First Draft Voices - Microphone Writing

Author Toolbox: Find Your “First Draft” Voices

Note: Crossposted from Also not posted on a Friday. Whoops!

This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, which I’m thrilled to be participating in, and which I totally forgot to actually mention last month. Whoops! Check out the main link for lots of other fantastic authors with lots of other fantastic advice.

We talk a lot as writers about “finding your voice”, telling your story the way only you can tell it. Some authors (like Elmore Leonard, in an article that we discussed some weeks back) think that a writer should keep their voice as far back from the story as they can, and let the reader and the story have their adventure without interference.

On the other hand, there are any number of authors whose success comes in large part because of the strength of their writing voices. Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, and Peter S. Beagle all come immediately to mind. My personal list also includes David Eddings and Guy Gavriel Kay, both of whom wrote stories that I don’t think would have engaged me if someone else had tried to tell exactly the same tale in a different voice.

This blog post has nothing to do with that. Read more “Author Toolbox: Find Your “First Draft” Voices”


Say What You Mean To Say – Pt 1

Writing is more difficult than people tend to give it credit for. Not only do you have to come up with a compelling story, you also have to write it – which means you have to choose from amongst tens or even hundreds of thousands of words to find exactly the right ones to convey your particular message.

This is difficult enough for mystery or literary fiction writers. You guys have to massage language until it sends readers down the right false trails or builds the perfect memory to explore. I can’t even imagine what poets go through in order to find their perfect words. With so many synonyms, each meaning almost the same thing, the process of luring out the right one must be fascinating.

As usual, though, I’m talking primarily to genre writers – that is, to fantasy writers, and to any other types of speculative fiction (SF) writers who have enough overlap to find me relevant.

Because for us, language has a job that it doesn’t need to do outside of SF; it’s the mortar that holds the bricks of our worldbuilding together. We use familiar language to make our readers feel comfortable, and we wander into strange and alien linguistic territory when we want to remind readers that they’re not in Kansas anymore.

The thing that writers need to remember is: playing with language comes with a cost. There’s a reason it’s so effective as a tool; as the cornerstones of communication, words have a lot of power. Just as the right one can bring someone in and bind them to a cause, the wrong one can slap them across the face make them turn their back on you before you even know you’ve done something wrong.

The farther out you go on the linguistic tightrope, the more careful you need to be.

Words Have Meaning

This maxim is deceptively simple. If you’re a writer, you know what words are and you know what they do – at least, you’d better. If you haven’t figured that part out, I can’t help you, and also, I’m not really sure how you’re reading this, so … well done, I guess.

I’m not coming in to try and explain that “ferociously” means “with ferocity”, and “ferocity” means “the state of being ferocious”, and “ferocious” means “fierce, cruel, or violent”, so why aren’t you using one of those three words instead? Although, it might be worth sitting down for a second and asking yourself if ‘ferociously’ really adds something that ‘fiercely’ wouldn’t have. Bigger isn’t always better.

I’m talking about those tricky words that seem to get thrown around without much consideration when fantasy writers sit down and get to work.

Consider, for example:

Scarlet and copper and auburn aren’t the same color, no matter how many times you want to refer to someone’s red hair – although vermillion is pretty close, for anyone who’s looking for yet another synonym. Chartreuse is neither yellow nor green (it sits between them, the way orange sits between red and yellow) and amaranth actually is a specific color (it looks sort of like magenta). It’s not just a pretty-sounding fantasy word.

A pentacle and a pentagram aren’t the same thing: a pentagram is just a star, the way you drew one as a kid, with the middle lines running through the shape before you erased them. A pentacle is a pentagram with a circle around it. Pentapox are what you get when you’re trying to escape New Ozai without getting hassled.

“Ethereal” and “ephemeral” don’t mean the same thing, although something might be both; “greaves” and “pauldrons” and “bracers” are all very specific pieces of armor that go on very specific parts of the body (shins, shoulders, forearms) and not any others. A wyvern is a type of dragon that has two hind legs and wings where the forelegs would be. A gryphon is a mythical beast with the hindquarters of a lion and the head, wings, and forelegs of an eagle; a gyrfalcon is very real. It is the largest falcon, and if you’d like, you can watch one murder a Canada goose to the dulcet tones of some truly heinous techno.

I could, of course, go on. I’m sure most readers could add a handful of their own examples to my list as well. The point is that there’s a lot of careless writing out there, and a lot of writers seem to have no problem taking words they’ve heard before and assuming that they probably know the meaning from context. When someone who does know the word comes along, the experience is jarring at best, infuriating at worst. Watching an author take something that exists and force it to mean something else feels uncomfortable to me, like I’m watching some kind of Frankenstonian experiment gone wrong.

Names are Words, Too

This is where it gets tricky, especially for fantasy writers.

We look around now, and it seems like there are two categories of names: you have names like Rachel or Michael or Katherine or Timothy – name that are, you know, names – and then you have the other ones like Apple and Blue Ivy and Pilot.

Some people know where I’m going with this.

The problem is that on some level, there’s really no such thing as a name. At some point, every name that we now think of as being sensible and appropriate used to mean something else. “Michael” originally traces back to Hebrew, and a sort of awesome rhetorical question: “Who is like God?” Having an archangel with that name is kind of fantastic; his mere existence challenged everyone to reflect on the ways in which they could never measure up to God. “Michael” is a nice enough name, and it’s come a long way since then, but it’s interesting to keep in mind that it’s sort of the ancient equivalent of naming your daughter “Can you set as nice a table as Martha Stewart?”. Two thousand years from now, that might not look as ridiculous as it seems today.

“Rachel”, incidentally, means “sheep”, “Katherine” does not mean “pure” in spite of what a lot of babyname websites will try to tell you. It doesn’t come from “katharos”; the “h” was added in later. The root name is actually the Greek or Russian “Ekaterine” and roughly means “something to do with Hekateros, the Greek god of a weird rustic dance”.

Timothy” is a type of european grass, making “Apple” and “Blue Ivy” look pretty reasonable, all things considered.

And then we get to names like Autumn, or Joy. Both of these names are just flat-out words that we still use as a regular part of our everyday speech; we’ve just decided that it’s also acceptable to use them as names. Some months like “April” and “June” get a free pass when it comes to that, while “August” and “January” are under closer supervision. “Joy” is acceptable, but “Ire” seems like a bizarre thing to name a baby, and I think naming a kid “Frustration” might actually count as cruelty.

Many common surnames are either simple descriptions of their bearer’s profession (think: Cooper, Carter, Fowler, Howard, and Thatcher) or identify a parent (O’Donnell, MacCleod, Ferguson, Johannesson).

Even completely artificial names, like the names of companies or products, have meanings and history and souls. If this listicle is to be believed, Canon cameras and Reebok shoes both chose their names by modifying existing words whose meanings they liked. Pepsi’s brand name comes from the word “dispepsia”, meaning “indigestion”. The name seems like a nonsense-word to us today, given validity only because generations before us accepted it, but when it first originated it did so in a culture which understood the context. It’s sort of like “Lyft” makes sense as a sort of a taxi service because we’re used to the idiom “give me a lift”. If the company remains successful but the idiom dies out, future generations will just think the company has a strange made-up name.

We’ll get to be smug about it – but we’ll also be dead, so I’m not sure if we come out as winners on that one.

There Are No Rules

The point is, there is no room for complacency where word choice is concerned. Every name, every word, is a reflection of the culture and the people around it. Common, beloved language is common for a reason, and taboos or curses get people’s backs up because they represent cultural disharmony. Every society is going to have some words that they hold as sacred, and some that cut to the bone – and those harsh words aren’t always going to be “damn” or “curses” or “a pox on you”, no matter how safe and familiar those curses might seem.

Just because another author did things a certain way in the past doesn’t make it the right answer. After all, the only person who can really know the context of your story is you.

When it comes to making choices as a writer, you have to start thinking about what judgment calls are being made by various groups of people. You have to ask why they’re making these calls, and to what extent various members of the culture that you’re writing will follow or break away from these trends.

When you’re naming people, or places, or things, you have to start wondering what your characters would value as a culture enough to be naming their children after it – and then ask yourself how long these names have been around, how much they’ve changed. Does the person, place, or thing like the name it’s been given?

When you’re describing someone or something, think about all of the different ways that someone could look at this thing. Remember who your narrator is, and ask yourself: what words would they be using right now, given all of the options available to them?

There are of course no objective universal answers; if it were that easy, everyone would be a writer. But it’s time that more people stopped taking words for granted, and remembered that they’re just as important as characters, or settings, or plot twists. If you take care of them, they’ll reward you with breathtaking works; but if you ignore them, abuse them, the resulting swampy disaster will be nobody’s fault but your own.

Stay tuned for Part Two, whenever my turn comes up again on the blog roster!

Character Sketches

Character Sketches – Knights of Polaris

Okay, so this is a thing I was thinking about doing every now and then, because I write stuff, and I also draw stuff, and puns make the world go ’round.

Character Sketches is (are?) basically going to be a place for me to throw out some ideas, along with some rough visuals, and see if I can make any sense out of them. It will also be a place for me to introduce new characters, experiment with new ideas, and try to crowd-source some opinions without actually having to look at people’s expressions while I do, because face-to-face criticism is scary.

In short, I’m carving out my own little space on this podcast, and I’m going to be filling it with a bunch of work in progress from my various novels and assorted projects.


This week, I’m starting to rough out the costume design for a team of magical girls for a series I’m tentatively calling Star Bound. The premise is: there are wars raging across the dimensions. In one of these dimensions, the star Polaris is defeated in battle and shatters, her fragments falling into our reality. Each of the twelve fragments is found by a young person, who becomes one of the Knights of Polaris and is charged with protecting Earth and our dimension from the evils and wars that would try and destroy it.

I was basically dared to write a magical girl novel, and far be it from me to turn down a writing challenge!

Every magical girl group needs a theme, so I’ve decided to go with the Western zodiac for this one. I’ll be getting into the specific characters further down the line; for now, I’m just looking at the over all costume design for the Knights.


There are some things I’m sure I want to keep consistent for each knight; the earring in the right ear is the fragment of the star that contains their power. I like toga-style drapery, although it’s got nothing to do with either knights or the zodiac, and I feel like some kind of floofy skirt or bow is basically mandatory in the magical girl genre.

I also like the idea that each girl (or maybe boy? who knows!) has their hair and eye color change when they transform. One thing that always really bothered me when I watched magical girl anime – or superhero cartoons, for that matter – was that nobody would recognize the hero, even though they look basically identical to their normal secret identity self. So my idea here is that each knight’s hair is a silvery, shimmery color with undertones of whatever color their outfit is. Virgo has shades of green and creamy yellow, and Aquarius has blue and … lighter blue, I guess? It’s hard to convey that in a quick sketch. Scorpio looks less like she’s got undertones of red and purple, and more like her hair is a deranged candy cane. Nonetheless, that’s what I imagined in my head.

I’m taking the colors themselves from various online astrology sources – my targeted ads are now starting to offer me healing crystals and palm readings, and I’m wondering if I should have done all of my browsing in an incognito window. I’m not sure if I like the results that’s getting me … powder blue and purple doesn’t exactly scream “centaur archer” to me, although it’s definitely pretty? And if I change that, I’ll have to invent my own color scheme, and that’s a pretty daunting idea, so I may just leave it to the astrologers and take the consequences as they come.

The other thing I’m really trying to work on at this point is how to make each costume recognizable for the zodiac sign that it represents. Some of them feel like they’ll be easy – Taurus, for example, doesn’t seem like it’ll give me much trouble. Scorpio seemed simple enough; a pattern like scorpion legs on the boots, a long braid to represent the tail, but I have no idea how easily that will translate. Then I run into other problems, like the fact that Aquarius, for all that it’s the waterbearer, is actually an Air sign. I’ve got no idea to what extent I want to actually pay attention to that. I’ve given her little bubble bombs for now. Bubble are both air things and water things, so that seems safe enough, but when I get to Capricorn the goat-mermaid-earth-sign I think I’m going to run into trouble again.

I think what I’m learning here is that character design is complicated, and crazy colorful thematic costume design isn’t so much complicated as it is insane!

Tune in sometime in the indeterminate future to see how the rest of the designs are coming along!

writing the unknown Writing

Writing the Unknown

There’s one particular piece of advice that I’ve been hearing for as long as I’ve been an aspiring author: “Write what you know”. The premise being that an author needs to have an honest connection with what they’re writing, or else the entire thing rings hollow.

It seems eminently sensible, from an academic point of view, and it’s also been something that I’ve struggled with since I was about 13 years old.

The problem is that I want to write fantasy, and that’s always seemed to make ‘writing what you know’ sort of impossible. I don’t live in a preindustrial society, for one thing (although I am working on a modern-era epic fantasy series) and I haven’t been in a massive battle. I don’t think the authors I liked to read have either, and they seemed to get along just fine. “Write what you researched a lot” seemed to be a reasonable substitution.

As I got older, I started thinking about it a different way. I really value characters and relationships in books, regardless of genre. It doesn’t matter if someone’s a college student or a pirate, they still have wants and needs and friends and enemies, and that’s something I can understand. “Write what you know” started becoming about figuring out how people worked, went where they did, doing what they were doing with the people they were with. The writers I admired had characters who felt like they really existed.

And it still felt wrong.

Not just in my own writing; the more I paid attention to it, the odder and more inappropriate it started to seem, seeing characters who resembled people I’ve known all my life walking around in an environment that was so different from anything I knew. They responded to things with a strange mixture of overreaction and underreaction: a character would mirror my own astonishment, watching someone light a candle with the power of their mind, which is gratifying, until I stopped to realize that they probably shouldn’t be as amazed as I am, because even if they hadn’t seen it before they still knew it was fundamentally possible. On the other hand, a squire will see a dragon and shrug it off bravely because she knew it was coming, and I don’t care how worldly you think you are, I know that polar bears exist, and I’m telling you I would still run screaming for the hills.

We react to our world based on deep underlying assumptions that we’ve been building ever since we were born. Seeing someone behave contrary to those assumptions just makes everything feel off.

So I started thinking about that.

And I kept thinking about it

And then I had a realization the other day that was so glaringly obvious that I’m embarrassed not to have put it together earlier: people who are writing speculative fiction, particularly high fantasy, have no frame of reference for what we’re writing.

Fantasy Fiction Doesn’t Share Common Frames of Reference

Example 1: We Don’t Have Magic

No kidding.

I can’t fly. Hell, I can’t even fly in dreams – my obnoxiously detail-oriented brain always wants to know how flying works, and when the dream-people tell me that “you just fly” I get confused and stop being able to do it.

We don’t have armies of ghosts or vampires wandering around downtown, and pretty much every kid this generation has tried waving wands and shouting anything even vaguely resembling Latin.

We have no idea what it would feel like to want something, wave a hand, and have the thing appear. We have no idea what it would do to our personalities – what kind of toll would that kind of instant gratification take on your willpower? What would the impact be on the economy? On the environment? We have no idea. At least, I have no idea; I can’t even begin to think of something comparable.

And then if you start getting into magic systems that have a cost – blood magic, for example – that comes with an entirely different set of things that once again, we as authors have no way of reaching for a parallel. Sure, most people have had the experience of having to sacrifice one thing to get another thing, but that’s not even remotely the same thing for one simple reason: any sacrifice that I can make doesn’t require an understanding of forces beyond my comprehension.

Example 2: The Gods Don’t Walk Among Us

Okay, so this is a tricky question, and I’m not trying to make any blanket statements about the objective truth of religion. I myself don’t know what I believe, and that certainly doesn’t put me in a position to tell anyone else what’s true or not.


It’s generally accepted that deities aren’t walking around Toronto or Paris or New York or Beijing. Many people who pray feel a connection to their god, and it’s common to ask for help or a blessing on an important event, or for a friend or family member who’s going through a hard time, and if the event goes well or the friend or family member improves, it may well be because of divine intervention.

But when someone says “God strike me down if I lie”, we haven’t seen very many spontaneous thunderclaps killing people in the middle of a Sunday afternoon picnic. There aren’t many stories of a group of nonbelievers seeing a host of angels, all filmed by several different television networks.

Gods are not directly involved in the lives of most people, and many people are able to believe that there are no such things as gods and are never forced to question or change that belief.

Here, again, fantasy is different to an almost incomprehensible degree. “The gods walked among us” is a common theme in fantasy backstory, and the idea that gods are either still directly interacting with mortals on a daily basis or are directly watching over mankind, judging and keeping score, is also common. Many magic systems are based on the idea that a magic user’s power is given to them directly by a god.

That means that everyone living in those worlds wakes up every day with the knowledge that their every move is being observed by a being who may, at any time, choose to take direct, personal action for or against them. Their actions and moral choices are being constantly weighed. For people living in a different fantasy world, any single person that they meet might actually be a deity. How does a society deal with that reality? What level of privacy does someone have in their own mind? How much attention can a given deity pay to any one person at a time, and how well understood is that by everyone who lives there? What does that knowledge do to a person?

I’m not saying that every character in a fantasy world should be a neurotic wreck. An essential part of human nature is adaptability; we’re really good at looking at the hand we’ve been dealt, and designing the rules of the game so that our hand is the winning one.

But the techniques that I’ve developed to cope with my world, the techniques that most writers and readers share, aren’t all going to make sense as the default means of coping with the daily realities of living in a high-magic god-heavy fantasy world. And I’ve noticed that it’s a common trend in fantasy writing to have characters instinctively react to situations the way readers would, only applying their knowledge of the world around them as a conscious process.

I’m sure that makes it easier for readers to relate to characters … but it also makes the world seem a little bit plastic, like a theme park with everyone going through the motions for the sake of the story.

Trust Me

It’s hard to know who to trust. Everybody’s got their own agenda, loyalties are complicated, and Dr House isn’t far off when he says that everybody lies. Even when you know that someone is really on your side, there’s no way of knowing whether they’re always telling the truth, or if they’re going to come through on their promises.

For me, that means that I spend a lot of time holding my breath and hoping nobody’s playing me for a fool. Some people use threats or incentives as ways to try and encourage everyone to keep to their word … we all know the options.

In fantasy fiction, those options are usually tailored to reflect the preindustrial setting.

“On my honor” is a popular oath, taken from romanticised earlier times in Western history when honor was more important than pride or greed or realizing it was a stupid idea and wanting to change your mind. And it makes sense that in our world, where (example 1) there is no magic and (example 2) the gods are fairly uninvolved, you have to resort to things like morality and personal codes to hold someone to their world.

But it makes absolutely no sense to apply the same standards in a world where either one of those rules don’t apply.

If something is important, really important, why on earth would anyone with a little bit of common sense take “honor” when they could follow Narcissa Malfoy’s example and demand an Unbreakable Vow? If you’re not willing to give the vow, then that shows how much we can count on your honor, doesn’t it?

And in a world where the gods walk among us, “I swear on Sekhmet’s name” shouldn’t be taken lightly. If someone will “swear by the Gods”, why exactly would you accept that half measure? If a person won’t accept the responsibility of swearing by a specific god, then you should probably just save yourself some time and assume they’re lying.

Missed Opportunities

I was a reading a scene that played out as follows:

The high priest of a religion was in his home, which was also the temple of his god. He summoned a religious zealot to come see him. The zealot brought a group of other zealots with him, claiming that he felt he needed protection, because he had been “preaching the truth” about the high priest, and everyone knew that when the truth was revealed, nefarious men would try to get rid of the brave preachers.

In the book, the high priest and the zealot argued for a while, and eventually the high priest ordered the bodyguards away and they went.

But that seemed entirely unnecessary to me. You had the high priest of a religion, standing in the temple of his god. Another believer of the same faith claimed to be afraid that the high priest was going to kill him. The solution, to me, seemed simple:

High Priest: “I’m sorry, my son, I was not aware that you felt that I was dishonoring our god. If you will swear, here and now, in the name of our god, that you were truly afraid that I meant to kill you, I owe you an apology.”

Because: the god is real. He has been known to come and visit people. They are standing in his temple, and both men believe in his existence. The zealot has been claiming that the high priest is corrupt. That’s something the god ought to know about. It’s entirely appropriate to bring it up. The zealot is also causing real political trouble, which is also something the god ought to know about. If the zealot is sincere, then this is a chance to clear things up, If the zealot is not sincere, then there’s no way out.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution … but it made me realize how very rarely problems are solved outside of the reader’s own comfort zone. If we were in that situation, we’d have to argue and fight and bluster and resort to pulling rank … so that’s what the high priest did. We couldn’t just ask our god to come down and be a lie detector, so neither did the high priest.


It’s tempting to think of fantasy novels as familiar character tropes interacting with each other in a strange and magical world. Authors spend months or even years designing magic systems, fine-tuning geography, creating languages and working out complicated political networks. At the same time, we try and create characters with compelling histories, believable conflicts, and relatable strengths and weaknesses.

That’s a great first step, but it’s not enough.

In order for the world to feel natural, we have to stop and really ask ourselves not just “what’s different in this world I just made”, but “how is it different from what I’m used to and what are the implications of those differences?” If you were a character in your world, which parts of the system would you exploit? What would scare you? Who would you be jealous of, and what would you aspire to?

Try to come up with as many different problems as you can think of: someone’s been evicted from their house; a couple is having marital problems; a girl isn’t doing well at her studies; there’s a plague; a boy can’t reach his ball because it’s in a tree. Try to figure out the best, most efficient possible solution to the problem using all of the resources your world provides.

Maybe try turning that on its head: pick ten or fifteen or twenty-five normal scenarios, use the resources at your command to ruin them, and then see how people react. People are having a picnic – until the ground splits open. Does this happen to them often? Are there people they can call when this sort of thing happens? Is this completely unheardof? What happens if one of them falls in?

Whatever you do, don’t think back on things you’ve experienced; you already know the rules of this world. If you want draw readers into your world, you need to learn its rules as well as you know these ones. Get your characters reacting instinctively and then maybe they won’t feel like they’re walking around in a theme park anymore.