Creating Cultures

(Sorry I didn’t post yesterday.  I am dying of an exciting new plague [again]. Today’s CYOA was: will I spend the evening posting on the blog, or languishing in a hospital gurney?  I figured posting was cheaper.  If you don’t hear from me next week, assume I died.)


Image from the Anthropology Dept of Drew University. Thanks, guys!

Toward the end of last year’s post Setting the Scene, I mentioned the importance and influence of realistic cultures in a story’s setting.  This week, we’re going to geek out on sociology to create a flexible framework for cultures.

While there’s a bit of overlap between them, there are five widely accepted aspects of culture: symbols, language, values, beliefs, and norms.  When creating your own cultures, try to incorporate something of each of these aspects to have a layered, realistic culture.  If you’re not creating your own culture, but rather writing about a premade one (maybe you’re writing historical, contemporary, fanfic, whatevs), you should also include these aspects to avoid a society that seems more like a cardboard cutout than an actual culture.

But before we get into any definitions, let’s chat for a moment about keeping things appropriate.  No, I’m not talking about your characters’ potty language or sextivities.  I’m talking about keeping your culture in sync with your setting.  It wouldn’t make sense for a language to have forty words for ice if its speakers lived in the tropics.  Or if it does, there had better be a good reason, like mass immigration or cultural appropriation or whatnot.

As we work through each of these aspects (and order really doesn’t matter), keep in mind the climate and resources this culture would develop in.  Don’t make all the houses log cabins if they live on the tundra.  Don’t develop detailed hunting ceremonies for your herbivorous aliens.  Don’t have your country’s national flower be a blossom that doesn’t grow there.  You get the idea.  (But seriously, if there are great reasons, let ‘er rip.  Weird little discrepancies are wonderful, like how California’s state animal doesn’t actually exist in California because settlers and gold panners hunted it to extinction a century ago.)

Values  Although this will vary a bit from person to person, each culture has an ‘average’ set of values that people care about.  Values help to define acceptable behaviors within the cultural group by delineating between good and bad.  Keep in mind that a single character commonly juggles the values of multiple culture groups, such as a character who holds the values of an average Australian (such as egalitarianism) in addition to the values of an Orthodox Jew (such as daily study of the Torah).   For your culture, think about the values that people hold dear, such as freedom, wealth, lineage, etc.

Beliefs  Belief systems are the convictions and understandings that people hold as truth, and are structured upon values.  These beliefs often mirror those of a religion, but can also be purely secular.  Think about people’s beliefs concerning the dangers of GMOs (value of health and safety) or the glory of communism (value of cooperation and group-before-self) or the messianic Coming of Trump (value of success and independence); no matter where you stand on these issues, there are little culture pockets at the fringes of the spectrum with irrational beliefs about whether these things will save or destroy the world, and there is no convincing them otherwise.  Whether your culture has strong ties to religion, or strives to keep itself separate from such things, make sure to have a set of beliefs that factor into the decision-making process of your characters.

Norms  The rules and traditions of a culture make up its social norms.  Norms run the gamut from the practice of ‘folkways’, or things that are expected but not insisted upon (American examples: handshake at first meeting, eye contact during conversation), to the observance of taboos (no pedophilia, no cannibalism, nooo).  Breaking of norms can result in mild censure (an annoyed parent sighing “Kids these days”) to severe societal punishment (imprisonment, exile, execution) depending on the values and beliefs that they violate.  The more precious the value, the more harsh the punishment.  When creating your culture, think of the traditions and social rules that would arise surrounding a high value on knowing one’s lineage, or maintaining a prescribed diet, or raising children to be successful hunters, or whatever values your culture holds, and weave that into the norms.

Symbols  You know how Americans can look at a picture of a flying eagle and immediately start shooting off fireworks and chanting, “USA! USA!”?  That’s because this bird, who doesn’t give a flying poop about nationality, is a culture symbol (as are the fireworks and the USA chanting).  Symbols can be a physical object, such as the cross of Christianity, or a nonphysical act, such as a formal bow typifying Japanese politeness.  So think about what kind of symbols you can work into your culture.  What styles of art, music, architecture do your characters employ?  What significance do certain colors carry/shapes/etc carry?  What goes on the banner snapping in the wind over the troops?

Language  You don’t really have to go out and make up a whole language from scratch- although it is way fun- but have an understanding of how your characters speak.  What words and ideas come up frequently?  What kinds of phrases and idioms arise that wouldn’t necessarily find use in whatever language your book is written in?  Make sure that these language quirks shine through in your characters’ voices.  (If you do want to make a language from scratch, check out Language Building Basics to get started.)

Once you have considered each of these cultural aspects, go back and make sure that they make sense as a whole.  Do the different aspects all support one another?  Are these social norms something a person would actually be willing to live?  Does the culture make sense within the region that gave birth to it (allowing for the natural evolution of human societies)?  And as always, give yourself lots of room to tweak and adjust, since it probably won’t all come together on the first go.

A final note on creating cultures: as with all worldbuilding, not everything you come up with will make its way into the story (hopefully).  But understanding it as the author will lend more depth to your work, allowing for deeper immersion and a richer backdrop.  Plus, I am a nerd and this stuff is more fun than dishes.

Until next week, happy writing!

Book Boyfriends

I may as well just admit it- for about as long as I can remember, I’ve had terrible crushes on Sherlock Holmes and Peter Parker.  Bruce Wayne is a more recent addition- I think I picked him up when I was between twelve and fifteen- but I don’t know if he’ll ever quite catch up to the first two.  I think I married my husband based at least forty-two-percent on the fact that he’s the closest real-world equivalent I’ll ever find to Spiderman- he’s got the build, he wears spandex, and he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.  It didn’t hurt that he was a Sherlock nerd as well.

For fun, and in mocking observance of Valentine’s Day (which is a hard holiday to win at whether you’re single or not), I did some research on imaginary crushes! Because I enjoy bothering people and graphs are fun.

Participants were asked to answer this question:

Which of the following statements best describes you?

A.  I am nearly constantly in love with one fictional character or another.

B.  I fall occasionally in love with fictional characters.

C.  I only fall in love with real people, thank you very much.

D.  I am a mere robot and cannot feel.

I bothered only eighteen people about this, but the results delicious.  Pie!


An interesting sidenote: Most of the men questioned answered C, whereas most of the women answered A.  B was a mixed bag, and I don’t know which of my associates is secretly an android plotting humanity’s downfall.  But my husband had an explanation for why men tend to answer C: Guy Code.  Apparently Guy Code dictates that you cannot pine for another guy’s girl, and since most female characters are someone’s love interest, they are not allowed to crush on them.  I don’t know if I buy it, but that’s how he explains his cold, cold heart.

Need some more imaginary romance goofiness?  Well the internet’s got you covered!  Check out these fun links to more literary loveboats, and until next week, happy writing!

What Your Book Crush Says About You

Our Biggest Literary Crushes (wherein self-aware staffers at B&N explain themselves)

Totally Crush-Worthy Literary Characters (this one got in based almost solely on #21. Like I said, I have a problem.)

Conference Lessons: Rookie Submission Mistakes

facepalmDuring last fall’s writers conference with the Alaska Writers Guild, one of our illustrious presenters was literary agent Patricia Nelson of the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.  One of her presentations was the very informative Eight Rookie Submission Mistakes and How to Avoid Them, and I’m happy to share the gist of it with you.

So here they all, all of writers’ favorite ways to ruin their own submission packets!

#1- Wrong Age Category

Know your age category!  If you’re not sure, there are lots of resources on the internet to figure it out, including my handy dandy chart from the post a couple months ago, Conference Lessons: Age Categories, but the two age groupings that Ms. Nelson highlighted in particular were YA and adult, which apparently get blurred a lot.

#2- Wrong Genre

Think about where your project would shelve in a bookstore.  What titles would it sit between?  If you’re not sure, think about another author writes like you (your comp titles, anyone?) and look up how they classify their books.  It’s not enough to say that your manuscript defies categorization; odds are it doesn’t.  (Still not sure? If you write speculative fiction, Ms. Nelson suggests Connor Goldsmith’s sci-fi/fantasy breakdown on Fuse Literary’s website as a good place to start.)

#3- Wrong Agent

Do your research and only query the agents that are a good fit for the project.  A few (free!) resources for finding the right agent include: agent websites; AgentQuery; QueryTracker; and Literary Rambles (but always be sure to double check aggregated information against the agents’ websites, since it can sometimes be dated).

#4- Wrong Comp Titles

Don’t pick books that are too old, too famous, or in a different genre.  When looking for comp titles, try to find similar (to prove demand) but different (to show there’s still market space) titles that were published in the last 3-5 years, and did well, but not made-into-a-movie well.  Ms. Nelson goes so far as to say that it’s better to leave out comp titles altogether than to use the wrong ones.

#5- Query Not about Book

The story should take up the bulk of the query, with only a small portion devoted to the bio.  (The bio is more important for nonfiction, but even then, unless you’re Oprah, focus on what the book is about.)  Bio only matters so long as it pertains to this book (so don’t put in your day job, your hobbies, your fifteen cats, etc., unless it’s applicable), and if you want some kind of agent personalization (I’m querying you because…), keep it to just one non-creepy sentence.

#6- First Page Clichés

Dream scene, character waking up, character being chased, a long time ago moment: none of that.  If it’s been done a thousand times, find a new way, or at least a new tweak on the cliché.

#7- First Chapter Info Dump

This is a similar issue to the above.  When agents see clichés, they stop caring.  When agents see background information, they stop caring.  The moment the agent no longer cares is the moment they stop reading, so make sure that your first pages are endlessly engaging.  Ms. Nelson recommends highlighting every moment of backstory and asking yourself, ‘Is this necessary?’

#8- Unprofessional Communication

Think of your query as a cover letter for a job application.  In communicating with literary professionals, and being one yourself, keep these things in mind:

  • Be friendly! Agents are humans too.
  • Be prompt with responses.
  • Be patient, and be polite when checking in.
  • Don’t complain about querying.
  • Notify all agents immediately if you get an offer.


A final piece of submission advice? Ms. Nelson suggests sending queries out in batches to fifteen agents at a time.  After two months with no takers, tweak your submission materials and send out another fifteen. She suggests one hundred to one hundred fifty rejections before moving on to a new project.  So if you’re anything like me, you’ve got a long way to go.  Don’t give up too early!

Happy writing!

Think you might like to query Ms. Nelson? She’s currently looking for adult, YA and MG.  Look on her agent page for details and good luck!

Editing: The Art of Self-Surgery

editingYou know that scene in Master and Commander where Dr. Maturin has to fish a bullet out of his own belly?  That’s about how I think of self editing.  It’s messy, painful, and exhausting, but ugh, it’s gotta be done.

Between smugly typing THE END and hyperventilatingly clicking SEND, you will (or at least should) spend many many hours self editing.  How these hours are spent varies from person to person, like all other aspects of writing.  After a nice long rest of at least a month, here’s how my editing process usually goes down.

First, I set a deadline.  I, my father, my children, and all of my brothers absolutely require a non-negotiable deadline to do anything at all.  If it’s not pressing, it’s not happening.  I give myself enough time to get through the thing (typically a two to one ration of editing to drafting time), but not much wiggle room.

As part of my deadline setting process, I start with a fast read-through.  I try to finish in just a few days, at about the same pace I would read a really engrossing novel.  This allows me to take a big picture view of what I’m working with, making it easier to see any plot holes, dangling storylines, sudden changes in eye color, whatever.  I take detailed notes throughout this reading so I know exactly what the problems are.

Once I have my list of issues, I set a realistic deadline and get to work.  Working outside of chronology, I usually start with the easier problems first, the things that I can already see the answers for.  This allows me to work- and again immerse myself in the world- while still devoting a large portion of my brain power to thinking about the problems that I don’t have the solutions for yet.  As I did when compiling problems, I write down any and all solutions I can come up with- no matter how stupid they may seem.  Eventually, I can usually sift through enough pyrite to find a few good nuggets.

Hopefully, by the time I work my way through the simpler problems, I’ll have come up with the glorious, surprising, satisfying solutions to the trickier problems, too.  But the reality is that I typically spend about a quarter of my editing time fixing the easy issues, another quarter of my time sprinkled here and there just trying to work my way toward the harder solutions, and then a quarter on the bigger issues once I have those solutions, and the final quarter on the clean-up at the end.

This ‘final’ cleaning process is done chronologically, starting at the beginning and working my way slowly toward the end.  I tend to require the same tweaks in everything I write, and so I’ve developed a to-do list that doesn’t vary much from MS to MS.

Fix spelling and grammar.  Bit of a no-brainer, but when I’m pounding out a quick draft, I apparently have no brain.

Skim out crutch words.  Your list of crutch words will be different, but mine includes: suddenly; up; again; back; and like a bazillion others.  The internet is rife with lists of words to seek and destroy in your manuscript, so if you’re still not sure, just run a Google search and get that Find function ready.  (Also, Scrivener has a really cool Word Frequency thing under the Project -> Text Statistics tab, which makes it super easy to know exactly what words you use the most.)

Assess adjectives and adverbs.  I’m a descriptor junkie.  My speech is peppered with them, as is my writing (especially these informal blog posts you all suffer through).  In drafting, nearly every sentence has some useless fluff about exactly why this character was squinting, or exactly how shiny that character’s hair is.  Most of these get snipped, so those of you who have read my work and seen how many get left behind have some idea of how many start out. (Yikes!)

Beautify language.  In drafting, I am a huge fan of SVO.  She- kicked- his face.  He- ate- a sandwich.  These sentences- bore- readers.  Readers don’t want to see the same structure over and over and over.  So I take pains to vary sentence structure and length.  I clarify.  I remove unnecessary descriptions and add the parts I missed.  I read prose and dialog out loud and fix up the awkward tongue-twisters that somehow sneak their snickering way into my stories every single time, blast you silly sibilants!

And the newest addition to my final clean-up:

Change all double spaces to single spaces.  I know, I’m very late to the party.  But if there’s anybody else out there who has terror-laced nightmares of Mrs. Hardman in the fourth grade standing over your shoulder as you tentatively tap out your book report on- I kid you not- the typewriter, let’s all just take a deep breath together and move on into the 21st century.  Edit -> Find. Replace. Simple.

Once I’ve completed this cleaning process, I do another quick-as-possible reading.  If something isn’t up to snuff, I go through all the same steps again until it is.  Once everything is to my satisfaction, I start lining up beta readers, with the understanding that I will be going through the whole document again once I get notes back from everyone on all the bits I missed.  Ah, what joy.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of editing, but I understand the appeal.  You get to massage your ugly draft into something beautiful; you can tune the language and deepen the meanings you only hinted at in draft mode; you can work in the foreshadowing and setup for that killer plot twist you came up with three-fifths of the way through the novel; you can seem like an intelligent person who actually knows how to spell.  Editing can be awesome!  So grab that red pen with ruthless delight.  As fantastic as your draft is, you’re about to make it a thousand times better.

Happy writing!

(PS- While editing this post, I nixed over a hundred words in adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive clauses.  Haha, I have a problem.)

Growing Up

We are deep in the bowels of winter, with the weather dropping fast to  -30°F/ -34°C.  At times like this, I pretty much become a hermit; I mean, I’m already a hermit, but now I don’t even go in my yard.  And one of my favorite things to do in my hermitage is start planning for spring.  (Kind of pathetic, I know.)  I plot out my garden.  I contemplate plans for the property.  And I think about livestock.

One of the best things about spring is going down to the feed shop and bringing home a madly peeping cardboard box of pine shavings and baby birds.  Gosh, I love chicks.  They’re terribly fragile things, all hunger and hollow bones and soft down, but they’re unbelievably cute little buggers.chick

Last year, since we knew we’d be gone for the summer, we only got two little pullets instead of our usual haul of two pullets (read: egg birds) and a dozen or so Cornish cross (read: meat birds).  I get a visibly different breed of pullets each year so that I know at a glance how old a bird is, and this year we went with the red sex-links.  They came home as freaking adorable little ginger powder puffs.

But hardly more than a week later, I started to notice pin feathers coming in, rimming their wings, their nubby little tails.  By the time we left on our trip, they were well into gawky adolescence, and then three months later, I came home to this:


Bwah?  What happened to my powder puffs???

But my shock quickly turned into delight when just a few weeks later, they started pooping out eggs.  I cannot eat cuteness.  Eggs are much better.

I’m not saying that pets like cats, which provide me no eatenings, aren’t wonderful.  But these birds are not pets.  As much as I enjoy them, they are stupid, smelly, evil-eyed neo-dinos and the whole point of my keeping them is for meat and eggs.  Chicks provide me with neither.  Growth and change, as in so many aspects in life, are good.

The early life of a manuscript is much like the early life of a chicken.  Just as I wouldn’t really want my chicks to stay chicks forever, I don’t really want my early drafts to stay immature forever.  Assuming your literary goals are anything beyond the personal catharsis of writing (which is a totally legit goal), a story must change and evolve for it to reach its full potential and achieve those goals.  A story that stays in first draft mode forever, adorable and joyful as it may be, will never make it off your desk.

I used to make only the most superficial of edits to my beloved manuscript.  (Yes, there was only one at the time.)  I might alter the dialog a little, or clean up the prose a bit.  But I would never have considered anything deeper than that.  If I found there was a plot hole, I’d patch it over with even more bad writing, seaming it up with poor motivations, unrealistic character actions, and nonsensical ‘traditions’ designed expressly to prop up the rest of the stagnant mess.  If I found one of my characters was only there because I thought they were cool, or a scene didn’t need to happen but I really liked the setting in which it took place, or any of a thousand other instances of self-gratifying excuses for hack work- then I’d find some reason, any reason at all, to double down and dig that grave a little deeper.  I spun wheels in that rut for ten years, actively stunting my own story’s growth in a stilted homage to fear and nostalgia.

It shouldn’t be that way.  The first draft is an opportunity to get all thoughts down on the page, no matter how stupid.  The second draft should be the opportunity to start hammering the stupidity, and all the glittery bits in between, into something lovely and coherent.  Growing pains are to be expected.  Sometimes you won’t feel sure if you’re making the poor thing better or worse.  But the change is good.  The change is necessary.  Editing is what makes takes a bad (or mediocre or even good) piece and makes it better.

Growth in a chicken takes time and energy, and the careful instructions coded over four billion years of trying new things.  Plan the changes; cull; experiment; be brave.  And then give your beautiful manuscript the time and the work needed to be its very best.

Do you find yourself stuck in an editing rut?  Picking endlessly at the same sentences without really changing anything?  Next week, I’ll talk about my editing process- how I plan it, what I look for, how I decide I’m done- and I’d love to hear about yours as well.  Join me next Monday, and until then, happy writing (and editing)!