ghost raven worldbuilding writing

Head down, bum up, build a world

I hate worldbuilding.

Well, okay, ‘hate’ is too strong a word. ‘Don’t enjoy or care about’ is probably more accurate. As I’ve mentioned before, my taste in fantasy runs less to Tolkien and more to Borges, who emphasised the ability to create ‘poetic faith’ in the reader rather than convince them that anything they were reading was or pretended to be ‘real’. Fiction is all about making things up, and I like to acknowledge that.

And that’s all well and good in theory, but I’m writing a fantasy novel right now, and worldbuilding isn’t optional. I get that – fantasy is based on things are not as you know, and any kind of consistent narrative has to position the reader in a space where the impossible, magical turns feel not just believable but justified. Events are supported by the setting, and the setting is in turn defined by events. Also, fantasy readers really, really care about worldbuilding, and I’d like them to buy read my book. So Raven’s Blood is making me confront my antipathy towards worldbuilding and work to overcome it, and that’s something I’d like to talk about – not just tonight, but for maybe the next half-dozen posts, assuming y’all don’t get bored.

To begin, let’s talk about what worldbuilding actually means and how you (and by you I mean me) go about it.

Look anywhere online and you’ll see that worldbuilding can be approached from two directions – top down and bottom up, both of which sound slightly homoerotic. (And there’s nothing wrong with that.) But in truth they’re less about manlove than about direction and priority.

If you’ve never heard of these two approaches, well, Wikipedia has a pretty good article on them and you should read that. But in summary, top-down means starting on the large macro scale – city, country, world, ENTIRE UNIVERSE OMG – and determining its parameters, then drilling down through the implications to detail things on an ever-smaller level until you reach the boundaries of your story. Going bottom-up means starting on the local level and filling in the details as you go, building upwards and adding on detail as the story or focus moves. Both approaches have value, and they have more in common than some people think – because let’s face it, in both cases you’re just making things up. On the whole, though, it seems like most fantasy authors like the top-down approach – to start with the world writ large and then pushing through to see the way that world shapes the story within.

I, of course, have to be different. I’m bottom up all the way AND STOP SNIGGERING UP THE BACK THERE.

I’ve done top-down world design before, though – as part of my freelance RPG writing days. I’m thinking of the World of Darkness but even more of Freeport, which were created from day one to support a range of possible stories. Because that’s the way top-down approaches go – you make a world (or a country, or city etc) and then find or develop stories within that platform, and that’s what you need in an RPG setting, a platform and toolkit for making your own stories. In fact, I’d probably go so far as to say that commercial RPG worldbuilding has to be top-down – it’s what the market wants and it’s the only way to make a setting sourcebook broadly useful. On the other hand, I think most RPG campaigns tend to be bottom-up on some level, because in actual play you start fleshing out and exploring a core narrative thread and building new details around it.

Incidentally, I just want to mention that I’m totally goddamn stoked by the news today that Evil Hat and Green Ronin are teaming up for a Fate Core Companion for Freeport! Well, they will team up for one if the Fate Core Kickstarter reaches its next stretch goal, and I really hope it does. It’s a great, flexible game system, and I remain incredibly proud of the work I did on the Pirate’s Guide to Freeport, perhaps the single best bit of game writing I ever did.

So if either of those things appeal to you, you should put ten bucks into the Kickstarter. You’ll get a whole lot of gaming for bugger-all cash.

Now, back to the meandering.

From my POV, worldbuilding is always about invention. Sometimes it’s about exploring implications, sure, but it’s exploring the implications of things you decide to include in the first place. So top-down versus bottom-up is less about scale and scope and more about workload and direction. It’s about whether you make them up before or as you need them, and whether you start with the things that should be in there and then move to the things you want to be in there or vice versa. Neither is better than the other.

But I struggle with top-down creation, as both a writer and reader, because of the implication that the story presented at the end is a story that can be told in that world, not the story that must be told. I can’t shake that niggling lack of urgency that comes with knowing that the world is a bigger canvas than this one painting; the choice to focus on this particular narrative feels spurious on some level, and I find it harder to connect with what’s going on. I have the same problem sometimes with RPGs, although there it manifests as dithering and paralysis as I try to justify a specific choice of ideas to myself – why this, rather that that? And so I have to cut down the setting info I take in or acknowledge until I reach a point where the options are curtailed and a specific narrative thread seems not just logical but unavoidable.

Yeah. It’s weird. I know.

So in building the world of Raven’s Blood, I’m going bottoms-up all the way.

I started with what I knew I wanted – a story about a brave girl, a weary hero and a terrible threat. And I’ve let the story and the character dictate the world around – well, the city around them (Crosswater) to be exact, with the world behind that sketched in as lightly as I could get away with. I knew I wanted a story about the aftermath of conflict, so Crosswater still bears the scars of war. I knew I wanted an inhuman enemy and human faces for it, so that war was against the burning Host and their mortal servants – and that in turn led me to sketching a world with dawn-lands and dusk-lands and different societies and spirits in the East and West. I knew I wanted parkour and stunts and weird magic and superheroic action, and I knew I wanted everything to feed back and reinforce the themes I wanted to explore in the story.

And once I knew that, filling in the details was easy. Everything came from what I wanted to write about, rather than what I felt I should include for the sake of verisimilitude. And that may not make a world that feels ‘real’ enough for some readers, but hopefully it makes for a world that feels interesting.

And I for one prefer interesting to real. That’s the whole point of fiction.

The point of all this waffle, of course, is not to say ‘this is the right/best way to write’, because as always there are no best or right ways to write – there are just the ways that work. This works for me. So what works for you? C’mon, leave a comment and tell me you totally disagree with me. That would make me so happy.

(It really would.)

Next week, I’m heading further down the world-building path with the first of two posts about the magic of Crosswater and Raven’s Blood, as well as talking about the point of magic in fantasy stories. Yes, once again I’m defining a whole genre and telling other writers that they’re DOING IT WRONG. I hope you’ll join me.

ghost raven

The Next Big Thing

The Next Big Thing is an ongoing chain letter / blog virus / networking project, where writers answer ten set questions about their current work-in-progress and then tag more writers to do the same a week later.

I was tagged last week by Jason Nahrung, who talked about his amazing-sounding outback vampire novel Blood and Dust; now it’s my turn!

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Raven’s Blood

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

Earlier this year I published The Obituarist, which is a crime novella focusing on social media, technology and identity theft. I wanted to write another short-ish genre piece, but something completely different that could speak to a different audience. Despite reading and enjoying fantasy for decades, I’d never written any, and I started wondering about that genre and what I could possibly say that hadn’t been said a thousand times before. I thought about the ‘hero’s journey’ concept and that made me think about superheroes – because I love superheroes and will think about them given any excuse – and the possibility of bringing some of the conventions and tropes of the supers genre into a traditional fantasy story.

At the same time, I was getting more engaged with Goodreads while talking up The Obituarist, and noticed that YA fiction is huge at that site, with a massive, passionate readership. So I decided it would be worthwhile trying to write a YA story – not (just) because I want to tap that big market, but because I didn’t have any knowledge or experience in the YA subgenre and would have to learn all about it from scratch. Which is a challenge, and I like being challenged.

Once I’d decided on those genre parameters, and that I wanted a story that focused on a teenaged, female protagonist… I dunno, most of the rest of the idea jumped into my head fully-formed, from the start of the book to its end. Ideas do that; they wait for an opening and then they pounce.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Fantasy – specifically YA fantasy, and swords-and-magic YA fantasy at that.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This one’s tricky, because I decided early on that I wanted to get away from some of the ethnic, cultural and gender stereotypes of the fantasy genre. My main characters are of sort-of-kind-of Hispanic/Lebanese/Middle Eastern descent – and to my shame, I don’t know many actors from those areas.



The main protagonist is 17-year-old Kember Arrowsmith, a driven young woman who loves theatre and justice. I think Ivana Baquero would be a great choice; she seems to have so much energy and life, but she can still be serious when it counts. And she was great in Pan’s Labyrinth.

The other primary character – not quite antagonist, but close enough – is her father, Mayor Roland Arrowsmith, an ex-soldier in his late 40s or even early 50s. Serious, brooding, grizzled, weary… you know what? Let’s blow all the way through to pure fantasyland and cast Javier Bardem! We have all the budgets! Give us all the Oscars now!

Oh, and we need to throw in Danny Trejo as Jerrick, a hardbitten and weary Sergeant of the Warrant (city Watch)! And Tristan Wilds as Roland’s assistant (who I haven’t named yet)! And then there’s Idana and the Ghost Raven and the Coglord of the Golem-Men and and and oh god make me stop.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

As inhuman invaders reappear in the city of Crosswater, Kember Arrowsmith searches for the truth about the Ghost Raven, the city’s long-lost masked defender – but can she fight past lies, conspiracies and golem-men to learn his secret?

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

At this stage I’m looking at self-publishing Raven’s Blood as an independent ebook, just as I’ve done with my other projects. But that could certainly change if any publisher/agency wanted to talk to me about putting it out.

You can talk to me anytime, guys.

Our lines are open.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’m still writing it! I got off to a good start with it in June but then got distracted and lazy; I’m back at work on it now and I want to get a first draft nailed down by January. So about four months of actual writing and four months of foot-dragging. Which is much too long, frankly, and I’ll try to get any sequels done in a more timely fashion.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

As previously admitted, I’m a complete dunce about the YA fantasy genre; I haven’t even read any of the Harry Potter novels (and still don’t plan to). I’m slowly fixing that, and I did just read (and enjoy) Garth Nix’s Sabriel, but Raven’s Blood isn’t much like that.

You know what it is like? Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. I never set out in any way to emulate that work, but my story does involve a teenage girl investigating a retired masked crime-fighter as her city begins to crumble into riots and anarchy. There’s a fair amount of overlap in that Venn diagram.

Mind you, I’m not an Islamophobic right-wing fuckbag who can only write female characters as whores, so I think that makes a difference.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I started reading superhero comics when I was eight.

I started playing Dungeons & Dragons when I was twelve.

You want influences? Those are the big ones.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

This is a book where fantasy-Batman wields a +1 sword to fight reverse-Ringwraiths on the rooftops of Elizabethan London.

If that doesn’t sell you on it, nothing will.

But it’s also a story about making your place in the world, about working out who you are and what matters to you. It’s about friendships, and how they can buckle under pressure. It’s about children and parents, and how doing the opposite of what they want is still defining yourself in their terms. It’s about becoming an adult – because, fool that I might be, I kinda think that’s the point of all YA fiction.

Oh, and it has parkour too. Parkour is cool.

Okay, that’s enough out of me – less blogging, more actual writing of said novel.

But next Wednesday (December 5th), you should check in with these four awesome writers and see what they’re working on:

Also, one last quick aside – I’m guest-tweeting all this week and into next week on @WeMelbourne! Follow for, um, much of the same sort of thing you’d get from my regular Twitter account, but more of it!

genre ghost raven writing

Getting my ya-yas out

I don’t understand young-adult (YA) fiction.

I mean, I used to think I did. YA fiction was fiction written for young adults – or teenagers, as we used to call them back in my day. Stories about teenagers, for teenagers, at a teenage reading level. That makes sense, right?

But the eager degree to which less-young adults swoop up and devour YA fiction shows that it’s not as simple as all that. Books like The Hunger Games and Twilight have many, many adult readers, from those in their 20s to those in their 50s. These are stories that resonate with adults, even if adults perhaps do not read them for the same purposes as teenagers – or maybe they do, I don’t know. Look at the way Twilight got snapped up by adult readers, its sexual elements strengthened and made more overt via fanfic, to finally transmogrify into Fifty Shades of Grey and have its pages filled with boners rather than sparkle-vampires while still retaining much of the characterisation and language level of the original. (Or so I assume, anyway, which probably means I’m making an ass of myself, so feel free to correct me.) That suggests that there’s something in those stories (or perhaps the writing approach of those stories) that speaks to adults, and they’ll take those stories and make them theirs by whatever means necessary, often by adding a whole bunch of fucking.

So anyway, many adults read YA fiction and enjoy it. But not me. I read YA books when I was a teenager, but these days I’m in my 40s and pretty much only read adult-adult books. The few times I’ve accidentally started a YA book in the last decade or so, I’ve quickly stopped when I realised that this wasn’t a story that resonated with me. That’s not a judgement on my part… okay, let’s be honest, it probably is a judgement and me looking down on YA books. Because I can be a lit-snob sometimes, even though I try to fight that urge.

But I’m trying to change that, because right now I’m trying to write a YA book, Raven’s Blood. Or, more accurately, what I think might be a YA book. Because, as noted, I don’t read YA and don’t get it. But I think this story might fit nicely into that category, and I’d like to see what working within those genre boundaries is like – which is why I’d like to work out what those boundaries are.

And I think I need some help with that.

So this is not a post where I sit you all down and educate you on what YA really means. This is a post where I hold things up, say ‘Is this it? What about this?’ and hope that you (the collective you) tells me what you think and whether I’m right – or, more importantly, where I’m wrong. Because I mostly learn by getting things wrong.

(I could probably also learn by reading some YA fiction, and I will do that at some point, but I like to get a grounding in theory before moving into practice. Which probably explains why it took so long for me to get a girlfriend in my teens. But I digress.)

This is what I think about when I hear ‘young adult’:


A protagonist that is a teenager, first and foremost, probably around the 17-18 mark. Obviously that varies down a bit (early Harry Potter) and up a little (late Twilight), but nonetheless YA books are almost always about young adults. (Although books about young adults aren’t necessarily YA, of course.) And this makes sense, because the assumed audience want to read about characters that they can personally identify with, characters their own age and with similar problems – making sense of the world, finding love, coping with the fact that their parents are STUPID.

Similarly, the antagonists should be similar to the enemies of teenagers – parents, authority figures, the forces of the adult world that try to dictate and reshape their lives before they’re fully-formed. They don’t have to specifically be those people, but they should fill a similar role. Alternatively, the other great enemy of teenagers is always other teenagers, who chip away at their identity and self-image from the other side and occasionally pants you in front of the class. Adults tell you what you should be; teenagers tell you what you shouldn’t be. Both are there to be overcome, possibly with lightning bolts.

Plot and themes

Does ‘coming-of-age story’ make me sound like Cranky Grandpa? Because that’s honestly what I figure most YA stories have – what they should have – at the core of their plots. They should reflect the lives and concerns of teenagers – the quest for identity, the need to love and be loved, the lure of booze and drugs and internet porn, and pretty much everyone in the world trying to tell you what to do and who to be.

Sometimes those concerns are presented as is; other times they’re reflected through genre tropes, so that there are vampires and aliens and spy agencies and killer bears and all of them are trying to boss you around and stop you from seeing that girl you like. Using genre like this is fun and makes for an engaging story, but can also let you use tropes as metaphors for the sturm und drang of teenage life. From that POV, it makes sense that so many YA stories are dystopias – growing up is always about inheriting the world that older people already fucked up.

And at the end of the story, the teenage protagonist should be that bit closer to adulthood – an adulthood hopefully defined on their terms, rather than just their parents’ or society’s terms. Unless it’s one of those books with a really bummer ending.

Prose style

Look, this is the point where people are going to tell me I’m an arsehole, because my first thought when I hear ‘YA’ is ‘unsophisticated writing style’.

Not, I want to be clear, an unpolished or poorly-written style – just one that is pitched at a teenage reading level. A style that primarily promotes an accessibility of voice and language, that clearly describes the appearance of people and places in mentally-reproducible details, that presents the characters and story and then gets out of the way. It is not the kind of thing we get from Don deLillo or Milorad Pavic, is what I’m saying. (Although now I’m wondering how you could use Pavic’s ergodic approach on YA fiction – like a longer, more complex Choose Your Own Adventure story. Hmm.)

This is certainly the bit where I struggle with YA, because I like my prose to be interesting in and of itself, as both writer and reader. I don’t much like transparent writing; I like stunt-writing that shows off its tricks and puts technique in the spotlight, which is not what I think YA is about.

And this is where I draw my line in the sand between the two books I’m writing right now, Arcadia and Raven’s Blood. Both are about young women trying to define themselves and their place in the world, but they have very different prose styles. Arcadia is all about exploring voice, the use of nested narratives, drawing story from structure – all that kind of high-falutin’ stuff that is probably going to alienate or irritate a lot of adult readers, let alone teenagers. Raven’s Blood, meanwhile, is where I’m trying to write in a clear, straightforward style (with occasional dips into moderate ornament), and that’s why I think that it could be considered YA and why it’s worthwhile trying to write more towards that genre and that market. Once, you know, I actually understand it.

So these are the elements I think of when I think about YA fiction. Am I right or wrong? How would you define the genre – or would you even bother? Most of all, if you’re a YA reader – why do you read it, and what about it speaks to you? If any of what I’ve written is correct, why do those elements appeal to you as an adult reader?

Get in there and leave comments, people – I’d really appreciate it.

(Seriously, comment. I don’t get enough comments, and it leaves me feeling like I’m typing into a void and that the world is empty and the darkness has leaked down from the moon to drown everyone else’s souls and I’m alone SO ALONE if a trees falls onto the blog and nobody comments then my words don’t make a sound.)

appearances ghost raven

Down the Rabbit Hole and out the other side

It’s Sunday night and I feel like someone has blasted my head off.

In a good way.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times, the Emerging Writers Festival has been rolling all week, and this weekend was my turn to do my part. My job was to act as leader of the online Rabbit Hole group – a team of 20 writers each trying to write 30 000 words in two-and-a-bit days. There were physical teams in Brisbane, Melbourne and Hobart, who got to congregate in quiet rooms to clack-clack their keyboards in peace; my guys, on the other hand, were scattered across the country and writing from their homes and bedrooms, from public libraries and in public toilets. Well, maybe not that last part.

As part of my approach, I decided to start work on a new project and write alongside my team to lead by example. Did I write 30 000 words? No, not a chance. I wrote some stuff, sure, but my focus was and had to be on motivating and encouraging the online team, who didn’t have a space free from interruptions or the constant supporting presence of other writers around them. All we had was Facebook. The EWF set me up with a number of prizes and tools, and I did my best to use them to keep the online team members in the zone and laying down the words – which, in the end, took up way too much time to leave a whole lot for my own writing, and that’s just as is should be. I shucked, I jived, I coached, I cheerleaded (cheerled?), I handed out LOLcats and I USED CAPSLOCK LIKE IT WAS MANDATORY.

And in return, my team… my team…


There isn’t a word that works here other than incredible. I was gobsmacked by the output of my team members and how they just knuckled down and wrote, no matter what. We started at 6pm on Friday; by 8pm almost all of them had blasted through the 1000 word mark and many of them had written more than 3000 words. Then a bunch of them hit the 10 000 word mark by Saturday evening. Then some of them smashed the 20K mark this morning. And by the time we wrapped up at eight o’clock this evening three of them had clocked the 30 000 mark, which I swear I thought would be impossible. But I was wrong, wrong, WRONG. Because they didn’t let anything short of being thrown out of their space or having to go to hospital to get their appendix out (both of these things happened) stop them from writing everything they could. Writing like it was the one way to find God.

Collectively, my group of fifteen word soldiers laid down more than 250 000 words in twenty-two hours. Short stories, whole novellas, chunks of novels. Most of it’s not ready for prime time yet, sure. But it’s there, and they did it, and nothing can diminish that achievement.

I thought it was going to be an uphill battle. I thought I could lead by example and encourage others to follow along. What hubris. Instead, my team showed me that they don’t need encouragement or spot prizes or cheerleading; all they needed was a chance to put their knuckles up and fight. And everyone single one of them won the bout, no matter how much they wrote.

Getting to be there, to help them, to simply witness their dedication… it’s inspired me.

It’s inspired me to write.

If you’d like to see some of the work the Rabbit Hole team produced over the weekend, we set up a Tumblr to showcase work from the writers who produced more than 20 000 words over the course of the event.

Also, now I know how Tumblr works. Hmm.

Also at the EWF this week I did a quick walk-on at the Revenge of the Nerds slide night to sing for a few seconds about Community with my awesome friend Ben McKenzie. Then we had beers. It was good.

And today I rocked up to the Future Bookstore Open Mic, where the host graciously gave me enough time to read the entire first chapter of The Obituarist to the audience. Which confirmed for those present that I am terrible at reading aloud – I talk too fast, I slur my words and I try to use different voices for different characters and just end up sounding drunk. I got some laughs towards the end of the piece, which possibly means there were more jokes in that bit – or that I’d slowed down enough for people to understand what I was saying. Hard to be sure. Anyway, that wasn’t my finest hour, but it was worth the try.

And while I didn’t manage to write 30 000 words over the weekend, I did manage something – I started a new novella! Called Raven’s Blood, it takes inspiration from two of my favourite things – Batman and Dungeons & Dragons – to kick off a possible trilogy of pulp-fantasy-YA-adventure stories. I think it’ll be YA.

Look, to be honest I’m not entirely sure what makes a book YA or what that label actually means, and I think that’s something I’d like to discuss in a future blog post. But it’s a story about a teenage girl trying to find her place in the world and I’m not using any of the usual swear words, so that’s probably a start, right?

Raven’s Blood is the story of Kember Arrowsmith, a seventeen-year-old tearaway in the city of Crosswater who’s in constant trouble as a member of a scandalous and semi-seditious theatre troupe. The only thing that saves her from harsher punishment is the fact that her father is Roland Arrowsmith, hero of the War Against the Host and now Mayor of the city. But when a dead man in a cloak of feathers gives her a message and then burns to ashes, Kember must find out what evil is stirring under the bridges of Crosswater – and what happened to the Ghost Raven, the masked avenger that once fought supernatural terrors and crime lords in the city’s shadows.

Here’s a slice from halfway into the first chapter:

The dead man was wrapped in a cloak of feathers, mostly black but speckled here and there with shades of grey or white – and all tinged red with spatters of blood. Two crossbow bolts protruded from his side, plunged deep into brown leather that had proved too thin to deflect them. The hood of the cloak had fallen back to show his face, but it was hidden under a black mask, a broad domino that flared sharp at the sides of his face.

The younger watchman took a step forward, slowly, almost like a step to genuflect in Chapel. ‘He’s dressed like… do you think it’s him?’ he asked.

‘Pull your head from your arse, boy,’ Jerrick snapped back. ‘He’s been gone for ten years and more!’

‘But I’ve heard stories…’

‘Swive your stories! Do your damn’ed job! Here, hold this rascal girl while I take a proper look!’ And with that Jerrick thrust Kember forward into his subordinate’s arms. The watchman staggered back, his grip loose as he fumbled with his sword, and if there was a time for Kember to escape it was now.

But she did not take it.

Jerrick bent to the side of the corpse, pears and witchberries breaking to pulp under his knees, to peel away the mask from the man’s face. Under the black felt was the face of a man in his mid-twenties or so, his eyes closed, his forehead marked with a scar.

‘I know this man,’ Jerrick said under his breath. And Kember said nothing, because she thought she recognised the face too. The face that suddenly sprang to life, eyes snapping open to fix on her, mouth opening to gasp and then croak, ‘Tell him! Tell him! The golem-men of Bridgedown, they found it! They –’

Whatever he had left to say choked off in his throat, though his mouth stayed open. More, it opened wider and wider, as did his eyes that rolled in terror and agony. He locked eyes with Kember and she could not look away as a light began to burn in his sockets, in his mouth, through his skin as it outlined his bones.

A light that blazed white through red, so bright and pure that Kember had to pinch her eyes near-shut to stand it. A light too bright for the world to tolerate.

She knew what would happen next. Every child knew what would happen next. The light would burn and burn, burn away the flesh and blood of the man, burn his bones till they fused to red glass, and then the skeleton would rise to its feet and kill and kill and kill until smashed to glittering pieces. Just as they did during the War.

The language is going to need a thorough revision; I want to make it a bit more ornate, possibly by incorporating some classical thieves’ cant terms, while at the same time keeping it direct and clear. But there are the bones of something here (irony intended) and I think I can have a lot of fun with it.

Not going to jump the gun just yet on how fast I’ll write this or when it’ll be ready; I think I can get a good draft done by the end of July but I’ve also got a lot on my plate over the next two months, including a week in Fiji(!). I’ll talk about it some more later, though, promise.

Next week – Continuum! And a look at what’s been happening with The Obituarist in the month since I published it and what to do with it next. With graphs!