set in motion the next set with something like “Task: pass the linguist exam and get officially hired” for Bridget.

While any more on that would be a spoiler, here’s the main example in its entirety, as well as a not-as-spoilery one for Bridget.

Task: observe and report on linguist candidates
Motivation: gets him out of the Hub (freedom)
Method: serious yet sardonic
Obstacles: the twins find him
Outcome: has to take Bridget back to the Hub

Task: get an internship with an applied linguist
Motivation: proving herself (to herself)
Method: paper application, all-nighters
Obstacles: the deadline
Outcome: failure

All I really need to know, I learned from my characters.

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. Hopefully I’ll have the time (and, more importantly, energy) to add something about teaching/Japan/Korea soon. The Mt. Fuji story misses me. ;_;

I had quite a bit of fun as I wrote this, so I might make a series out of it.


1. Things seem like they can’t get any worse, and then they do; but then they get better.

2. Madness is scary.

3. Even temperamental emo guys can have a deeply ingrained respect for etiquette.Copyright Walt Disney

4. If you are lucky enough to be recruited by an inter-worldly organization, don’t condemn yourself to sitting inside all day — go explore the other worlds!

5. By the same token, don’t be a hermit, or you’ll miss a lot of important rumors information about the people you work with.

6. Sometimes people don’t need your help, they need your sanity. (And sometimes they think they can get it by sucking out your life force.)

7. If you find yourself in another world, the dangers of which you do not know the full extent, and come across something strange with spikes/horns/thorns/claws/sharp teeth/venomous breath or saliva/radioactive blue skin… poke it with a stick. Regardless of what happens next, you’ll have a story to tell afterward.

8. Acting rashly makes life interesting, but it’s only fun if you survive.

9. Chekhov’s gun. If it catches your attention, better keep it in mind until you can figure out why.

10. It is physically possible to be kicked into a stone wall and come out of it with only a mild concussion.

11. Likewise, it is possible to confront the equivalent of Vlad the Impaler and Genghis Khan’s mentally psychotic  lovechild in hand-to-hand combat with literally no experience and win. (But only if your name is Cipher.)

12. Everyone is different; some grow up in a single book, while others take a whole series.

13. There is no such thing as pure good or pure evil. However the rest of the world sees someone, they have their own reasons for acting the way they do.

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