Caturday: Pet the Cat Edition

 

In case you needed a “second person viewpoint” cat photo. “The cat leans on you. You reach over and scritch him, and he slow-blink smiles at you.”
It is Saturday and I love me some Saturday. I hope yours is treating you well! Just in case you need something to help it be more awesome, have my favorite pumpkin recipe! (It’s my only pumpkin recipe, so I guess by default that makes it my favorite 😂)
Enjoy the weekend, all!

New Audiobook Chapter, Amulet Rampant! Not Particularly Worksafe!

Chapter 3 is up, and it’s an hour and a half long! And it is probably not at all safe for work, because the cuddle begins in this one. Jahir and Lisinthir fans, rejoice! You get to hear their interactions purred in your ears by the inimitable Jim McCance. We also get a little bit of the Queen and the Knife, for Chatcaava lovers.

Go get it at bandcamp!

For those of you who aren’t aware what I’m up to with this, it wasn’t my plan to finish the audio edition of Princes’ Game. But since readers have asked, I’m letting them crowdfund this one, chapter by chapter. It’s free to listen on Bandcamp, but you can donate there, or use the Paypal link I’ve provided instead if you prefer that method. Once I hit the $200 an hour I need, I commission the next chapter.

I hope audiobook lovers are enjoying this one as much as I am!

Tentative Plans (2020-2022)

Because nothing survives contact with the enemy (time), these are only *tentative* plans. But here’s how I’m thinking the next couple of years will go:
  • Pelted Pack (2020-2021): Alysha 7, Zafiil 1 and 2, Dragons’ Fealty and Another Collection
  • Other Stuff (2021-2022): Kherishdar 5, Coracle 1-4, maybe a Jokka short or novella
  • Back to Pelted (2022): Surela’s trilogy
I am about halfway through Alysha 7, about halfway through Zafiil 1 and 2, and the other two projects are at the outlining/planning phase. And I want to talk more about that last bit, because I have decided I want my end of year work to be another Major Pieces-like project on Kickstarter! Last time was too much fun, I’d like to have another chance to do a reader-interactive thing again.
Even if I didn’t, some of the stuff I want to do for this collection is necessary pre-writing for Dragons’ Fealty, so I’d probably end up either doing it, or outlining it so specifically it might as well be written… so why not combine that stuff with some reader requests?
Having said that, Many Lessons Were Learned during the Major Pieces campaign, so I am planning this new campaign to address those things.
I have been spending a lot of time at the end of this week, trying to decide what to do with myself going forward, but now I feel more confident. I hope there’s something for everyone to look forward to on this list!

Worldbuilding: Failing Your Way to a More Realistic Setting

We return to my observations about writers’ bibles and worldbuilding as the wiki develops! In this case… it’s time to tell you that your flaws can be supremely helpful to you.

BAD RECALL IS YOUR FRIEND. For instance! One of my most egregious flaws is a bad memory. It’s so bad that my family and friends tease me about it all the time. (They’ve decided I’m a wormhole alien, from DS9: ‘you exist now, without linear time’. They’re not wrong.) I’ve gotten by in my life by being intensely devoted to list-making and note-taking, and that will get you far; in fact, it often gets you farther than people with good memories but lackadaisical attitudes toward record-keeping. But not all my leet skillz at jotting things down can change the fact that I have farmed ninety percent of data to an external system. One which—if you have a bad memory—you might misplace, or organize too poorly to use because after a while your stack of lists and notes gets so tall indexing it requires a computer.

In the past, while writing, my strategy for dealing with this was to look up as much information I could find about vital things, like my main characters’ eye colors and childhood traumas, and then… make up everything else. Even if I had the vague feeling I’d made it up before. “I need a sport for this walk-on character to be into. Um, I’ll make something new? SWIRLYBALL. Um. IN ZERO-G.” And then, a week later: “I need a sport for this new character to have played in the past. Didn’t I just? Oh, heckle, too much trouble. I’ll make something new! How about… WAR POLO. You play it riding the native animals, which are like velociraptors but furry, and they bite one another so that’s how it became about war, because while you’re trying to hit the ball with sticks your mounts are trying to eat one another!”

If you do this long enough, pretty soon you have sixty sports, all random, and no character interested in both, until you hit Story #12 and you want the characters to have a conversation at a sporting event and you happen to run into war polo while flipping through your stack of notes and you go, ‘OKAY THAT’S GOOD.’

I always thought of this particular habit of mine, of shrugging and making up new things because my memory was awful and my notes too voluminous to index, was a bug. It turns out, though, that it’s a feature, because it makes the world seem enormous. If I’d had a better system (or brain), the first time I named an opera house, I would have remembered it and every time I needed an opera, or a performance, or a cultural event, or to give a character an interest, I could have said, ‘Oh, obviously they’re a fan of the opera, and this opera house in particular!’ Readers would have started noticing that every opera ever mentioned was staged by the same opera house, and it would not have made that opera house feel famous, it would have made it feel repetitive. The walls of the world would close in: “This place has only one opera house. Only one form of High Culture even because EVERYONE IS INTO OPERA.”

By continuing to come up with truly trivial details and then forgetting them, they remained trivial. And that makes it feel more real than dredging it up as the answer to all possible references. It’s like talking to a person at a party and discovering they’re really into this thing you’re not into and that it’s complicated and has its own history and famous figures and events and you’re thinking ‘but it’s just a dog show’ or ‘it’s just orchids’ or ‘it’s just a single fantasy novel.’

One of the things I’ve had to tell myself as I started filling in the wiki is that I can’t stop making up stuff off the top of my head just because I now have an entire page of Alliance sports, or Chatcaavan foods. For the world to feel huge, it needs to feel deep, and the only way to achieve that is to keep adding things to it, no matter how minor. The minor things may, in fact, be more pivotal than the major ones.

I did make up an opera house, in an obscure story that was run once in a fanzine. I think that’s so far in the past that it’s safe to have someone be into opera again.

MISTAKES ARE YOUR FRIENDS. By now you’ve heard about all the errors I’m finding while hunting through the books, and how I’ve become resigned to that being the result of maintaining a contiguous universe for over 25 years. Not just resigned, but all right with it, and sympathetic to Past Me for all her efforts. The Peltedverse contains 29 canonical books, any number of short stories not yet collected for retail, some large number of non-canonical material so old it’s no longer available, plus thousands of sketches. At that point, mistakes become the Hand of the Artist Revealed, not something to be ashamed of.

Having said that though, mistakes are gold because they serve as random seeds for embellishment/worldbuilding. One of the hardest things to simulate when a single person is creating something is the real world’s unpredictability, absurdity, and haphazardness. Reality is not just large and full of detail (as from the previous section)… it’s also weird and unlikely and gives you many headscratch moments.

Explaining away your mistakes is a great way to simulate some of that. If you decide to frame your continuity errors as all true, despite being contradictory, then you end up in really interesting places. So, for instance, the interim captain of the Stardancer, who briefly served while Mertricia Heartfoot (Alysha’s predecessor) was on maternity leave, is listed in the canon under three separate names: Leary, Levy, and Lery. (Cue my facepalm.) This one is particularly egregious because Levy is already a character in the canon, the human admiral who sees Lisinthir off in Even in the Wingless. “They must,” I thought, “constantly get one another’s mail.”

And just like that, I could see Leary—the name I settled as his real one—getting mail from personnel addressed to Lery and Levy and being extremely annoyed. “They can build wormhole generators that take you from orbit to a planet in a single step, but they can’t manage a database so that it gets my name right!” In my head, Leary wearily pops a message to Levy. “Got your notice again.”

“Right on time. Thanks for forwarding it.”

Leary, who previously existed only as a few lines of description in my head, now has a bizarre piece of trivia associated with him that demonstrates the absurdity of the system. Does it excuse my error in the text? Of course not—me getting his name wrong as the semi-omniscient narrator can’t be explained away by in-universe issues. But I got to use that mix-up as a story prompt, and that allowed me to develop not just his character further, but also the world (the Alliance still has data entry issues) and his relationships (I now know that he corresponds with Admiral Levy).

I did this again with a Pelted character who swore by two different sets of gods, almost certainly because I forgot what species she was when I wrote one of her pieces of dialogue. Instead of panicking about that error (or beating myself up for it), I recorded it and let it lie there for a while. A few days later, I remembered that when two Pelted of different species have children, they usually genefix the resulting babies to either one species or the other: perfect. Obviously my double-god-swearing character had parents of different species, who genefixed her to one. She must have a brother who got genefixed to the other: instant family, with bonus instant family history! I bet she and her brother tease one another endlessly. “Big ears!” “Snaky tail!”

There’s no limit to the ways you can use your errors to springboard into diversification of your universe. One character describes a historical event as being driven by economics, and another by racism? Both true, or both false, scholars are arguing about it at universities and writing dissertations on their opinions. (Bonus: says something about each character, whether that’s about their basic biases, or about their educational backgrounds.) Described your starship engines as working one way in this book, but another way in a different one? Both engines exist! One is a modification of another, or one was discarded as less efficient, or one is an experiment, or one is more expensive and therefore not as common. Your character claimed to meet someone in college in one story, and then said they met in childhood later? Bad memory—maybe she’s mixed that person up with someone else, or conflated them. (Why?)

The latter is particularly powerful. “Oh gosh, wait, I’m remembering that wrong” or “no wait, I’m mixing that up with something else” is real. Do you remember every detail of your life? Exactly? I bet not. It would be weird if all your characters wandered around, spouting off their biographies in perfect detail as if they were reciting from an inner Wikipedia entry. In real life, most of us get things wrong all the time, or need to look at photos or journals to remember, or have our memories triggered by items (“oh, the souvenir I got when I was on my first date with you, at the fair.”). Let your characters have as faulty a recall as real people.

Which brings us back to the beginning of this particular article, doesn’t it. 😄

Anyway, my observations of the day. Questions and comments welcome, as always! But if you’re here to point out an error in the canon be aware that you will probably be directed to record it on the wiki. lol

Organizing Your Worldbuilding Wiki

A question I’m getting more than once is ‘how do you organize your wiki so that it’s useful for your writing.’ Which… is not a minor question, because my initial response is ‘I’ve organized it? It’s a big enormous tangled mess of stubs and passages from one blank space to another and then boom! Wall of text.’

It is tempting to go at this like a prescriptive text: “The proper way to organize your wiki is to divide it into the following nine sections, under which you should have some number of these categories.” That would be so satisfying, and anxiety-reducing, because it would suggest there is a Right Way to organize your writers’ bible (because that’s what it is, really), and if you organize it so, you will get it right the first time and it will be perfect.

But… there isn’t a right way. All I can tell you is my organizational principles, and maybe they’ll spark some ideas in your head.

My first and most important guiding principle is: start with the stuff you need. By which I mean the things you know you’re always forgetting and are desperate to have at your fingertips. For me, that’s character info. What color was someone’s eyes? How old are they? What was their middle name? What did they do in that last book? Do they drink coffee or tea? Did they mention any pets? Ever?

So I started by making pages for characters. (I have a lot of characters.) I knew that was a good choice because when I began writing the newest book, I consulted the wiki not even a week into its establishment to check some facts. As I continued writing, I kept finding other frequent offenders: “I remember saying some things about this location, but not what,” and “I can never remember how many provinces are in this nation” and “Didn’t I make up names for these historical figures.” At which point I started making pages for those things too. Every time I ran into something that I needed to know, I made a page for it, looked that info up, and dropped it in the right place.

Wikis aren’t just for writers, either; I have these “oh no I need to look that up” moments about art things too, so I started uploading all the major pieces of art I keep looking for: maps of different continents, uniforms from different services, representations of species, portraits of particular people. If you have images like this, putting them in one place is great for any artists you might want to hire in the future, too. Just make sure you have the rights to reproduce those images if they’re not yours. (Obvious, but must be said.)

All of us have major pain points in our worldbuilding and they will be idiosyncratic. Maybe you keep making up words in a conlang. Or you have named the cuisines of seven different fictitious countries and their ritual significance. Maybe you are fascinated by coastlines and keep creating port cities. The thing that you’ve developed most, and the thing you need to remember, is the place you need to start filling in data. So while my wiki might have grown from characters to those characters’ species to those species’ worlds and foods and religions and histories, yours might begin with types of ships, or noble families, or principle exports and imports.

The thing you need the most is the thing you need to record first.

Once you’ve recorded the stuff you need most, organize it so that you’ll find it fastest. I like the wiki for being able to search, but sometimes search doesn’t get you the results you want, or in the order you want them, which is where categorizing comes in. At several people’s suggestion I enabled the Category Tree extension which lets you create nested categories, and that’s been immensely helpful because it allows the display of all the items in a category. So if I want to keep track of all the Scout-class ships in Fleet, I can add them to that category and then display that category on some master page (like “All the Ships in Fleet”).

As you can imagine, categorization is even more idiosyncratic than “start with the stuff you need.” Because I could tell you ‘you should classify your food pages based on whether they are breakfast, dinner, or lunch’ while what you really need to know is whether each dish is served hot or cold, or whether they’re religious foods or common meals, or what have you.

The nice thing about categories is that you can use more than one… so if you want something to show up as both a brunch and a food served only at a treaty table, you can place it in both “Brunch” and “Peace Feast Foods” and find it both ways. You can also categorize images; most of mine have multiple categories, telling me what stories they’re relevant to along with what characters are in them and what kind of image they are (map? Schematic? Portrait?)

None of which was my idea, but I’ll get to that momentarily.

Use references immediately. Even if they’re imprecise or slapdash. Assuming you’re starting from some existing material you want to backfill, when you begin making your stubs, mention where you got your information, even if it’s just ‘I think it was chap 1 or 2 of this book.’ That’ll give you somewhere to start when you need to doublecheck the data, or add to it. Even when you record something that seems inconsequential, putting down where it came from is immensely useful to Future You: context matters. You can always go back and tidy up the references if they’re imprecise or not pretty, but if you put in the work immediately you will avoid a lot of extra research.

(My faithful volunteers have reminded me that the cool wiki reference tags are an extension that needs to be enabled. Mine is ‘Cite.’)

Another thing that I’ve found immensely useful is to make pages for every story I’ve published, because it gives my references somewhere to point to. If I say “This event happened in Book 2 of this series” or “This character first appeared there,” then the reference can link back to the page and give you the necessary info to either buy or find that story (if it’s in a collection somewhere). My fiction pages give basic citation info (publication date, series, etc), along with summaries and buy links. They’re also a great place to add easily lost material, like the cover images of previous editions, and ephemeral teaser and marketing materials that were used once and never reproduced on any gallery page.

I cordon off these pages by appending (Fiction) to all of them, just to make sure they don’t get mixed up with the data pages.

Some examples:

Make stubs. Then consolidate until it’s time to expand again. (A stub is a placeholder page with little to no data on it.) One of the nice things about the wiki has been that it’s easy to mend. My mantra has been “put it down now, organize it later,” and that works well because it’s trivial to delete or rename pages. I’ve made pages for things that I immediately needed, only to realize they didn’t need an entire page to themselves and that it would be easier to find them on some different page… and fixing that was a few moments’ work, by pasting the material into the other page and deleting its stub (and leaving a redirect, so if I ever searched for it again the wiki would send me to the new page). So, for instance, I had a separate page for a particular hospital, when I realized that there just wasn’t enough data to justify it being on a single page, and that I kept looking for it through its associated city anyway. That was a quick fix.

On the other hand, I discovered several items that became so big that it was far more sensible to break them off their parent pages onto pages of their own, which is how Fleet Procedures ended up on a new page from Fleet, which is where basic facts about the organization live.

The other nice thing about your wiki is that it doesn’t have to conform to any standard, and nothing you do has to be permanent. I had a group of friends that went on to do things together… where one went, the others were usually along for the ride. So I made a page for them as a group: “Jahir’s Retinue.” Is this a formal organization? Not yet. Will I always need a page to group them together? Maybe not. But for now, it’s fantastic to be able to type ‘Jahir’s retinue’ into search and get all those people in one place. And if one day, that retinue is disbanded, then I can move or delete that page, and relegate their prior service to a biographical section on their pages.

I feel that last point is particularly important: that you should feel okay about making completely nonsensical or whimsical-seeming pages that will only be useful to you, and only for as long as you need them. The point isn’t for your writer’s bible to function as a formal encyclopedia. It’s for it to be useful to you, whatever that means.

Which brings me to a theme underlying several of these points that needs to be made explicit: it’s better to get it wrong than to not do it at all. Wikis are forgiving; they maintain a log of all the changes made and allow you to rollback to any version of that history. Given that, there’s no reason not to make pages and flail around until you figure out what you’re doing… and every reason to do that flailing. You can’t work with something that doesn’t exist, so it’s better for your information to be awkward or in the wrong spot or even incorrectly named than it is to not have it there at all. You can always fix it. But until you have it down, you probably won’t know how.

That’s really one of the magical things about wikis: they reward flailing. They reward mistakes. Most of us don’t know all the things in our heads, or the relative importance of their relationships to other things, until we start making those things concrete and visible… and a wiki is a great way to start putting those things down in a form that allows us to see those relationships and decide what about them matters.

A brief digression about wikis as a technology. Most of us think of Wikipedia when we think of a wiki, and that’s a good example of one: it’s clean, easy to use, and feels like an encyclopedia. It’s not a bad mental model for what a wiki is, though what it actually is, is a database. (Here are my heart eyes, because who doesn’t love a database?). The reason it can be so hard to wrap your head around how to get started with a wiki is because it will cheerfully do and organize itself however you decide: it’s the ‘too much freedom’ problem. My suggestion, if you’re going at it for writer’s bible-purposes, is to keep the Wikipedia framing in mind and think of it as an encyclopedia. It has entries (pages) about topics, with accompanying illustration, and links within it are the equivalent of a paper encyclopedia writing “see also This Entry.”

Some of you haven’t ever used a paper encyclopedia, and… um… you probably don’t need my lecture on wikis because you understand them natively. Lol.

Another good example of a wiki framing: TVTropes. No I won’t link there, so if you go and get lost, don’t blame me. But if you do go there, take notes, because that’s an interesting, alternate use of a similar framework.

Okay, resuming the how-to. One of the great things about wikis is that, if you make them public, you will sometimes attract help! (Particularly if you ask for it, though not always.) By design, wikis are meant to be group-editable, which is one of the reasons their tools for repair are so robust. Unless you go to lengths to prevent it, people will be able to make accounts and contribute to your wiki. Which brings me to the most important principle regarding other people’s help: Volunteers are a source of chaos, and chaos is revelatory.

Just as readers bring themselves to your work when they engage with it, they bring themselves to their efforts on a wiki. They’ll have their own areas of interest, and their own experiences with the software, and their own ideas. It will be tempting to give anyone who shows up marching orders: “I really need this data” and “I want it organized this way.” But if you do that, you will shut down any ideas they would generate, and their ideas may be better than yours. Take the wiki’s infinite capacity for restoration to heart—anything you dislike or find awkward, you can adjust or fix, and no one’s going to argue with you about it because it’s your site. But as much as possible, when people show up and want to help, let them decide how and let that educate you… about the software (as I was, by one volunteer’s suggestion about Category Tree); about organization (someone made a section for family trees under biographical data, and that was brilliant); and even about the canon (someone made me a martial arts page, when I never thought I had enough data about martial arts to warrant one—I was wrong).

Besides if you let them have their heads, they make stubs like the one at the top of this page, and that’s worth any pain and suffering. 😆

If you have no volunteers, you can “borrow” this random seed by examining how other people organize their writer’s bibles, wikis, or data… which is how my template for planets got borrowed from the CIA’s World Factbook. (Also not my idea.) (Also brilliant.)

And for those of you who are thinking ‘does that mean I can borrow your ideas,’ the answer is ‘of course.’ 😊

Finally, a related principle, and really the most important one: your canon is your responsibility. The moment you start worldbuilding, you’re the one in charge, and that means to you devolve the pleasures of creating it… and the responsibilities of maintaining it. Eventually, you will have people point out errors to you, and those will be your fault, and their fixing will be as well, whether you fix them by addressing them or by washing your hands of them. There will be times where you change something and will have to stand by it even when it distresses people who didn’t want you to make those changes… and there will be times where people will want to help you with obscure projects you didn’t realize were useful, like recording every meal you’ve ever had your characters eat, or every time you’ve mentioned someone’s relative height, or how every minor character who’s ever died kicked that bucket, and if you accept their help (and why shouldn’t you, because you will learn a great deal!) it does not relieve you of the ultimate responsibility. The buck stops with you. It will never be anyone else’s fault, but on the other hand, it will never be anyone else’s glory, either, so at least there are compensations.

That, for now, is my advice on how to use a wiki for a writer’s bible, and the organizational properties that make mine useful. I’m about 600 content pages into this endeavor, and not even a little bit done, so I’m sure there’s a lot more to learn ahead of me…! And please, hit me with your questions; as you can see, your questions inspire entries, and I’m happy to write them. If I can spare people the problems I run into, I want to.

More Stuff I’ve Learned From Wiki Editing

We are over a month into our work (and I need to call it our work given how many people are pitching in), and I continue to find it illuminating. Here are my latest observations!
People really *don’t* notice typos/continuity errors. I’ve heard it said that readers completely gloss over errors and typos if they’re engaged in a story, and I accepted that must be true without realizing how extensive that blind spot is. It’s like tunnel vision: the more intent the audience is on what’s interesting them, the more detail they demote to the status of distractions. My books have teams of proofreaders, sometimes between 6 and 18 of them, and they catch dozens of typos… but they are more likely to catch typos than to catch other kinds of errors. The minor character whose name was spelled three different ways across his series was not a fluke: at least six other minor characters have had multiple spellings of their names without anyone emailing me to complain about them, or even realizing it until they started reading the books for research purposes.
Are there people who notice these errors and find them so annoying they stop reading my books without pausing to leave a negative review or send an email? I’m sure. Are they vastly outnumbered by the people who didn’t even see those errors? I have absolutely no doubt. I’ve gone from ‘don’t beat yourself up about spelling this guy’s last name Levy, Lery, and Leary because your brain has only so much capacity and you exceeded it a decade and a half ago’ to ‘don’t beat yourself up about spelling this guy’s last name Levy, Lery, and Leary because 90%+ of the people reading don’t care.’ 
The people who do notice even the smallest details are going to tell you about them, of course, because that’s the type of person they are. But even those people are missing something when they send you their laundry list of errors, because their tunnel vision is going to exclude an entirely different set of data.
Does that mean I shouldn’t try to make the background as consistent as possible? Of course not, because I’m a perfectionist. But it has been illuminating to realize how many errors completely flew under the radar, and no one cared or noticed.
The reason why your favorite author can’t write a good ending or finish a series is probably because the background material overwhelmed them.This is a problem I have wiggled around (sometimes by means of truly wild gyrations) by having multiple series within a setting and overarching story arc. While it took research to maintain the continuity within Dreamhealers, or Her Instruments, or Princes’ Game, it required far less work than if those books had been sequential installments in a single series. I could see, out of the corner of my eye, the looming horror that was trying to stitch all those series together, logically, but I never had to make them perfectly align because they were happening to different people in different places, and hey, planets conveniently have different day-and-year lengths so I have lots of wiggle room! (Have I mentioned the wiggling yet.)
But the more data I put into this central repository, the more it boggles me that I was managing it with a few sketchbooks and Evernote entries. Princes’ Game is the longest of the in-setting series I’ve written and by the final installment I was making reams of notes, and re-reading all the prior books (and some of the books of the other series) and making more notes, and drawing notes, and creating diagrams and charts, and did I mention the notes? 
None of this stuff went into a database, which meant that all that research became more things I would have to re-read and re-evaluate and make more notes on if I wanted to keep writing.
The wiki is a database, and even then it’s astonishing how much stuff there is that needs tracking. I think I was modifying the Fleet beachhead page when it occurred to me that the doomful feeling I had when confronting the writing of From Ruins—a relatively simple task as the capstone of a six-book series—is what must be stopping authors from confronting the ending of any complex series. The writers who continually build the tension in every succeeding book, adding more and more issues, characters, and details, might be looking back on all that preceding work and having a panic attack at the prospects of having to pick out all the loose and dangling ends for wrap-up. They might not even have the first idea how to do that wrap-up. It’s the opposite of writing yourself into a corner: it’s writing yourself into a room with too many doors. Adding more new things becomes easier than resolving old things, particularly when doing so might require the contradiction of previous challenges.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard this problem discussed at length in writing advice columns or seminars: that you can write yourself to a point where ending your series becomes an insoluble challenge, because you just don’t have the brainpower to get your head around all the inputs to your equation. It makes finishing a complex story the equivalent of writing a doctoral dissertation, with all the commensurate research. 
While I know there are writers who enjoy it, I personally did not get into fiction writing because I like spending days doing detailed research. Research is the thing I get over quickly so I can keep writing. Which brings me to:
The reason no one edits Big Name Authors is because the editing process becomes more akin to a researcher’s. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard ‘so and so’s editor has stopped editing them because they’re famous but they really need someone to cut this book down to size!’ But when I recall the times I’ve said that myself, it’s always about a series author, and usually not about the first book in the series. It’s invariably book three or book twenty-six and the assumption is “because this author is a proven money-maker no one wants to joggle their elbow.” Looking at it now, I think it’s more “this person’s story has become so large that editing it properly requires research across all of their books.”
People who are good at broad story evaluation—the kind of editors who say ‘this ending falls flat because you didn’t set it up right in the beginning’ or ‘this character’s death doesn’t work because it contradicts this emotional tone you’re aiming for’—are not necessarily the kind of editors who are good at “I need to comb through Books 1-4 to see if you mentioned whether this technology could be installed on this size ship.” Being able to dissect a story’s structure and evaluate its emotional impact is a separate skill from the meticulous record-keeping a proofreader does. A proofreader’s job is time-consuming and specific, so you can’t expect the same person to be able to do the same level of work on separate authors’ books. If you hire someone to check a bestseller’s 50-book canon for continuity, they will become an expert in that bestseller’s canon at the expense of the time they would have used to become an expert in some new bestseller’s canon. You can’t interchange that widget. 
That makes continuity-type proofreaders too expensive for most people to employ (no matter if it’s a single author or a publishing house). The editor’s not going to have the time or skillset to do it. And since a bestselling author is often going to remain a bestselling author even if his books are lopsided or too infodumpy or not perfectly shaped, it’s easier to give the book a once-over and hope it passes muster than it is to do serious work on it.
If this kind of consistency is to be maintained, it’s not going to happen after the fact. The author has to guarantee it prior to handing it to other people. And, as I’ve said, few authors have the brain capacity to keep all those details handy, so they end up either doing what I did (and making many errors that luckily most people don’t notice) or they freeze up and stop writing.
I feel a lot of sympathy for both those authors and those editors now that I understand the scope of their problems. And it’s not an easy to solve one, or people would be teaching/talking about it casually. No one does, though. You will find thousands of books about how to finish your first story, but let us count the books that will teach you how to handle this type of problem. I bet it’s a section, and it says “Keep a series bible in a separate document.”
Yeah. Good luck with that. -_-
*** 
I could probably write a book’s worth of entries on ‘what the wiki has taught me’ and ‘why I’m so lucky that people are willing to help me with it.’ But I do keep learning, I’m still lucky, and my volunteers are still awesome, so I guess I’ll keep going. Let me know when I start boring you. *grin* Also check out those volunteers! I add more of them every week. Y’all the bestest. 💖

The Point at Which Every Author Needs Help

 

A few days ago I made mention of the Pelted Historical Society and the portraits I was doing for its members as a thank-you for their assistance. It’s been a while since I’ve talked about the Historical Society, so this feels like a good opportunity.

There are, at present, 27 books in the Peltedverse setting (not counting the one I just finished and have not yet published), and some number of short stories I haven’t enumerated and have failed to collect into books. I did a rough count and it comes to about 9300 pages. In addition to the published fiction, there are two pieces of published nonfiction (the Summaries and the Guidebook), all my notes in various notebooks and sketchbooks and files on computers stretching for more than 25 years, and the new vignettes and partially written pieces that are sitting on my hard drive, waiting their turn in the queue for completion. I also have the older pieces waiting to be rewritten so they can be added to the published canon… Zafiil alone would add another 1026 pages to the total.

I’d like to say that if I’d been a smart author I would have planned from the beginning for the sprawl of my main setting, particularly since as an ambitious teen I was absolutely planning to turn the Peltedverse into a creative empire. But Young Me was born at a time when you took notes on paper, and then later, if you were well off, saved them on enormous floppy discs… and then on harder floppy discs, and then on CD-ROM drives, and all in a succession of different programs that became obsolete and unreadable as technology marched on. There are media in my closet that I’d have to send to a specialized service to be read (I’m looking at you, Syquest cartridge, among others), and getting that DVD back wouldn’t guarantee I’d be able to read the resultant files because the programs used to make them are long gone.

Younger Jaguar strived diligently throughout the years, but there’s no helping it if the database you made on your Apple IIe in the 80s reads as gibberish in 2020.

Granted that, I have to deal with what I’ve got after the fact. The horses have left the barn, and there were so many of them I was lucky to get a rough notion of their numbers before they escaped and started breeding in obscure corners of the property. And maybe if the Peltedverse had been a tidy little universe set in a single town, with only a handful of people in it, I might have been able to get my arms around it… but its cast list is in the hundreds (conservatively), the timeline covers multiple planets and nations, and I like detail so in addition to basic information like people’s eye color I’ve also made up chains of stores, cuisines local to tiny parts of separate planets, products as specific as holographic riding horses and series of fake books by multiple authors, languages with minor dialects, movie stars, cocktails, and fancy resorts.

Now, there might be, in this human populace, someone with a memory prodigious enough to keep all this stuff straight in their heads. I am not that person: I am lucky to remember my own birthday, or what I just ate. In the past, my method for maintaining the continuity of the setting was… are you ready… to read every single Peltedverse book prior to writing the next. Which worked great as a method when there were three, or five, or ten Peltedverse books, because I read quickly. But I am standing on the precipice of Book 28, with another four waiting right behind it and about a dozen more behind them, and even if I could fit in an entire re-read before writing a new book there are now so many books that I begin to forget the details of Book 2 when I’m on Book 16. It’s just too big a job for any one person. Or even any two or three. Certainly it’s too large a job for this Jaguar. But I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard, because I’m not the first author I’ve heard of who’s started relying on their readers for help… and for every series writer who visibly thanks the readers who’ve helped them with continuity, I bet there are ten who are relying on those readers without advertising it.

The Pelted Historical Society, then, grew out of my need for that help, and as the canon grows, so have the Society’s endeavors. It started with timeline sanitizing, and while that’s still ongoing, it’s also grown a dramatis personae arm. There are now Society members who specialize in answering my ad hoc questions (“Did I mention this at any point?” “You did, yes, I just read that part in this book.”)… and Society members whose expertise lies in asking me questions. (“You implied this in previous books… is this an error or are you adding complexity?”) No one reader has all the answers, but the group is stronger than any one individual, and even a person adding one or two notes to the database is making an enormous difference to the whole effort.

I feel like this bears repeating: for myself, because I hadn’t realized it until this moment, but for everyone else too. At some point, an author can no longer get by on their brain alone, or on the services of only an editor, and maybe a proofreader. There’s a reason authors of long-running series or settings have such active reader communities. There might be a few authors out there so meticulous and well-organized that they have all the data they need in a series bible they’ve been maintaining—and updating—since they’ve begun, but with rare exception I’m betting the overwhelm gets to us all… if not on Book 28, then on Book 50.

That’s why I like drawing portraits of my Historical Society members, and why I had a sticker made for them (which I can’t wait to send them), and why I’m always brainstorming new ways to thank them. (Look for the newest one in my forthcoming novel!) As the Peltedverse expands, they will continue to become more important to the quality of the fiction that reaches retailers, and I think they should be justly proud of it. I know I couldn’t do it without them, and I’m grateful for the help.

Anyone can join the Society! The timeline and cast databases are Google docs that are group-edited; the ‘asking me questions’ function is mostly done by first readers perusing novel drafts, and the ‘me asking questions’ usually happens on Discord. But no one should feel limited by pre-existing efforts. If you’re really into genealogy and want to generate family trees for all the Eldritch as your personal project, I’m not going to say no. Ditto if you decide it would be interesting to track all the ships in Fleet I’ve mentioned so far. Someone who is fascinated by all the landmarks, locations, or fancy restaurants and wants to jot them all down is welcome to do so (and to ask their friends to help them). I have people updating the vocabulary lists for various languages as I mention words in those languages in the text, and people writing down every food I’ve mentioned in any Pelted story (because they want to make some of it!). All of that is cool by me. Just let me know, and I’ll give you access, or point you at people who might be interested in helping.

Does this mean the canon will be completely error-free? Absolutely not. But will it be more consistent than it would be otherwise? That would be an unqualified yes.

If you’re currently helping with the Society, make sure you add yourself to the portrait request document! I’ll sketch you on one of my streams. And thank you all. You’re the best readers.

The Jaguar on “How to Review Stuff”

I often hear people say they feel weird about reviewing things they like because they don’t know what to say. This came up in the Discord chat the other day, and after our discussion someone said, “Hey, you should write this up because it is helpful!” So here’s a brief run-down on how I review things (with examples!). You might choose to review differently…! This is just my methodology

Decide Why You’re Reviewing

This is the number one thing you have to figure out before reviewing anything: why are you doing this? Some folks review in order to put things in a cultural or historical context (think of Roger Ebert’s movie reviews, and how he used them to educate people on the lineage of film tropes and narrative/directorial techniques). Some folks review to warn people off of things.

My time is limited, so I choose to review only to tell people about awesome stuff I want to share. I’d rather not waste my time thinking about things that didn’t work for me or that I don’t want to have more publicity. So my goal, when I review, is matching a particular thing up with the people who will enjoy it most.

How do I do this? I imagine myself responding to friends who’ve said things like, “I wish more stories had good sibling relationships in them, as well as romantic ones.” Or “I’m so tired of billionaire romances that ignore class issues.” Or “I love “found family” stories!” That leads me to step 2:

Figure Out What’s Cool or Unusual About What You’re Reviewing

I tend to make a list of all the things about what I’m reviewing that strike me as really neat or worth commentary.

  • “This story’s theme was ‘kindness is rewarded.’ You don’t see that much anymore.”
  • “This story has giant cats in it. Win.”
  • “This story has interesting portrayals of particular subcultures in it.”
  • “Hey, they go into detail on how to sail ships of the line! That’s neat!”
  • “I feel like they really did their research on this one. It feels authentic.”
  • “I liked the tone of this story. It was upbeat without feeling naive.”
  • “The writing on this one was really tight. I never felt like the author wandered into corners and got lost.”
  • “So many descriptions of delicious food in this story. NOM.”

So, for instance, if I was recommending the original Star Trek to someone, I’d go with: ‘it’s multicultural (and multi-species! It’s got aliens!); it’s optimistic, and assumes that humanity is going to survive to spread out into space and make friends everywhere; and the Kirk/Spock/McCoy bromance triad is really neat… it’s nice to see that dynamic.’

Add Warnings, if Applicable

As with my own fiction, I don’t want to attract people to something I think is cool who will have trouble with it. So if a story is difficult, I always warn people. “This TV series is brutal because…” “This movie has these triggers, but I think it’s worth watching anyway because it’s not gratuitous/deals with the issues well…” “This author likes to kill characters you like, so be prepared…”

You want to make sure people know what they’re getting into, because few people like unpleasant surprises and (as I said for myself), my goal is to connect cool stuff with people who’ll like it. Not to rec stuff to people who will get angry at it/feel betrayed/be traumatized by it!

Finally, Give a Sense of What Kind of Experience It Is

Is it a Saturday afternoon popcorn read? Something relaxing and fun and fluffy? Is it epic, intense, and liable to keep you up until 3 AM biting your nails? Is it deep and thoughtful and poignant, inspiring important questions? Is it gentle and affirming? The goal of this part of the review is to give people the chance to decide where they’ll fit it into their schedules. If someone isn’t really big into nailbiting epics, or if they don’t have time for them, they should know that first. But if someone’s looking for that, well… then they’ll know this is it!

This is also a good time to mention how long the thing is, how much time/brainpower it uses up to experience it, and whether you’re going to need time to get over a story hangover afterwards.

Reviews Don’t Have to Be Long to Be Useful

If you follow the steps above, you might end up with a review of several paragraphs (like the one I did for Rowyn’s A Rational Arrangement: https://www.amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R3KUO1ESQFYAQL/ref=cm_cr_dp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=B0109K63A6). Or it might be really short, like the one I did for Blair McGregor’s Sand of Bone: https://www.amazon.com/gp/review/R1IGI1RW1RJ0UE?ref_=glimp_1rv_cl

Length is not the best metric for measuring the usefulness of a review, so don’t feel like you need to pad a review to make it count. Consider my “review” of the original Star Trek. Here’s how it would play if I finished it up: “I love this TV series because it is fun, and portrays an optimistic future for humanity, one that’s multicultural both in its human characters and aliens. The three central characters have an awesome bromance thing going on. The series sometimes tackles difficult topics, but always with an inspiring message that humanity can overcome its obstacles…. Nevertheless, it never takes itself too seriously. The episodes don’t have to be watched in any particular order, because they each stand alone. You will feel excited about the future after watching these shows. Also, you will end up on Team Kirk, Spock, or McCoy, and that will give you something to debate with your friends.”

One paragraph. You could probably fit a review into a sentence or two if you wanted: “I like Star Trek because it’s optimistic science fiction that’s also multicultural, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Plus, Vulcans.”

But Does This Work For Things Besides Stories??

“I love maple water because it’s got the mouthfeel of water but with a hint of complex sweetness, like a memory of maple syrup. It’s got a ton of manganese in it, though, so you don’t want to OD on it because you’ll hit your RDA really, really fast. But it’s great if you want a drink with just a touch of flavor, but not too many calories: think ‘light and refreshing and good for cooling off in the sun’ (like coconut water) and not ‘warm and heavy and comforting’ (like hot chocolate).

Also, it’s literally tree sap. How cool is that??”

***

Anyway. That’s how the jaguar reviews things. Maybe it’ll help you figure out how you want to review things, so you can connect the stuff you really like with other people who might want to discuss it with you endlessly and happily because they thought it was awesome too. <3

You can has schedule! Lookit all that Peltedverse stuff coming. *rubs hands together* I hope you’re as excited as I am. 😀

In between writing and editing and writing and putting together marketing fluff, I’ve been making cellphone charms. Because tiny = adorable.

I was kind of messing with it until I thought of how many people read Earthrise and say something like “I need a Flitzbe of my very own”…

Yesssss. Coming soon. *does dance*