Happy Yuletide! ‘Tis the season to be giving, and so I’ve decided to give my own brain a slight break from the hustle. This week, instead of sorting through tabs or pondering literary devices, I sat down and thought about what has helped me as a writer and creator. I remember my first attempts at writing and shudder a little, glad no one laid eyes on those little horrors, but in reality, writing downright damnable stories led me to improving upon my writing and learning to create better and better content. Along the way, I’ve accumulated some tools that have aided my growth, so for all those aspiring in the art and in the spirit of giving, I give to you my own list (nice, not naughty) of five tools that have helped me as a fantasy writer.
When creating a fantasy world, people often like a visual representation. They like maps. I like maps. If nothing else, it helps me keep track of where various cities and landmarks, mountains and rivers, and such are located so I don’t accidentally forget that giant mountain my characters crossed in Chapter 4 is likely still there when they make their return in Chapter 22. Much to my chagrin, I’m no cartographer so I’ve found the best alternative is Inkarnate, which is a map-making website.
Inkarnate has various base map types, from world maps to city maps, with the ability to add land and water as you please as well as a multitude of “stamps.” “Stamps” are simply individual map details such as mountains, cities, bridges, trees, etc, and they come in various styles. You have the option to add borders, legends, and even decorative background designs to your map to make it more realistic. Inkarnate has quite a nice selection of fonts too with the ability to arrange and curve text boxes to fit around objects like rivers. It also gives you a range of color options for both land and water. Have multiple kingdoms on a continent that you need to demarkate? There are dotted line options for drawing borders, and color options for highlighting the land of one kingdom versus another. Writing a series of fantasy books across a range of kingdoms, I also find Inkarnate incredibly useful in that I can choose a portion of my map and save it as a new map in order to add more detail.
The layout is relatively easy to use, especially if you’ve ever worked with any sort of painting software such as paint.net or Adobe. Saving times are a little lengthy and has me frequently holding my breath and crossing my fingers, so be sure you have a good internet connection. The fact that the maps are stored on Inkarnate’s website is a plus so I can sleep with the peace of mind that my hours-worth of work is safe and can be easily downloaded whenever I need it. There’s a free version, but the Pro version is a beautiful $25/year so it’s an easy investment to make.
Writing an expansive world of different cultures and ethnicities who likely don’t share a common language? Know absolutely nothing about linguistics? No worries, that’s what Vulgarlang is for. It’s a nifty conlang generating website. You can choose your base language—French, Hawaiian, Chinese—alter some aspects and create a whole new unqiue language. If you’re like me and haven’t thought about verb tenses since grade school or the possibility of feminine, masculine, and neuteal nouns since that one semester of Spanish, there’s definitely a bit of a learning curve. Luckily, Vulgarlang constructs verb tenses, pronouns, and the singular and plural forms of nouns for you as well as creating a full fledged glossary of common words for you to pick through. Need a word for “bravery” but can only find the word for “brave” in your new conlang glossary? Vulgarlang provides options for adding suffixes or prefixes to words in order to convert adjectives into nouns or nouns into verbs and so on. It also creates its own sentence structure off the base language you choose (be careful to keep your sentence structure consistent when you use your new language—old language habits die hard).
Feeling overwhelmed already? There’s an option to “Smart Translate” sentences for you, but it’s wise to double check behind the AI because it isn’t 100% perfect. At the very least, the “Smart Translate” is incredibly useful for quickly finding and looking up the words you need instead of painfully weeding through their gigantic glossary. Just check behind the verb tense, plural forms, and sentence structure. It will provide multiple word options if, say, the word you’re translating has more than one meaning. For example, “talk” can be both a verb and a noun so it may well provide two translations for the two different meanings.
Overall, Vulgarlang is absolutely great if you want to create a bit of cultural diversity in your fantasy writing without having to spend years studying linguistics. It’s incredibly affordable at $15 for the basic version and $20 for the pro version. There’s also a limited-word demo version, but signing up allows you to save your newly created conlang to your computer and reload it on their website at any time.
3. TV Tropes
How can I not include TV Tropes? I’ve been using and perusing their menagerie of plot devices since my college days. Founded in 2004, TV Tropes has an unparalleled amount of information on literally every trope that has ever been done in a movie, TV show, book, and web comic with a consistently witty manner and a gazillion references to a trope’s use in various mediums. Not to mention that they provide an endless rabbit hole for would-be authors to waste an absurd amount of time wallowing in potentially useful ideas instead of actually, you know, writing.
Thinking of including a Hive Mind in your book? Or maybe a Mind Hive? Want some particularly terrifying monster for your villain? Check out Mad God or Eldritch Abomination. Wondering just how to turn your good character into a villain? Check out their list on the Face-Heel Turn. Just trying to pin down your Five Man Band? They’ve got pages to suck you in.
“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review
While we all hope and strive to be (and should hope and strive to be) the author who creates something new and fabulous, something that excites the world into reading, something that crosses boundaries and merges genres, I do believe at the end of the day the basic premise of all our stories has assuredly been done before. That’s why I find websites like TV Tropes so useful because it provides a wealth of story devices that have been used broadly and to good effect and can be used again, in perhaps new ways, to good effect. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel to create something magical. And TV Tropes proves that—look up something and see how many different examples are listed of it being done in works so well-known and loved. Having a solid basis in knowing the tropes you’re using opens the door to expounding upon them. Because that’s what writing is – an expounding of ideas from previous ideas, a building of stories upon previous stories.
Or try writing The Tropeless Tale. Smirk.
2. Limyaael’s Fantasy Rants
On the opposite front, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the story of Limyaael, but she was a Live Journal blogger from back in the day who notoriously challenged cliche fantasy writing with a rather witty sense of humor and much cursing and critique. She compiled an enormous list of “fantasy rants” on about every subject imaginable from setting and characterization to werewolves and magic. Not everyone necessarily agrees with her arguments, and the comments section was always a hotbed of discussion; but for me, these rants were absolutely pivotal in weeding out the over-used, poorly executed, one-dimensional writing that beginners like myself so often fall into. It is essentially a “how-not-to” for writers, which sometimes is even more useful than a “how-to.”
I’d read an post critiquing this or that and grimace at myself for doing very similar things in my own writing, things that now looked like giant bulls-eyes for any experienced reader to take shots at. Not only did Limyaael’s rants act as a magnifying glass for my writing flaws, but she often asked questions and prodded creative ideas or even provided scenarios she herself found interesting that inspired me to think further beyond what I knew. After all, fantasy is about pushing the limits of the imagination and making the fantastical believable, right? Even today, when I’m stuck on something or feel some aspect of my writing doesn’t quite sit right, I’ll pull up Limyaael’s Fantasy Rants and read through them if only to get myself thinking from a different perspective. It’s hard as a writer to view your own creations as anything but months or years of soul-pouring dedication, so having such an outside perspective can be crushingly necessary to ground yourself.
Sadly, Limyaael left her online life behind after some shady treatment by some of the hosting services she used. However, her rants have been archived and maintained, occasionally circulating around various writing groups or writing subreddits. I highly recommend you give them a peruse.
Probably the number one most important tool for me as a writer is a good word processor to keep track of all my book chapters, worldbuilding notes, blog ideas, and general ramblings. Evernote is essentially an online word processor and digital organizer all rolled into one. Don’t like the idea of writing in a browser? No worries, Evernote has its own app you can download to your computer, tablet, or phone. The app’s writing layout is simple and functional with minimal distractions, and your documents are safely stored on its server. (Yay, no more storing hundreds of word documents on my computer. Yay, room for more open tabs!)
One of my favorite features of Evernote is its organization. You can group your “Notes” (aka individual documents) under different “Notebooks,” which can then be placed into “Notebook Stacks.” This is such a fantastic way for me to organize my WIP by having separate Notebooks for my previous drafts, current revision, and vast repository of ideas all bound under one Notebook Stack dedicated to each book in my series. This way, if an inspiration suddenly hits me for Book 3 while I’m still finishing Book 1, I can easily just pop on over to Book 3’s Notebook Stack and add a little Note. Additionally, Evernote allows the ability to open multiple Notes in split screen format, so I can have my outline or notes up as I’m writing. Or I can pull up a chapter from my previous draft and have it at the ready as I write its revision.
Evernote also allows you to add images and clip web pages into your “Notes,” which is great when I’m trying to create an aesthetic for a particular culture within my book realm. It syncs with Google calendar if you need to keep up with deadlines. You can also add “tags” to your “Notes” to easily find key information. I generally tag all my characters, place names, and major events in case I need to review or edit something surrounding them. If you have multiple authors working on a project, it provides the capabilities to share projects across accounts. They’ve added so many features throughout the years, it’s really difficult to cover them all.
The free version allows use on up to two devices and the basic plan allows use on unlimited devices, which Evernote regularly syncs about every 5 minutes. Their basic plan, the Personal plan, is about $7/month or $80/year. I used the free version of Evernote since 2014, and it was more than adequate for my writing needs. Truly the only reason I even upgraded to the Personal plan last year was because I felt they deserved the money for creating such a useful product. In my almost ten years of using Evernote, I really can’t convey enough good words about the company and their dedication to constantly improving their content. They are always adding patches so that it runs more smoothly and efficiently and coming up with new features to aid users from both a creative and business perspective.
And not just persistence, more like tenacity. I once had a professor in college tell me that my tenacity would take me a long way. Not in the direction he intended, I imagine. (My college diploma cries quietly in the corner.) But it makes it no less true. Tenacity, that stubborn unwillingness to give in even as you crumple sheet after sheet of terrible manuscript and toss it in the digital scrap pile, is essential not only to overcoming challenges as a writer but also challenges as an individual. In fact, I believe writing is a great way to grow yourself because it allows you to create while also forcing you to analyze and improve on your creation, to make difficult choices like scrapping a whole chapter you just spent three weeks on because it just doesn’t fit right. You are able to witness yourself improving little by little and come to appreciate how much time change and growth take, and that’s ok! Because we writers are tenacious! Even if it takes forty years to perfect our individual craft, even if nobody ever reads it, so we tell ourselves, we’ll keep writing because writing gives as much to us as we give to it.
There are a variety of useful tools, websites, and guides available for writers. New and experienced, there is always room for growth and reward in exploration. As we round out this sometimes joyful, often hectic time of year, I hope you find time to relax and reflect and reminisce on your own journey as a writer. Wishing you all a gentle, peaceful holiday season!
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