5 Tips for Making a Fantasy World Feel Real


fantasy-782001_960_720

On planet Justine, where I write a story that involves world building, work in acquisitions where I read a ton of fantasy stories that either have or sorely need world building, edit fantasy books to make sure their world building is consistent, and read a ton of fantasy books just for fun, world building is very important to me.

What do I mean by world building? Well, when you’re creating a story, some story worlds come with a built-in structure. Those stories usually exist in our world, in current times. For stories like that in the fantasy genre, the world building usually involves what makes the story world unique from the regular world. So, the world created needs to exist in conjunction with the natural world. In my novel, The Order of the Key, my world building largely involves a questionable organization that exists off the grid, an epidemic of monsters that live in the shadows, and superhuman abilities that some human beings are able to harness. My main character joins the organization, and in doing so, becomes privy to a long history of things the rest of the world is ignorant of, as well as a hierarchy and set of expectations that do not exist outside of the select group of people she has found herself wrapped up in.

Other fantasy worlds involve the creation of something entirely from imagination, with no connection to our real world, or with connection to a past version of the real world. Some behave like Medieval England, for example. Those require a different sort of creation. The story must reveal and explain detailed landscapes of history in this completely new, unfamiliar space.

So, how do you make even the strangest, most bizarre worlds feel real?

  1. The world needs a history. This world has existed before the main character walked into it, or before this story started being told, so what have we missed? Don’t dump it all on us at once, but you should know it, and you should show us some glimpses of it when it makes sense in the story.
  2. If the world has magic or advanced science, that system and all of the ins and outs thereof must be established early enough that things don’t feel completely made up when they occur. It takes us out of the story.
  3. The reality is in the details. It takes little things to make an unreal place feel real. Like the scent of the room when someone has baked. The places where kids stash their goodies. The alley with that one leaky pipe overhead that always drips just as you’re walking under it. The mud on the hill you walk over on the way to work that always swallows the heel of your boot. These are the things that make a world tangible. You need these little things to believe.
  4. Give it an infrastructure – real worlds have economic levels. They have social levels. They have educational levels. These things feed into how your characters will interact with each other, and they often give us a point of reflection on which to understand a world.
  5. It has to feel like it could happen to the reader. This is, perhaps, the one that gets most overlooked. Whatever you put down on paper, no matter how strange or unlikely, the way your characters operate in the world needs to ring true. This means, within your world, you must follow your own rules. You can say the sky is green all you would like, but if it turns blue in the next minute for no explainable reason, you have violated your own rules – you lose credibility in that moment, and the very thing we need in our created worlds, authenticity.

What makes the imaginary worlds you encounter feel real? Let me know in the comments below.

Rock Star

unnamedEveryone should have a self-motivation story – one moment in their life where they did the thing nobody thought they could do, where they figured something out that nobody else could, where they triumphed in a bad situation. If you haven’t, then your moment will come. Be patient.  Or, make one for yourself. Because it means something.

That moment can be a powerful reminder of what you are capable of.  Here’s my moment and everything that lead me there. 

I graduated high school at 17 years old and went straight to Lehman College to start my theater degree, because those were the days when I wanted to be an actor. I worked my butt off for one year, going to school full time in the morning and working part time at a video rental store in the evening.  And then I made a very silly mistake.  I got married.

It wasn’t a mistake to get married.  My husband and I just celebrated our 14th wedding anniversary.  The mistake was that I didn’t realize what getting married would do to my need-based scholarship.  Ah, the ignorance of youth. With my mother’s income, my father’s income and my husband’s income now factoring in as well as mine (despite the fact that my parents were unable to contribute much further to my schooling) the financial aid program I was in tossed me right out on my behind. In the middle of August, I was left to discover that I no longer had any way of paying for college.

So I dropped out. I figured I would try getting acting roles for a little while, and I would save up money to go back. That didn’t really happen, and soon I was working a full time job at a law firm as a receptionist and trying my best to get some money into a savings account.

And that was when I learned about the rumors.

There were a ton of people in my life, friends and family, that truly believed I was never going back to college.  These were not the kind of people who stand close by and wish for bad things to happen to you.  These were people that wanted the best for me. But they figured that I had made some bad choices, that I would never get back to a place where school was a priority for me, that I had made it so that I was stuck in place, that maybe, I’d never had any intention of going back.  When I’d told these people I was leaving college, I had immediately followed it by saying that I would be returning, but those people didn’t believe in me.  Or rather, they didn’t believe in me enough to know that my word was good.

They were wrong.

If I had made the choice not to go back, that would be my choice. But that wasn’t what I had said, and these people didn’t have the faith in me I would have hoped.

It took a long time.  Lots of really hard work.  But in May 2009, almost ten years after my first day at Lehman College, I walked into Radio City Music Hall with the rest of the graduating class of Hunter College, and I walked out a graduate, Summa Cum Laude, with a double major in Creative Writing and Media Studies.  It was a long day to end a long journey, the culmination of five straight years attending school through the Fall and Spring Semesters, as well as both Summer sessions, full-time at night while I also worked full-time as a legal assistant during the day.  And I made it through that day, despite being six months pregnant with my son, at the time.  

So, what is this?  A big braggy post?  An ‘oh goody, I’m a smart person who works hard” humblebrag?  Yes.  But aren’t you…not supposed to do that on the internet?

You’re not.  

But this is more than that.  This is me remembering one of the most difficult periods of my life.  And when I think of it, I remember how long it felt.  How I felt like I would never make it out of the other end.  Like I would be going to school for the rest of my life.  And then I remember that despite being that tired, I made it through with flying colors.  I didn’t give in to discouraging things people were saying about me, or give up when things got a little too sticky.  I stuck it out and it paid off.

I need a reminder of this.  Because this is how I remind myself what I’m capable of when something gets me down.  And I think everyone needs something like this, something that makes you feel stronger.  So what’s your story?  Go ahead and share all about that moment where you took on the world and won.  I want to hear it!

Genre Choice

Leather boots

Being asked by a friend who only reads true literary fiction what I am writing used to feel like a pop quiz I was sure to fail. “Hi, my name is Justine and my current works in progress contain a computer virus alien race, a divorcee with an imaginary friend, and superheroes who fight monsters that come through inter-dimensional rifts. Please do not throw tomatoes or insults at me.” I would say it with shyness, with shame, as though what I was writing was any less valid than your normal everyday literary work. There’s literary fiction and there’s commercial fiction, and my muse just happens to like superheroes who fight monsters that come through inter-dimensional rifts.  So sue me.

But the truth is, this is where the muse takes me. It takes me to weird stuff, and, in this case it takes me to fantasy. When I came up with the idea for The Order of the Key, it only made sense that the main character, Jacklyn, would be young. She couldn’t be too young, for reasons I can’t really express without spoiling the plot for Book 1, but she had to be in that stage where she was figuring out who she was as a person. Initially, because some of the themes could run a little dark, I attempted to write Jacklyn as an adult, but it didn’t track well. The voice Jacklyn had placed in my head was plucky, young, and irreverent.

There was also a very specific theme that I wanted to explore, and that was this idea of dreams vs. reality. Jacklyn has this love for comic books, superheroes, and all things geeky. So, at first, when she is pulled into this world where she is the superhero, it seems like a dream come true, even if the circumstances surrounding it aren’t the best. But, as she struggles with the responsibilities of actually living that dream (risking those around her, putting herself on the line, being forced to do things she wouldn’t otherwise enjoy doing), she grows to understand that there is a big difference between imagining a situation and enduring it. And I think this is a hard won lesson for many—this idea that we’re going to grow up to be something amazing, just to have that amazing thing turn out to be…not so amazing. And it was important to tell that story in a YA framework, because I feel like that is a lesson worth teaching to kids who are about to head into college and out into the real world—to feel free to dream, but to inject a little practicality into it. Dream big, but dream smart.

In the end, I didn’t so much choose my genre as my genre chose me. What genres do you guys write? Read? Tell me a little about why in the comments!

Graduation Lessons

IMG_1211
This child and his silly faces

“We want to be a part of it! First Grade! First Grade!”

IMG_1109
Slide Show Picture

As I listened to my son and his classmates sing their graduation song, having just finished the adorable slideshow the school had put together to celebrate, I was surprised to find tears in my eyes. I’m not usually the kind of person that cries over happy things. Besides, it’s just a Kindergarten Graduation, right? His diploma has crayons on it!

But it’s about thinking back to where we were when we started Kindergarten.

Our entire lives have changed since September 2014. Seeing those pictures, taken on the first day of school, I could remember who we were when we dropped him off. I can remember still crossing my fingers, waiting to hear back regarding my manuscript. I can remember Ismael struggling to complete his. Our novels hadn’t been picked up for publication, then. We were just people chasing a dream. And Logan was a big part of that dream.

IMG_1070
This little heartbreaker.

Logan, himself, was different. He couldn’t read more than a few words. The other day, he casually picked up a book and read it to himself. It was a breeze. At his birthday party, just before school started, Logan cried about losing a game that cost him a trophy at his own birthday party (I never would have given it to him anyway! That was for the other kids!). CRIED. Hysterically. But I watched him lose a few rounds into the class spelling bee, last week, with little more than a short sniffle. He cried on the third day of school, after seemingly tricking us into believing he was going to be okay with going. By the last day, he was racing in without me, intent on hanging with his friends. He had a hard time leaving his stuffed bear behind on the first day, and though I snuck said bear into the graduation in my purse to make him laugh, it doesn’t take much work at all to convince him to leave the bear home when we’re heading out for the day.

We speak more. I’ve always spoken to Logan, but I can think of dozens of real, somewhat deep conversations we’ve had over the last school year. Perhaps, the most touching of those conversations was the one we had with him the day my Grandmother passed away. But there were others, about friendship, about family. About the bad things we don’t want to think about. About his favorite things and how to handle a bully. About siblings, and planning and all of the things he wants to be. About history, and how to be a good citizen. About keeping the Earth clean, and about guppies and earthworms and snails. About trees and flowers and how they grow. About what it’s like to start to see your dreams come true and how much hard work something like that takes. All on the walk to school.

Getting his crayon diploma.
Getting his crayon diploma.

Watching the slideshow, I stared at the pictures of him from his orientation, and remembered when he was clinging to me, eyeing the application paperwork over my shoulder and asking me what every word meant. But then, I saw my big boy getting his crayon diploma. My first grader, who had come out of his first year older and wiser. And I teared up a bit.

The next day, when Logan asked me how much school he had left, and I told him about college, and an advanced education, he sighed. “I’m going to be in school forever!”

So, I asked, “Logan, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be a scientist. And a writer. And a doctor. And an engineer. And a fixer. And a superhero,” he said, with all of the trademark excitement I expect from him.

“And you know, the best way to be any of those things?” I asked, mostly ignoring the superhero part, although there is more than one way to be a superhero. “Learn. Learn everything you can. Never stop learning.”

And as I said it, and he agreed, I realized how much more I have to learn, how much more I have to teach him.

I can’t wait to see where we go.

FullSizeRender

“Reject” Publication Announcement

Hello everyone,

I am very excited to announce that my article, “Reject”, will be published in the March 2015 issue of The Writer’s Monthly Review Magazine. The article is about just what you might think – dealing with rejection as a writer.

This is a relatively new print magazine and, if you’re a writer, it could use your support. Subscription information can be found here, if you’d like it.

Once again, thank you to everyone who tolerates my writing-related insanity. You are the ones who make this success, and any of my recent successes, worthwhile.

I hope you’ll check it out!

New Years Resolutions

Before I begin, I would love to wish all of my readers Happy Holidays.  Whatever you celebrate, I hope you enjoy your time and as we approach that countdown to a fresh start, I hope you can look back at this year with happiness in your heart, and look forward to a year filled with new and interesting possibilities.

OK, so I lied last week and said that I’d be writing about Bad Guys this month, but I won’t.  We’ll get back to that next year.  In the meantime, I’d like to discuss something a little more on theme.  New Years Resolutions.  Which I hate.  When you sit around in December and look at your life over the last year, New Years Resolutions make you feel cranky.  They are rigid goal posts, planted in the ground to remind you of all the stuff you were supposed to do, but drove right on by.

So, I don’t make resolutions.  I make possibilities. I ask myself, “This time next year, where would you ideally like to be?”  And I remember that word, ideally.  Because it is important.  Life is usually far from ideal and a lot can happen in a year. As long as we don’t make resolutions, and list ideals, we can keep a clear eye on the list as potential goals, and not as failures when we don’t hit each of those goals within a twelve month period.

So, what are my goals for 2014?  I have a list.

1) Logan will be starting Kindergarten next fall, so I’d like to hope that, by the end of 2014, I will have a decent routine going after the great big change in the status quo.  Here’s hoping that by next December, I’m not still racing into my office late everyday because I still haven’t figured out how to get him to school on time.

2) I hope to be able to better manage my time.  I seem to have a real problem doing everything I want to do.  Which is not for lack of trying.  So, I’m trying to become better at procrastinating less, and staying more on schedule so I can have more time to see people and to get out and try new things.

3) I plan to manage my money better.  I went through quite the financial crisis this year, and I don’t intend for it to happen again.  So I’m trying to become smarter about how I manage funds, which means not spending extravagantly, and not offering to buy for everyone like I have a million dollars.  I don’t know why I do that!  But thankfully, nobody who loves me seems to allow me to anymore without a fight.  Thanks, supportive people!

4) I continue to shop out my short stories in the hopes of publication. I haven’t been getting any bites, but hopefully I will be celebrating another short story publication in the year 2014.

5) I would like to finish revisions on The Order of the Key and start shopping it out to agents/publishers by the end of 2014.

6) I want to get in better shape.  Do not read that as “lose weight.”  I just want to be more healthy, i.e. get my migraines under control, get my eating under control, exercise more.  Just generally become a more healthful person.

7) I would like to complete at least my first round of revisions on Legally Insane.  I do not expect to complete the revisions for this right away – the book turned out being about double the size it was meant to be, so I know this set of revisions is going to be extensive.

8) I have completed a prequel short story for the series I’m working on, Keys and Guardians (The Order of the Key is the intro book to that), and I would like to complete edits, begin shopping it out, and, preferably, have that published by the end of the year.

9) I have also recently started a new short story that I hope to have completed soon.

So that is my list of goals for next year.  This should probably give you a decent idea of what I will be babbling about over the next year.  Stay tuned for my end of year post, my year in review.  2013 was a sweet year.  2014, here I come!

Mommy Guilt

As it stands at this current moment, I work a day job, raise a four year old boy, write fiction, and work as a reader for a literary magazine.  That doesn’t take into account the time I spend as a wife, a friend, a sister, a daughter, an in-law, or a cleaning and organizing machine.  My husband performs a similar juggling act on a daily basis, and we both have some health limitations that get in the way of things changing.  The money situation is a little tough.  We pinch pennies.  We scuttle by from check to check.  We save a pittance every month.

There are people in my life who worry about me.  Or more accurately, they worry about my son, Logan.  They feel like I need a bigger income source to support him and, because they have a ton of faith in me, they honestly believe I could do more with my life.  They say things like “You could be an executive/personal assistant and make more than you make now.” And they would be right.

It’s tempting.  It really is.  But there’s a problem.  I love my job.  Like, really love it.  Like, for the first time in a very long time, I don’t dread coming to work in the morning.  I like the people I work with.  I like the company I work for.  I enjoy the work I do.  I also happen to love the fact that I can do my job in the time between 9:30 and 5:30 with only occasional bursts of overtime.  I’ve done the personal/executive assistant thing.  I’ve done the ‘tied to your blackberry’ thing.  It ate up my life and my sanity.

It would mean no more writing.  Less time for my family.  As it is, I barely scrape together time for either now.  Those two things, especially for a person with a lifelong struggle with depression, are unacceptable losses. So, I stay at my (still nicely paying) job, and don’t push myself much further than that.  Because I think it’s more important for Logan to have a sane mother than a crazy, stressed to the breaking point, shrew.  I need those outlets to continue to be me.

There will probably be few big family vacations.  Logan will not go to a private school.  But he eats three square healthy meals a day and so do we.  All of our extra money is spent on cool little adventures getting him trinkets and things I know he’ll love.  He won’t live an extravagant life, but he has a loving family and he has grown up confident of that fact, knowing that he can count on Mommy and Daddy, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles and cousins – that they will be there for him no matter what.

More importantly, he is a happy boy.  Because his Mommy and Daddy are happy people, despite the struggle it took to get us there.

So, I refuse to feel guilty about my choices in raising my son…

…for at least the next fifteen minutes….

….at least.