Wasted Potential: Walk the Walk

>> Thursday, June 23, 2011

You may have noticed, as we've added elements to our gourmet story, that it gets more complicated to get all the aspects to work together. Idea, setting, characters, interaction between characters and dialogue... Getting any one aspect to kick ass by itself isn't enough. They each need to be optimized and work together. But all of that won't mean a thing if nothing happens.

You're going to need a plot. Now, for those of you familiar with my fiction, my blog or both, you'll note that plot ain't my best subject. And I've never pretended it was. So, you might be asking yourself what I could possibly advise when it comes to plot. Good question.

So, here's my disclaimer. If you want insight into how to derive complex and meaningful plots and eat into a reader's brain to leave an impression to last the rest of their lives - you're in the wrong place. That ain't my bag. But, just because I'm not a plot-driven author doesn't mean I don't know anything about what makes a story work and, more importantly, what doesn't. What you'll see here is my own take on basic plot do's and don'ts.

Before I get started on my own guidelines, I'd like to point out something I think is important. Plot is more than just action and forward movement; it's also cause and effect. Plot points lead to actions and movement, but they have to match and make sense just like characters do. The weaker the plot point (particularly those that are pivotal to the rest of the story), the weaker the story. Like say, a spaceport that only takes local currency and has no method of converting outworld money, including currency used by the rest of the galaxy. Think about it if it doesn't immediately strike you as asinine. If you have a rabid fanbase of fanatical supporters that will swallow anything, you might be able to get away with something so idiotic, even if it spawns off other nonsensical repercussions. However, those of us who aren't using spectacular special effects might want to give it more thought.

Cause and effect should make sense within the framework of the story. That doesn't mean it has to make sense in "this" culture or here and now or whatever, but, in the framework of the story, it must (note the example I just gave). But what repercussions fall out as a result of those causes, those plot points, have to make sense, too. Which doesn't mean events have to follow readily predictable lines or taking the "obvious" course, but, if there is an obvious alternative to your plot's path (particularly one that has notable advantages), you (the author) need to understand why you didn't take it and why you're going the way you are. The reasons don't even have to be good - just plausible. And you don't have to include them in the book, but you, the author, need to understand why you're going the way you are. Reasons that should be rethought include "I think it would be cool," "the story won't work if I don't do it this way," and "I just wanted to be different." Reasons like, "so-and-so has an aversion to flying," or "all technology on this world is biologically based," even if you just made them up, are fine as long as you follow through and are consistent with your own reasoning.

Don't make it more complicated than you can handle. The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite example of a fantastic plot. Every word, every character, every event, even those that seemed minor and trivial, end up being woven into the final tapestry and pulled together in the end for a compelling denouement. How Dumas pulled that off before word processors I will never know. I know myself well enough to know I could never pull that off. I'd end up at the end with extra strands and all kinds of things I should have set up to make it work. So, I'll never write anything that complicated. If you can do it and know you can do it competently, more power to you. But if you can't, don't. Simplify. Prune. A clean flowing simple plot is much more palatable than a hopeless muddle of disjointed chains. Know your limitations, work your way up to where you want to be if you have to. But, if it's not working because it's too complicated to make sense, simplify. Remember, some of the most powerful plots are simple.

Keep the pace up. This is particularly important for us character writers. Things have to keep moving, the story advancing no matter how much you want to expose characters or indulge in entertaining dialogue or expand on descriptive periods. If you just realized you've wandered through three chapters and the story itself hasn't advanced, you need to rethink your pacing. Ideally, something is moving forward every chapter. If you find that the story really has very little advancing, very little "happening," you might want to flesh out your plot. If your story has a lot happening, but they happen with frenetic chapters of furious actions separated by chapter after chapter of exposition or amusing conversations, you might want to do some rearranging.

Eliminate dead ends, i.e. don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. (Which is not the same as not making it more complicated than you can handle). Many a time, I'm writing along and add a scene with tons of potential about a side path I can take. That I never follow through on. I love this scene. It's fun. It's entertaining. It's a visual you really love. It...blah blah blah. If this happens to you, cut it. A scene with unfulfilled potential is a broken promise and muddies up the plot. If the reader reaches the end of the book, as charmed as you were by your little extra scenes, and nothing's been done to bring those to closure, they're apt to feel disappointed.

People investing in series can get a little leeway on this, but you want as much of the story closed effectively as you can. The book should feel complete, a story that can stand on its own. Too many loose ends and it becomes a tease. As a reader, that irks me no end. Such dead ends also distract the reader from the plot you want and can even disappoint as the reader might have preferred the writer pursue that line instead of the main trunk. Note that mystery writers frequently install dead ends on purpose because it's supposed to be a maze, so take this suggestion with a grain of salt. Even so, for the rest of us, try to keep the focus on the plot points and actions that are key to the story and minimize anything that doesn't contribute.

Mix it up. Too much of anything, even stuff you like, can get old. Five chapters in a row with detailed battle action, even if action is your forte, can wear someone out. Ditto multiple heart-wrenching chapters or page after page of romantic interludes...too much of any one thing, especially in a row, can burn out a reader (and a writer). A plot like this:

Vicious battle action. Recovery and reflection. Battle strategy and maneuvering. Vicious battle action. More strategic maneuvering. Tragic aftermath as key character is killed. Recovery and reflection.
Is going to be easier to deal with than:
Vicious battle action. Vicious battle action. Vicious battle action. Strategic manuevering. Vicious battle action. Recovery and reflection. Tragic aftermath as key character was killed some chapters back. Recover and reflection, etc.
You can pile things on at the climax, but keep it moving, don't drag it on indefinitely. And mixing things up - because life rarely pauses as big events occur - is more like life and adds verisimilitude aside from also making it more palatable.

Make what happens interesting. It seems obvious, but you'd be amazed how often this doesn't happen. It's not enough for events to make sense and characters to be well-fleshed and compelling. Events need to be interesting enough to hold the readers interest. I like to think I'm an interesting person, but people would be bored to tears following me around on a regular day. If I want to be a character that excites interest, cool stuff ought to be happening to me or I need to be doing cool stuff. (Personally, I prefer characters that make their own destiny to the reactive kind but life, even in a book, is usually a combination of the two).

Truly, if you can't take your interesting characters and thought provoking setting that frames your clever premise and do something interesting with it, you're not getting the full potential from your idea.

And that, of course, was the whole idea of this series which, since I beat endings about to death, is now finished.

I hope you enjoyed it.


Wasted Potential: Talk the Talk

>> Friday, June 17, 2011

Last time I talked about relationship between characters. One has to interact with the setting and in the plot, too, but I'm a big character person so that's where I tend to focus. One thing I didn't really get into, but should have, is a big aspect of both revealing a character and developing relationships: dialog.

I love dialog. I mean I really love dialog. If there's an aspect of writing I really take pride in, it's my dialog.

Ironically, even though I love dialog, in reality I don't speak like regular people do. Rather than let that bother me, I have a tendency to use that to my advantage. Why? Because I usually include at least one character who speaks much like I do (stupidly large vocabulary, esoteric words in ordinary usage and usually complete sentences). Those characteristics in speech pattern allow the reader to automatically pick up on many aspects of my character painlessly, making revealing him or her that much easier. It also provides contrast to other characters who speak in ways more in keeping with "typical," but even that varies by age and background and social standing, etc.

What I mean is dialog is a great way to provide contrast to your characters. The great character authors I know all get this. I can go back and read pages of dialog where I could completely skip the "so and so said" bits and I'd still know who was talking because the characters have distinctive voices and styles and concerns. If you go back and read your dialog (and read it out loud because nothing highlights crappy dialog like reading it out loud) and both sides sound the same, you'd better go back and fix it unless they're identical twins that share the same brain. Which would be cool, but I digress.

By varying the way people speak, you can readily portray youth, inexperience, education, attitude, thoughtfulness, emotionality, perspective... Really, everything. It's not just the things they say, but how they say it, their phrasing, vocabulary, syntax. Even the pauses and lack of speaking can say a great deal about character. Really, I can't stress enough how important, how vital, vibrant contrasting dialog is to making your characters distinct and alive.

A note about dialect: Most advice I've read on dialects and distinctly different pronunciation has said, "don't show it." As with most rules, I'm of the opinion that you should use that rule unless your story suffers by it. Truth is, reading dialect is hard for many people and, if readers are frustrated trying to figure out what the character's supposed to sound like or what they're saying, one can make a good argument that it's counterproductive. Additionally, and I mean this most kindly, most people can't write it believably worth a damn (and don't realize that they can't). That reason alone should give anyone pause before they decide to try, because, if the stuff that's right gives a reader pause, the stuff that sucks will make the reader pull their hair. And it makes the writer look like a hack. Probably not what you're going for.

Having said all that, dialect can provide a contrast. In generally, I do not advocate writing it all out phonetically, but putting in dropped consonants ("Just sayin'.") or specific words with a distinctive sound that speak to the character ("me darlin'" vs. "my darling" or even "dahling") can go a long way to setting a character apart and giving the reader a feel for a character's voice (or even "who" they are). I also have to mention that, when someone really nails dialect, it can be fantastic, as in James Herriot's hilarious memoirs, which would not be the same without the many many different dialects he puts in.

Give the dialog voice. Dialog can not only make or break your characters and their relationships, bad dialog can really bog down a story and make it sound fake. Stiff uninteresting dialog (particularly if it's used to expose some key elements) can quickly sound stilted and contrived, clumsy and, well, boring. Dialog should not sound like narration (unless you're deeply in third person POV and the narration has similar voice). Dialog should not sound like a news report; it does not need to be objective, unemotional or polite unless your character is. It should not sound professorial unless your character is. Witty characters should be sarcastic and smart, but every statement doesn't have to be a quip (in fact it can't be without sounding stupid). Put in emotions, stuttering, shocked pauses, inflammatory language, spoken (i.e. poor) grammar in as realistic way as possible. It needs to be alive and full of color and personality or you might as well have narrated it. Let me show you an example:

"Stop it," he said, when she flumped down next to him and laid her head on his shoulder. He shrugged to dislodge her, but she just moved with him and gave him a grin. "I'm trying to study here."

"You're always studying. My brother says you've become positively dull. Talk to me instead."

"Cory can speak for himself. If I'm so dull, go away." He could feel the heat of her body through his clothes and the distraction was sending his heart racing. "Don't you have something better to do than bug your brother's best friend?"

She hugged his arm and rubbed the side of her head against his shoulder. "No."
"Gah! You brat, get off," he said, when she flumped down next to him and laid her head on his shoulder. He shrugged to dislodge her, but she just moved with him and gave him a grin. "Can't you see I'm working here? Some of us have to study."

"Ha! Like you need to study. My brother says you're already setting the curve. You never even come up for air. I'm doing my civic duty by peeling you away from those books before you turn into an old man. Play with me."

"Cory's supposed to be studying, too. If he's got a complaint, he can tell me himself instead of getting his kid sister to do his dirty work. Get lost before you catch my senility." He could feel the heat of her body through his clothes and the distraction was sending his heart racing. "Don't you social butterflies always have things to do? Shopping? Group trips to the bathroom? Facebook flaming? Why don't you flutter away and leave me in peace?"

She hugged his arm and rubbed the side of her head against his shoulder. "Peace? No way! That's the last thing I'm going to leave you with."
In the first one, though we're saying effectively the same thing (and everything outside the quotes is identical), there's an entirely different feel to the characters. In the first, he's studious and distracted by her presence (friend's sister) and she's trying to get his attention. However, it's not clear how he's affected, how well these two know each other, whether her rather attraction/distraction is deliberate or innocent. In the second, it's wordier, but we have a better sense of both him and her. You can get a sense of offense from being characterized as studious (and responds with an attack on her perceived frivolousness). Clearly, they know each other as more than just passing acquaintances. Just as clearly, she has some knowledge of her effect on him and is doing it deliberately.

Make it realistic but not too realistic. Real conversations between real people are, largely, dull. If you recorded your conversations with everyone you spoke to during the day, you'd be nodding off in minutes. We tend to talk inconsequential nonsense a large portion or the time. It's like certain sports - fun to play, dull as dishwater to watch. So, you need to excise those portions from real conversation that don't do anything for the story, for character development, for entertainment. You don't want movie dialog, quite, where (if written well) it's all witty and stuff. But you want a dialog that, if you heard it in a movie or a TV show, wouldn't make you want to switch channels. It's got to sound realistic (like people might actually have this conversation so not wall to wall quips and only significant statements) without sounding like a "typical" conversation with all the trivial nonsense. Again, I can't stress enough reading dialog out loud before you get happy with it. Get an audience if you can, one that will tell you the truth.

Don't say everything. People don't tell everything they're thinking, say everything that comes across their minds (except for a very very small number of irksome folks). So, if your characters explain everything, every key aspect of a situation, every nuance of their emotional state, they won't seem very realistic. People automatically edit. They keep some things secret ("You hurt my feelings by saying that.") or expect people to pick up implications ("Obviously, if someone so incompetent is getting a promotion, she's banging the boss."). If someone is telling another character about a problem, they will likely expect the other to pick up implications or deduce aspects. Expect your reader to do the same. Not too much. Being too cryptic can be frustrating as hell. But, don't fall into the TV Batman mode where you have to explain what happened, what that means and the step by step actions you're going to take to get out of the situation. Act, don't say, if you're going to act anyway.

Dialog is one place you can add "nonessential" writing. What I mean by that is not that you have pages of dialog that don't move the story forward or do anything useful. What I mean is that dialog is a good place to sneak in some humor, for example, even if it isn't essential for moving the story forward. A little lightness and humor can make a book more entertaining and is worthy even as just distraction. Similarly, a little character development or a bit of dialog that foreshadows a character aspect that explains a later action (that might otherwise be hard to comprehend) is time well spent. Your story might survive without it, but, by making it more alive, you can make it better.

Note also that people can comfortably spend time without talking. That speaks, too. Note also that conversations that provide information but don't add interest and character development might be better dealt with by saying, "Between hiccups, she gave him a disjointed account of her adventure. With comforting noises, he wiped her nose with no sign of impatience or confusion despite her digressions into incoherency." I can go through the dialog, but, if my readers already know, I'm not contributing much.

Next, plot.


Wasted Potential: Because Character's Not Enough

>> Sunday, June 12, 2011

Here's one of those subtle distinctions that, judging by many books I've read, people frequently miss. Having great character(s) in the world isn't enough alone. In order to use a character to his best potential, he's going to have to interact, not just with his environment, unless you've dropped him by himself on a desert island, but with other characters.

For nearly every story, the relationships and give and take between characters are how the story is pushed forward, how the characters learn and grow, how the characters reveal who they really are, warts and all.

A story with only one character is almost stuck telling not showing because it's how people treat each other, how they speak and act toward one another, what strikes them as funny or touching or infuriating that really shows who characters are. Even who they choose to befriend and why.

Seems obvious, doesn't it? Yet this is something authors frequently miss, throwing character mismatches together and forcing a relationship at odds with their personalities. Which isn't to say you can't have different and diverse people interacting together - far from it. Relationships in real life often flourish between people who vast differencest, but rarely 100% different. And friendly relationships are hardly the only kind you can put in your novel.

But the relationships have to be believable just like your characters have to be. Two best friends who never do anything but argue and impede each other (particularly if one is destructive to the other's personality) are not compelling or healthy. Two siblings who never argue are equally suspect. Disagreements, misunderstandings, hurt feelings, anger, all can be part of a healthy relationship, but to be really healthy it needs some real understanding, some support, some trust, some kindness, some compromise, perhaps some humor and some self-sacrifice.

In order to make a healthy relationship work for the story, to bring out the most of the characters (and, by extension, the the idea) there should be both connection and tension in key relationships. This allows growth and exposition painlessly for the reader. Perhaps the main idea provides the tension between them, a racial difference or economic divide. Maybe the idea is a great terror that provides the impetus to bind them together as they have to work on each others strengths against whatever "them" is in the story.

In order to do that effectively, you can't just say they're friendly or shoehorn friendly banter that's at odds with their characters. You have to craft characters that work together, that have complimentary strengths and workable differences. An group of people working together needs to be a team in real life with everyone contributing from their strong suits. In a novel, this is also true, whether the team is a pair or a dozen key players (with different goals and personalities) that make the story go.

And, as important as it is between protagonists and friendly side characters, it has to be so between antagonists and protagonists, too. People can hate each other for weak reasons and bad reasons and misunderstandings, but, in the novel, it's best that the reason plausible and make some sort of sense. A weak or poorly motivated villain is actually very dull and can bring a story to a screeching halt. The more justification the villain has, the more one can see his side of things, the more human he becomes, the more interesting, the more nuanced. Even if his original justification has been warped into something completely horrifying, that original motivation and injustice can really bring a story home to a reader. Can make it all the more real.

And, let's face it, making our dreams and imaginings real in someone else's mind, a reader's mind, is what it's all about. Or, at least it is for me.

So, bottom line, characters need to not only be layered and nuanced and realistically believable, they need to be crafted so that they interact effectively. It's both easier and harder than it sounds. But, if you can do it, really do it, you can really do wonders for an idea.


Wasted Potential: Casting Your Production

>> Monday, June 6, 2011

Huh, I wish. Actually, no, creating characters is much easier than casting a play or movie (in that you're not limited by who's available or cost or such mundane things as race or gender or species for that matter), but, like world-building, much harder because you have to know/create your characters to a much deeper extent than is ever shown on paper, kind of everything that holds up the visible part of the iceberg (character) in your story.

On the other hand, it's fun.

Nothing kills a great idea faster than flat colorless characters. As a writer, you want characters that will get the most out of your idea. Using a great character that's conflicts with the idea is doubly wasteful, waste of a character and an idea, so characters should mesh readily with the idea. But they also need to be alive and have some sort of appeal (note, that doesn't mean they can't be assholes—more on that later). I don't have hard and fast rules on what kind of characters fit what kind of ideas. I think there's a certain level of trial and error, and any idea can be handled in multiple ways. A fun and whimsical idea can be done justice with a fun and whimsical hero/heroine, but a staid down-to-earth character, surrounded by insanity, can be just as effective in showcasing whimsy. In a similar manner, weighty powerful ideas can be furthered with properly built flighty airheads just like they can with somber individuals.

I've talked about characters before, so I'll be relatively brief. These are my own guidelines I think about when I'm building someone or would if I bothered to think in such an organized manner.

Can't be too perfect. A likeable character has to have room to grow because stagnation is not appealing. Nor is it likely to make the most of a concept. Ideally, he or she never actually becomes "perfect" because perfect is also boring and off-putting. People like to identify with characters, find some hook in the character that they can empathize with. Truly "perfect" people rarely appeal to anyone but self-important jerks. Unless that's your target audience, you need to give your character weaknesses, failings, and flaws.

And they have to be significant. The bigger, badder and more impressive your character is, the more debilitating their flaws need to be unless you want the reader to start rooting for the bad guy (which has it's own appeal - think Megamind). Let's face it, if Superman were a real character, he'd be an insufferable boor. His attachment to certain people, his excessive notion of personal responsibility and, of course, Kryptonite are the only reasons he can be tolerated. Everyone has something they fear. Everyone has something they can't bear to lose (and, if they don't, that's a tragic failing in and of itself).

Personally, the bigger and badder someone is physically, the more debilitating I like their mental issues to be whereas someone who's not quite so dangerous may be stalwart to the nth degree mentally., but that's just what I like.

Can't be a complete and utter turnoff. I'm not saying your hero can't be an asshole. There have been any number of successful asshole protagonists, but I maintain they need to have some appealing quality. If you're going to have an asshole as your lead, at least make him smart (witty's even better). Stupid assholes are notably short on charm. Or give him a soft spot, a line even he won't cross, hell, an embarrassing fetish. If you're going to have an idiot protagonist (and it can be done successfully), at least make him sweet. Making an idiot him stupidly lucky, patient and tolerant often goes a long way to making him palatable. Brash abrasive characters can have a tough history, a vicious sense of humor, or an untouchable core of honor. Maybe all three.

You're going to spend a lot of time with this character. You'd better like something about him or her. Your reader is, too, so you need to share those endearing bits. If the character is too off-putting, few will stick it out to find out how your idea pans out.

Make somebody funny. Even the weightiest topics can often do better with a bit of humor, without losing the sense of importance. Humor keeps things from becoming unreasonably weighty. It helps keep necessary plot building sequences entertaining. It provides contrast and charm, even if your main characters are short on both. It doesn't have to be laugh out loud or even constantly funny, but I've never known a book to suffer because of a judicious laugh or two in the mix.

One way, by the way, to make an otherwise unappealing character appealing is to make them funny, even if it's only once in a while. Or to provide them a cohort with some measure of absurdity.

Make them act real, in believable ways. Few things muddy a character like forcing them down a path at odds with their character. (Qui-Gon Jinn, from Episode I of Star Wars comes to mind and Liam Neeson knew it. You can see the distaste on his face when he had to do something out of character and/or stupid). That doesn't mean they can't ever do something "out of character" - real people do, but there needs to be a reason (even if you don't share it with the reader, you need to know it), one that works for the character as opposed to a reason like "furthering the plot."

The characters can be stupid, make mistakes, show poor judgement. In fact, if that's their character, you must have them behave so, just like you'll have to show evidence of cleverness if that's what they're supposed to be (saying they're clever isn't enough). I'm not saying what they do has to be good or bad. Most actions, however, have to be in keeping with who they are. Doing otherwise too much will blur your character out of focus.

Ah, I love this topic.


Wasted Potential - Got the Idea, Now What?

>> Saturday, June 4, 2011

So, honed and screened with a cold practical eye and some objective conjecture, you come up with a fantastic idea, an idea so full of potential and cleverness and creativity that the story will all but write itself. (Heh heh, if only!) Even if the rest of it is slapped together, the glory of this idea alone could get this book sold.

Well, I won't lie to you. That's happened. I don't know any reader who hasn't curled up with a book that had a fantastic idea only to leave disgusted, sometimes even a little sickened with the caliber of the results. Mostly, the results aren't that extreme, but leaving a reader feeling "meh" with an idea that sparkles is not what this series is about. It's about making a story live up to the potential of the idea. People have sold half-ass books that had unreached potential, but the only way you are likely to be remembered twenty years, heck, five years, down the line penning such things are as an author to avoid by disappointed readers.

Even a half-assed idea, if written well, beats that. But. You get a better book with a better idea if you make sure the rest of it is on par with the premise. Of course, like writing a book, doing so is easier said than done. Where do you start?

I like to start with venue (note that this is my preference; it's not the only choice). So ask yourself, where and when should this story be set? To determine the answer you need at least two things: what works with your idea and what works for you? The first part is self-explanatory; the second might not be.

Sometimes, of course, venue IS the idea: Imagine you're a yakuza kumi in Tokyo who's escaped the bloodbath that destroyed his entire gang with his leader's nine-year-old daughter and they have to escape the city, if not the country, without getting killed, for example. Chances are you're talking about the present or near future/recent past and, of course, Tokyo. Often times, however, things aren't so clear. In a drastically male-dominated society, a girl is raised like a man but is eventually exposed as a woman. Rather than cower in her gender-based role, she uses the power she garnered pretending to be a man and her very impressive skills to carve out a spot for her in a unforgiving environment. Where and when can you set this? On earth, you can choose from any period of time ever and find oppressively male dominated societies (including the year we're in now) and in nearly every culture. For science fiction or fantasy, the options are equally broad-based.

So, how do you choose? Well, I suggest starting with the second question: what works for you? What do you read? What do you know? What are your interests?

If you're really not interested in history and or willing to treat it with some objectivity, I'm begging you to forgo setting it in a historical locale. No, seriously. For those of us who love history (and I do), having the past mangled past recognition by the well-meaning is torturous. Setting it in the past is fine, however, if you know the culture and the limitations. For instance, in most cultures, making our little lady a stand-out in hand-to-hand combat is a real challenge, not so much because women can't kick butt (with some limitations) but because, through most periods of time up to and including today, soldiers live in close quarters. You just can't get away without that kind of secret in most fighting venues. Make her a thief or an assassin, someone in the underworld, however, and you can do so. (Just, for mercy's sake, don't have her taking baths and smelling sweet in the 1600s. Really.) But it will sound contrived as hell if you don't (a) really know your period and (b) not just the literature of the times almost exclusively geared to the upper classes. You have to know about the underworld if you're using it or you shouldn't be using it. And you need to know the language, the dialects, the habits and trends of the time, clothing and contemporary events.

Ditto for using a modern venue but an exotic culture. Don't use mass media or (seriously) any biased base to determine the appropriate culture to set your work and, if you use one, you need to know it intimately (and I don't mean a trip wandering through). Living there for some time is optimum. Studying them in depth might work, but use a variety of sources and be careful you don't wander in with your preconceived notions at the fore. Ideally, you set such a story in a culture you know well, understand, can even see from both sides. Ask flit, oppressive places are closer than you know.

If you want to go the science fiction/fantasy route, as I do, that doesn't mean you don't have to do any work. World building takes far more effort than setting things in a convenient locale. You get to make the rules, but you have to keep them, too, and the rules have to makes sense (usually in comparison to actual history). Sounds easy, it's not. But, the freedom and options available to tailor a world to fit an idea is certainly part of the charm. It's one of the reasons I so often write there. Note that, by doing so, you limit your audience. There is still a rather sizeable faction that thinks science fiction and fantasy is hack work and nothing like literature. Just sayin'. For many who love reading this kind of thing, this is the only place to work.

If, after looking at your own abilities and interests, you still find the choices overwhelming on where to put your clever idea, look at the idea itself. Sure, it might work anywhere, but what aspects did you want to highlight? "Male-dominated society" can go several different extremes from repressive sexually to women being property to being "apparently" equal but still having the deck stacked against them. You need to know what kind would best serve your purposes before you pick one. Find one where a woman coming to the fore is a challenge but not laughably impossible.

In the end, you need to find the setting that works best for your work, rural vs. urban vs. nomadic, perhaps. Modern or futuristic or fantastical. Find what will let you milk the most from your idea, what will give you the most opportunity to let that idea shine. When you've got something, do your research (or world building) to make sure you can portray it correctly.

Then it's time to do my favorite part: make characters.



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