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!



Because April is National Poetry Month, I decided to strike out into uncharted territory and review one of my favorite books, Crush.

Crush is a collection of poems by Richard Siken that won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 2004. The Yale Series is an awesome competition where new poets under forty can submit a manuscript to be judged. If you win, and agree to the publishing terms, they publish your poems.

Crush arrived on the scene to pretty rave reviews- the introduction by the judge who chose his manuscript is no exception. She, Louise Glück, starts off by saying, “This is a book about panic. The word is never mentioned.” I’ve not been able to find a better way to describe it. The world Siken creates within Crush is chaotic and cruel, with death tucked into every corner. At the same time, I’d say that it’s also about love- at the very least, it’s definitely about desire. I really can’t emphasize enough how much I love this book- I highly, highly recommend that everyone try it out.

Now, I’m going to be totally honest- I don’t really know anything about poetry. I haven’t taken any classes on it, as I mentioned on last Sunday’s podcast, and I don’t know how to analyze it. All I know is that there is something about his poems that I find really touching. They’re raw, undiluted; they’re what I imagine you’d find if you cracked his ribs open and peeled all the layers away to see what he had hidden beneath. Aside from the very visceral reaction that his themes evoke in me, the imagery he uses is also particularly compelling. Violence, guns, cars, motel rooms, the road, two boys, desire, death.

So, the way I first stumbled across Siken was actually Tumblr. I’m a pretty big fan of the show Supernatural, and while I’m not necessarily active in fandom, I do read a lot of fanfiction. This was even more true when I first started watching it around 2010/2011. I kept seeing these gorgeous graphics on my favorite blogs: typically images of Sam and Dean, sometimes with the Impala, with words over them. Sometimes, it was a simple phrase that told an entire story-

Sam and Dean; over them, a line from “Driving, Not Washing”

Other times, it was like a description of a scene or an episode, or a whole plot point-

Sam and Dean; over them, lines from “A Torn-Up Road”

So eventually I just Googled it, and that’s how my own personal love story with Crush began. (Or, if you prefer, my crush on Crush >:) ) I didn’t actually buy a copy until 2015, but I’m glad I did. I’ve read it cover to cover several times.

Crush and Supernatural mash-ups became so popular that fans started asking Siken if he wrote Crush about the show. He did not, of course, as the book was selected to be published in 2004 (re: Yale Series), and Supernatural first aired in late 2005. But that still hasn’t stopped fans from asking. He’s discussed this a little- a lot, actually- in interviews, but to summarize, he says “[…] I think Crush and Supernatural are products of a cultural moment, not products of each other.”

But it’s easy to see why fans often equate the show and the poems- the imagery in Supernatural is very similar to that in Crush. In You Are Jeff, it starts with two brothers, riding motorbikes down a road. Soon after, there is “God in his High Heaven,” and the Devil, who we’ll “pretend is played by two men” (one of whom has dark hair and green eyes, like Dean). Towards the end, it talks about the brothers again, fighting in the dirt on the side of the road. That’s a pretty common theme for Sam and Dean, especially in earlier and middle seasons. They spent a lot of their lives being trained by their father, a military man. In this case, that doesn’t lend itself to great communication. But they sure can kick the crap out of each other.

Then we have Driving, Not Washing. (There be mild spoilers ahead, proceed with caution)

It starts with bloodshed, always bloodshed, always the same
running from something larger than yourself story

Bloodshed is pretty self explanatory- Supernatural started as a sort of monster-of-the-week show, with each episode containing a new creature to hunt and kill. But over the course of the first couple of seasons, we see a bigger plot arc come into play. The demon who killed Sam and Dean’s mom has come back for Sam, and he has big plans for him. Which, obviously, neither Sam nor Dean want any part of.

They’re hurling their bodies down the freeway
to the smell of gasoline,

The most frequent setting in Supernatural is a car- a 1967 Chevy Impala given to Dean by their father. The Impala becomes like home to them, as they spend their lives traveling around America finding monsters to “gank.” Side note: when Oscar and I went to the Boston Comic-Con a couple years ago, we got Dusa a little Impala replica!

Henry’s driving,
and Theodore’s bleeding shotgun into the upholstery,
It’s a road movie,
a double-feature, two boys striking out across America […]

Wounds, often gory and brutal, are an occupational hazard of hunting monsters. Because of the brothers’ lack of funding (killing vampires doesn’t pay all that well, as it turns out!) and occasional notoriety, they often skip the hospital and do it themselves or for each other. And depending on how difficult a hunt is, it’s not uncommon for one of them to lie wounded in the passenger or back seat while the other takes them back to the motel.

and they’re trying to drive you into the ground, to see if anything
walks away.

In season 5, Dean says to Sam, “[…] it’s supposed to be you and me against the world, right?” Sam and Dean get a lot of crap for what they do- the FBI on their tail for mistaken murder charges, angels angry with them for screwing with a divine plan, the demon trying to turn Sam into some sort of demon general. It often seems like various characters are trying to do just that, drive them into the ground, break their bond (sometimes by killing one of them), just to see how they’ll handle it.

There’s also a piece a little earlier that I didn’t quote, which talks about angels. Angels become a huge part of the show, beginning in season three when Castiel becomes a recurring character. Some would even say a main character, but that’s a rant for another day.

Honestly, this barely scratches the surface. It gets even more interesting when you compare the poems with some of the common fic ships of the show- whether is Destiel (Dean and Castiel), Sabriel (Sam and Gabriel), or Wincest (Sam and Dean- which is surprisingly one of the most written about pairings, both on and The poems in Crush are inescapably about desire. Looking at the poems through the lens of a popular fandom pairing can make even more apparent why the book is so well-loved by fans of Supernatural, and why it’s so commonly used in fanart. All in all, I recommend both the book and the show, like, 10,000%.

Don’t even get me started on BBC’s Sherlock and Siken’s second book, War of the Foxes.

More Links

Another great interview with Siken; Siken’s Tumblr; website; and a Tumblr devoted to Siken/Supernatural graphics.


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.

worldbuilding with neural network Writing

Worldbuilding with Neural Networks

Worldbuilding is one of my least favorite activities, but it’s a prerequisite for a rich, detailed setting, which in turn is a prerequisite for a deep, creative story. I used to think about creativity as a magical process. I would try mystical things to achieve “inspiration”: staying up all night, stimulating myself with nicotine and caffeine, altering my perceptions with alcohol and other drugs, distracting myself with strange music, using randomness to prod my imagination, etc. Now I think of creativity as a practical, comprehensible, trainable process.


  1. The best stories seem inevitable. Effects follow causes, and the story barely scratches the surface of a world that feels deep, complete, and whole.
  2. In contrast, bad stories are thin and artificial. Characters exist only as collections of the exact traits and motivations the plot requires to proceed, and the world seems disconnected and mechanical.
  3. Deep, detailed worldbuilding is usually an exhausting process that kills my enthusiasm for the entire project.

Neural Networks

Neural networks have their root in biology. Our brains are literal neural networks, composed of a hundred billion neurons. I know the concept better from the field of computer science, where, using the brain as a model, programmers create networks of virtual neurons and use them to solve complex problems. The draw of neural networks is that each individual neuron is governed by simple rules and doesn’t need to understand the entire system to function. Voice recognition software like Apple’s Siri and photo comparison apps like Google Photos use neural networks that learn and adapt to their difficult tasks, requiring no human input. I’m no expert on the subject, so here’s a good Gizmodo article for people who want to dive deeper.

The coolest thing about a neural network is its ability to be more than the sum of its parts. While we still don’t know how a human brain creates consciousness, one theory is that any neural network of sufficient complexity and interconnectivity results in consciousness as an emergent property.

I’m going to be stretching the definition of a neural network as a metaphor, but the key components I want to take from this are:

  1. The individual neurons are simple and easily described and comprehended.
  2. Interactions between these simple neurons result in complex behavior.
  3. A network of sufficient size and complexity can result in emergent behavior that exceeds the sum of the inputs.

Enough pretending to be a scientist, although neural networks are a fascinating subject in their own right that have already birthed hundreds if not thousands of pieces of science fiction (although Google already has neural networks learning to write fiction, so it’s not all good news for writers).

The Metaphor

In this metaphor, the neurons are characters, places, even objects. The complex behaviors that result from their interactions are events. And if you get lucky, the emergent behavior is a vital, engrossing world. If you observe that world, you might end up with a great story – no marathon worldbuilding sessions required.

Start with one neuron: a single character. No name, no gender, no eye color, no likes and dislikes. Observe that character. What happens? Nothing. You don’t even know if this character is human, so he/she/it can’t even walk or talk.

Time to make something up. But there’s no need to wait for inspiration, or to write fifty pages of worldbuilding notes. Just choose some mundane things from your life experience. Human, female, named Barbara, right-handed, medium height, frizzy red hair. Job: bank teller. Now observe Barbara. There’s no trick here. All you’re doing is picturing the person you just invented, and imagining them. Maybe you imagine Barbara opening her front door, which looks a lot like your front door. Maybe you imagine Barbara passing money through a teller window at a bank that looks exactly like your bank. That’s fine. We don’t expect more from a network of a single neuron.

We could force a story at this point by just making something up. Let’s try it. Okay, Barbara…gets held up in a bank robbery, and after that powerless experience she’s…humiliated in the grocery store after work when she doesn’t have her wallet. Something inside her snaps, and she goes home and plots an elaborate campaign of revenge against everyone in town who’s humiliated her. As a twist ending, she saves the bank robber for last, but when we think she’s going to kill him, she thanks him for setting her on this path of self-actualization.

That’s a plot, at least for a short story, and it wouldn’t be hard to outline a dozen chapters by stapling together tropes and following some simple rules (are things too slow? put someone in danger, etc.). But that kind of paper-thin adventure-building is what I want to avoid. Whatever you might think of this off-the-cuff plot, it’s certainly not inspired. I know, because I made it up in thirty seconds as a thought exercise.

Worldbuilding For Inevitability

Inevitability is the metric by which I want to measure our story. Ignoring the triggering event of the bank robbery, how much of what follows is inevitable? Not very much. I just threw a couple simple ideas together, probably accidentally plagiarizing a Quentin Tarantino movie in the process, and invented some motivations after the fact.

Let’s take the next step in our worldbuilding exercise and add a second neuron: Ben, the bass player for a world-famous indie rock band. And a third, our setting: Eccleston, a small, poor, rural town nestled in the Appalachian mountains.

We’re nowhere near critical mass, but you can already see the complexity. We have two more neurons, but more importantly, we’ve gone from zero relationships to three (Ben – Barbara, Ben – Eccleston, Barbara – Eccleston). Now the complexity explodes: if we add Sarah, the young woman who runs a daycare and has a mysterious scar and past to match, we go from three to four neurons, but we jump from three relationships to six. Adding a fifth neuron brings us to ten relationships. A sixth, fifteen relationships.

But what’s the point? Here it is: good stories are built on relationships. You can fake it, by coming up with your plot first and fitting characters in later, but those stories feel strained and artificial. Your characters and their relationships should cause the events, and readers will notice when you cheat. If you follow your characters, everything you write will make sense. Doing your worldbuilding this way lets you stick close to the characters and see what they do.

Let’s pick a relationship: Ben – Eccleston. Ben’s a rock star. Why is he in a sleepy Appalachian town? I’m sure every single person reading this paragraph just came up with a totally different explanation. Maybe he’s on the run from the police after killing a security guard at a show. Maybe he’s searching for a secret wishing well that lets you summon a demon and trade your soul for one wish. Maybe he got stuck in town when his tour bus (individual tour busses for each band member, of course) broke down. None of this is revolutionary, but contrast this experience with trying to write a story for Barbara the single neuron. The relationships create questions (why would a rock star be in Eccleston?), which create answers in your mind, without even trying.

What about Sarah and Barbara? Maybe Sarah watches Barbara’s four year old son (look, another neuron!) at her daycare. That’s pretty mundane, so let’s keep worldbuilding. Barbara, arriving early one day to pick up her son Brandon (hey, a name! that was easy), saw Sarah through the window striking her son. Sarah denied it, and Brandon did too, and didn’t have a mark on him. Barbara pulled Brandon out of Sarah’s daycare anyway, and got drunk one night and complained loudly about Sarah at the local bar (wow, more neurons). Now Barbara is suspicious of Sarah, but also feels guilty and confused, and Sarah dislikes Barbara, and they avoid each other in public.

Mental Overhead

There’s a reason so many authors use the real world as their setting: it lets them skip the worldbuilding step. In a fantasy world, when a character needs to travel from one city to another, you have to figure out how people travel in your world, and how long it takes, and whether the fact that your character has to spend two weeks traveling by steampunk zeppelin ruins your plot’s timeline. In the real world, not only do you know how people travel, you’ve known it for years, and when your mind was making unconscious connection while you slept and worked and mowed the lawn, it just knew how long it takes to get from New York City to Boston, and took that for granted as it fit the rest of the story around it. You’d never come up with a premise that relies on someone getting from Los Angeles to Moscow in half an hour, because you know how the world works.

Writing in the real world reduces mental overhead – you’ve been doing the worldbuilding your entire life. You can just go ahead and write your scene about socialites at a rooftop Manhattan party. Maybe you’re worried that the party is wrong, because you’ve never been a socialite at a rooftop Manhattan party, but you’re not worried that the material the skyscraper is made of is actually too weak to support itself. You know the fundamental laws of your world.


This is my attempt to take the complex, beautiful, unsolved problem of creativity (and the drudgery of standard worldbuilding) and find a programmatic solution. I enjoy the crude blue-collar simplicity of it: if your world isn’t real enough, if your story isn’t alive enough, it’s just a problem of quantity! Pour in another load of neurons, let them bump into each other like tropical fish in a tank for long enough, and voila! a perfect novel.

It isn’t that simple, of course. The individual decisions (what is Barbara like? what is Ben like? why does Ben stand outside Barbara’s house every night whistling the theme from 28 Days Later?) take creativity, and maintaining the whole network still takes some overhead: remembering or recording each neuron and each relationship, keeping continuity, etc. But I think the worldbuilding you end up with will be relatively easy to remember because it’s vivid and inevitable. Sure, not everyone’s Barbara and Sarah will have the same relationship that mine do, but they will all feel real because we derived them.

Barbara doesn’t have to be your main character. She’s just a random starting point. You may find out that you don’t care about Barbara’s suspicion of Sarah, or that you do care, but that’s not the kind of story you want to write. You can let Barbara fade back into the background as you find new characters and new relationships you like more. As you swim through the sea of possibility, see what hooks you, and let it drag you up into the sunlight. And who knows? Maybe your new main character will decide to hold up the town’s bank at some point, and the teller might be a familiar face with frizzy red hair.