The Curse of the Bear

“Please, Spot,” Sigge begged. She held the leather harness out to the ornery goat, who stomped and screamed and snorted in response. He lowered his shaggy head, his horns looking all the more cruel for his refusal. The harness belonged to the small goat cart Sigge’s adopted mother Hedvig had always kept for her trips into town, and she needed to go to town one last time.

“Keep your filthy hands off me! You probably killed her yourself!” Spot reared back, and Sigge dove to dodge the blow.

“Spot!” she cried. Tears tore her voice to shreds, but she refused to shed any of them. She rose to her feet, wiping mud and muck from her own golden fur. “You know I would never hurt her. Never.”

 “I know no such thing,” Spot replied.

 Sigge was beginning to wish Hedvig had taken Ryker’s offer to castrate the cantankerous imp when she had delivered his daughter’s third son. I would have killed you long before I ever laid a finger on her, Sigge thought.

Bargaining would have to work, because Sigge had found Hedvig dead that morning, and Sigge needed to get her to the grove. “This one last time. Not for me, Spot, but for her. She deserves to be burned properly, and she deserves to have her ashes spread in the grove. I need – Hedvig needs your help.”

Sigge herself had only been to the grove once, though she hadn’t passed the stone gate. It was called The Grove of Amund, and it was beautiful. It was a hillock, wreathed by hazel and birch, oak and spruce, pine and rowan, but crowned by a great yew tree. The great Amund planted his staff there beyond which he would let no frost ogre step, and never one did. After his death, his staff could not be moved and grew into that great yew. Those who worshiped Amund like Hedvig had their ashes spread upon the hill.

“After that, I’ll take off the harness,” Sigge promised, “and you’ll be free to go as you want. This one last thing, Spot, and you will never see or hear from me again.” She stopped herself from swearing to it. Spot would never take her word for anything.

“The instant we get there, you cut me loose from that harness, and I go on my merry way?”

Sigge nodded, feeling the relief sag her shoulders. “The very instant. You don’t even have to wait to see that I actually burn her on the pyre.”

“Oh, no, Abomination,” Spot said, hopping closer. He poked a sharp cloven hoof into her gut. He meant it to be vicious, but Sigge barely felt it through her thick fur. “I will be making sure you do not disgrace dear Hedvig’s memory. She was a good woman, and she deserved better than you.”

The sky had darkened by the time Sigge had gotten close to town where the grove grew, though few would venture out into the woods at night. Maybe they would see the pyre from the walls, but she doubted any would come to see what had set the fire, not until morning. There were too many stories of man-eating monsters and dread demons to stir even the stoutest heart. There were more than a few missing people to go along with those tales. Sigge, to her relief, could finish this in peace.

Or so she thought.

A stone glanced off her shoulder as she came to the ancient archway that marked the entrance to the grove.

“Ow!” Sigge shouted. “Who threw that? I’m only here to burn my dead.” It hadn’t hurt, but she often found if she played weak that people were not as frightened of her golden fur, great height, massive paws, and heavy claws. She looked nearly like a bear with a human face, and most were frightened when first they saw Sigge.

“Your kind are not welcome here,” a voice from the gloom shook through the trees. It was a moist voice, soft and old like midnight shadows or soil in springtime.

Sigge hadn’t heard voices like that before. She glanced at Spot, who chewed his cud unhelpfully. “My kind? You mean mortals?”

“No, like you!” another voice said. This was light and subtle, like a soft breeze or a death rattle. “Cursed!” It was coming from high above her.

“I know I’m cursed,” Sigge said quickly. “But, I – there’s no one else to burn her. She was very old and very kind, and she kept to the old ways more faithfully than anyone else. She deserves to be burnt here.”

“Be gone!” the first voice boomed, the earth beneath Sigge’s feet rumbling in time. “You shall not set foot in this sacred place!” This voice was against the collapsed wall, close to the ground.

“Defiler!” the second voice wailed. It had moved much closer, bending toward her. The air sizzled as it spoke. “You shall not sully this place any longer!”

Spot’s ears twitched frantically to catch the voices as they moved. “I told you you couldn’t come here,” he warned, stamping a foot.

“You never did!” Sigge cried in reply. “Please, great gods, I am your loyal servant! She was your loyal servant! I won’t defile anything!”

The world stopped shaking, the wind stopped blowing, and, silence reigned. For a moment, Sigge believed that she had imagined the whole thing. But, Spot stood beside her trembling, the only thing keeping him from bolting was the harness on his back.

Then, just as suddenly, by her ear, “You already have, by merely being–”

Sigge shrieked and flailed at the noise. She struck something, her palm making a slapping noise as it connected with flesh, followed by a soft thud of weight hitting grass.

“Hey! Now, that’s just rude!” the first voice shouted.

“You’re not supposed to hit!” the second voice chimed in.

Sigge pulled her hands to her chest, looking back and forth from the two beings now visible to her. One lay prostrate on the ground, the other came bounding from the shadow to stand over it. Both sounded so much more juvenile now. Not scary, not powerful, just young and headstrong. They looked it, too, if one could look past the shocking appearance of demons. The two were small, the size of children, with dark fur and glowing yellow eyes. They had claws on their hands and feet and long tails. One was holding its cheek where Sigge had struck it, the other stood facing Sigge with its hands on its hips sticking out its startlingly pink tongue.

“You’re just children,” Sigge exclaimed.

“We are not!”

“We’re the guardians of this place!”

“You can’t come here!”

Hedvig had told Sigge of these creatures. Like many demons and monsters, they moved into sacred places, but these didn’t desecrate them. They protected the abandoned ones from graverobbers or even other demons. They were tricksters, of some kind, and used all sorts of pranks to keep people away. It made Sigge sad to know they had come to the grove, for it meant that it had been abandoned by the town. They were abandoning the old ways.

“You’re just children,” Sigge whispered again, almost too surprised to believe it herself.

“We are not!” shouted the one who sat on the ground. It pouted, its lower lip trembling as tears glistened in its eyes. Sigge felt guilty; she could forget how strong she was.

Sigge scratched the fur at her collarbone, uncertain of how to proceed. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” she said. Her voice sounded as squeezed and desperate as she felt. She winced at the sound of it.

“You shouldn’t just go flinging your arms about,” the one on the ground said. “You’re really big.”

“I know, I’m sorry. Listen–”

Spot kicked the cart hard enough to make it bounce and stomped the ground. “Get it on with, Fuzzy. Let me go before these two dimwits kill you.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming, give me a moment.” Spot was impatient, and Sigge had to move quickly to avoid his horns and his teeth. When she was done, he walked calmly into the grove and promptly shat on the grass. The two demons didn’t seem to notice.

Sigge shook the feeling of disgust away. “I am sorry I hurt you,” she began again. “I didn’t mean to. I thought you were much bigger than you are, and I was frightened. Please, I didn’t mean any harm.”

“Mean to or not, you did.” The one she’d hit still pouted as it climbed to its feet, but the pink bloom on its cheek had already faded away.

Sigge tried to smile. “I am sorry,” she said. “My name is Sigge. What’s yours?”

The two looked surprised, and then suspicious. They glanced at each other, perhaps sharing a language of glances to which Sigge wasn’t privy. “You want to know our names?” the one who hadn’t been hit asked.

This time, Sigge smiled genuinely. “Of course! I want something to call you – not your true names, but something to call you,” Sigge said quickly, remembering how protective all manner of spirits were about their names. Hedvig had told her that one could control creatures with their true names. Spot, who had been named Koenig, insisted on being called Spot instead so that Hedvig and Sigge couldn’t control him. “Just something I can call you while we talk.”

The two exchanged glances again, as if they had never heard of such a thing. They whispered together again, waving arms and pointing fingers mostly at Sigge. Curiosity got the better of them, though, and the one who had been hit said tentatively, “I’m Boo.”

“You can call me Hush,” the other said quickly. “Those aren’t our real names, mind you. Just what you can call us.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Boo and Hush,” Sigge said, curtsying as best she could. She was a gangly, awkward thing. Big, with long arms and strong legs, and never acquainted with anything like courtly manners, but she tried.

Boo’s cheeks colored, and Hush’s eyes widened, and the corners of its mouth turned down. “And you, Sigge,” Boo said finally.

They stood in silence. Boo rubbed its fingers together, trying to find a comfortable way to hold its hands. Hush scuffed the ground in uncomfortable circles. Sigge smoothed the fur at belly and then her arms, trying to think of something to say. It was clear that Boo and Hush wouldn’t break the silence. They watched at her, perhaps curious, perhaps appalled.

“This all started out badly,” Sigge said finally. “I didn’t mean to… show up unannounced. I hadn’t realized this sacred place had been reclaimed. The woman whose body lies there in that cart is Hedvig. She kept faithfully to Amund. She needs this grove so that she may have a proper funeral. That’s all I ask. It’s not for me; it’s for her.”

Boo rubbed its hands over its ears sheepishly, looking away, and Hush opened its mouth and closed it several times before finding its voice. “It’s not… We would be happy to allow her funerary rites…  She’s allowed to come into the grove. The problem is you.”

“You see,” Boo added quickly, “you’re cursed. I mean, I’m sure it’s not your fault, the curse and all. And it’s nothing personal, it’s just that… well, look at yourself! You’re an abomination.”

“Told you,” Spot said from where he lay in the lush grass. He chewed it occasionally, entirely too pleased with himself.

“If there were anyone else – children, grandchildren, a kindly neighbor–-anyone else who could bring her in here, we’d-–it’d be fine. We wouldn’t interfere-”

“We’d hide away so no one could see us and be frightened away!”

“But, we just can’t let you in.”

“You could… I mean, if you burnt her body elsewhere, maybe you could sort of… toss her ashes over the wall?”

Sigge bowed her head. Failed. At the last, she had failed Hedvig. She couldn’t seek out any of the other villagers. They’d chase her away before she could even ask. If they found out Hedvig was dead, they’d think she killed her. Cursed. Forever. Failed. Failed. Failed.

No.

“There has to be a way,” Sigge said, whether out of determination or desperation she couldn’t be sure. “There has to be a way to lift the curse. There has to be a way to let me in.”

Hush and Boo exchanged glances again. Hush nodded, but Boo shook its head frantically.

“Well, there may be…” Hush began.

“No!” Boo said quickly. “Not that! That’s impossible!”

“Do you know Dagne’s Spring?”

Sigge shook her head slowly.

Hush grinned, sharp teeth glistening in the fading light. It sat itself cross-legged, floating a hand’s breadth off the ground, hands at its knees, chest puffed out.

“When the great and noble Von was cursed by the wicked Ulfric so that he brought winter wherever he stepped, Kelda drew her own daughter, Dagne, from the earth and married her to Von. Where she emerged is called Dagne’s Spring. And Dagne, she’s also known as Curse-Breaker. Dagne broke the curse of the Eternal Winter in this land. She brought back spring and warmth and happiness as a marriage gift to Von.”

Sigge’s breath caught in her throat. Blood pooled to her ears as her heart seemed to stop. For a moment, Sigge thought she was dying. No, no, no. Don’t let it be true. Let this be a lie. I can’t take the hope of it.

“Dagne’s Spring,” Hush went on, “is not far from here. Bubbles up from the ground in a cave. It’s got all sorts of magical powers. It can cure people – and lift curses, I’m sure. You could bathe in it.”

“Is that all?” Sigge asked. It’s too good to be true, she told herself. Oh, please let it be true.

Boo pushed Hush aside, giving its sibling a harsh glare. “There’s a problem. It’s been polluted, so it doesn’t have any power left to it. It’s impossible. You might as well give up now.”

“It’s not impossible. Just very, very unlikely. The desecration can be undone.”

“How?” Sigge asked. The chance to lift the curse. The chance to be normal. The chance to walk among people without hisses and boos and rock thrown. She had never known such a thing.

“There’s a monster,” Boo began, its tone quiet and formidable.

“The villagers have been dumping their trash in the cave for years,” Hush interrupted. “That’s what started the whole thing. It polluted the spring, and to monsters, well, there’s no place better than a desecrated spring. So, before any kind of our kind could go in and protect it–”

“A monster moved in. Big, huge, hairy, long teeth and sharp claws–”

“It hasn’t got teeth or claws. It’s got mandibles and pincers.”

“And relentless. Ruthless. Incorrigible.”

“That is not the word you’re looking for.”

“What do you know?”

The two dissolved into bickering, but Sigge didn’t hear them. Just as quickly as she had been given hope, it had been ripped away, and she felt all the more hollow for it. Failed, cursed and failed. Worst of all, she had failed Hedvig, but even as she thought of it, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for herself. A giant monster, a polluted spring, and no chance to lift the curse.

“Sigge, you can do it!” one of the demon children called as she began to walk away. Sigge turned back. Hush had pinned Boo and was reaching out to Sigge. “You can do it. You can overcome the monster and clean up that cave, and if you do, you won’t be cursed anymore. In fact–”

“Don’t do it, Hush, that’s not fair!”

Hush pointed a long, clawed finger at Sigge. “You must do it. It is your quest to defeat that monster and reclaim the spring for yourself and your ancestors and your children to come.” Hush looked pleased with itself, smiling smugly at Sigge, though she did not understand the significance.

“Oooh,” Boo moaned. “Now you’ve gone and done it. It wasn’t my fault, Sigge, remember that. It wasn’t my fault.”

Spot laughed, hopping toward Sigge. “Serves you right, Abomination. And I hope it kills you, too.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course, you don’t, you fool!”

“You have to do it now,” Hush said, a smirk playing on its lips. “You can’t not go and defeat the monster. It’s your quest. You have to. That’s the rule.”

A sinking feeling settled on Sigge, even as Hush celebrated. She wondered if she had been saddled with another curse.

~~~

Sigge rubbed a new bruise on her side. She had expected the shouting, the cursing, the spitting; the villagers had done that and worse before. She would have expected rocks thrown at her, too. What she hadn’t expected was a pig-nosed boy with a pitchfork trying to skewer her through the ribs. That was new. They were getting younger and more vicious.

Still, she had hoped that morning for help with the monster not out of loyalty to her, but for the villagers’ own sakes. This was their spring, and this monster was polluting it. They hadn’t been willing to help; they hadn’t even been willing to listen. Instead, they shouted and jeered and spat, and one man with a boil on his neck had shouted, “Go yourself. At least we’ll be rid of one monster!” That was when the boy had tried to stab her. That was when Sigge had run.

Now, the cave opened in the earth before her, a hole with little warning other than the few boulders that formed its upper lip. It was a giant maw large enough to swallow a grown man, and it yawned into the depths as if it was waiting for its next victim to stumble by. Vines hung from the rocks above, dripping like spittle into the ominous gloaming below. Sigge had never been so frightened of one of Kelda’s springs.

While Hedvig had been partial to Amund, Sigge was fond of the mysterious Kelda. There weren’t many stories of her, but Sigge knew of her springs. Kelda was a frost ogre and looked at the worlds of gods and mortals with disgust and loathing. She froze all the water she found, drawing it into the earth so it would not be polluted by mortal touch, and she walked the world, killing any who would try to steal it back.

One day, she came across a hobbled boy and his old goat. Fearing that she would eat the goat, the boy stood up against Kelda. “This goat has given my family milk and kids every year since I was born. She has served us well, and I won’t have harm come to such a noble creature,” the boy declared.

Kelda was so moved that she drew the waters back up from the earth. She healed the boys hobble from her spring and told him to tell the rest of the mortal world that her springs would heal the sick and wounded, as disease and deformation were punishments from the gods that she would gladly foil. The boy grew into the hero Von.

Sigge peered over the lip of the cave. She could just see the brittle morning light glinting off the water’s surface. But for the wind blowing ripples, she saw no movement. She hefted a tree branch large enough to be a club and steeled herself to leap into the spring. Her chest constricted, her mouth went, and her stomach roiled. Sigge took a deep breath and glanced up into the clouds.  “Gods, I know you don’t favor abominations, but please watch over me as I try to kill a monster with a stick.”

Into the darkness she plunged.

She splashed into icy water that reached mid-thigh. Slick mud lined the bottom, oozing between her toes but offering no footholds. From what little she could see of the rest of the cave, it just got deeper from there.

Reflected light danced off the walls and ceiling of the cave but did little to illuminate it. A prickling in her fur told Sigge that there was something watching in the gloom, even if she couldn’t hear any breathing or feel any movement in the water. Sigge swallowed back a sudden wave of nausea.

Carefully, she felt the floor of the cave. It sloped down toward the darkness. Lose my footing, and I’ll be done. Sigge was certain, even as strong as she was, that it was stronger. If it dragged her down, there would be no hope at all. Great gods, what have I gotten myself into? She could feel her blood seeping from her limbs as any hope of survival withered. Why did I do this? Why did I agree to this?

Sigge tightened her grip on the makeshift club as she remembered. For Hedvig, the only person who has ever been kind to me.

Still, Sigge had no intention of calling out to the monster who watched her, which left her no course of action but to shiver in the icy water and hope the monster died of boredom. Once more, Sigge begged for the mercy of the gods in her doomed misadventure.

“Sister,” came the answer, but the smoothness of the voice, the rasping of a blade being drawn from its scabbard, was certainly not that of one of her gods, “why have you come to my den?”

The voice echoed all around her, petrifying her in her spot.

“Sister, have you come to drown your prey in my spring? Will you–” a scoff “–lure men from their wives to devour them here? Or will you snatch for children that play nearby?”

Sigge shook her head, trying to clear the voice out, but it stayed, rushing down her spine and freezing her blood. She prayed again, begging any god, her own or one entirely unknown to her, to save her.

“Answer me, sister.” Sigge heard movement in the water, the gentle lapping of a snake gliding over a river. “I did not invite you here, but if you will agree to bring your victims to me first, perhaps we can come to an agreement.”

Sigge couldn’t find her voice. Her throat and mouth were dry, and she could hear herself shaking violently.

“Answer me, sister.” It was a whisper now, and it spoke in the language of the dead.

I’m not your sister.

“I’m not your sister,” Sigge heard herself say.

“What is that? Not my sister? Accursed and vile, but not my sister?” The laugh that followed was a winter gale.

Sigge gritted her teeth. This damned thing thought she was damned as well. A sudden rush of heat burst from the center of her chest and boiled up into her head. Sigge decided that if she was going to die, she was at least going to make sure this thing knew she was no monster.

“I am no sister of yours, monster,” Sigge growled. The ferocity surprised even her, and hearing it echo back to her made her feel braver.

The creature emerged into the light and the feeling immediately disappeared. It was monstrous. The creature towered over her, swaying gently like a snake preparing to strike, but it was armored in scales like a beetle. Its mouth was great pincers, and Sigge couldn’t see eyes, but they bore into her all the same. It looked like flowing ice, reflecting light and gloom from its body.

“If not a sister, then a victim.” It lunged, its huge body moving with a speed Sigge could barely see.

Sigge leapt away, went underwater, and scrambled to her feet. She sputtered water as she tasted air. The club was right beside her. She reached for it. Something struck her across the back, and she was underwater again. She struggled but couldn’t find the surface. She lashed out. Her throat and chest burned for air.

Her hand scraped something. The cave wall. Sigge used it to stand. She retched and gasped for air. Water blinded her. Sigge dug at her eyes with the heel of her hand. She opened them to see the monster curling back up to strike again.

The club! The crystalline monster coiled as tightly as possible. Sigge ducked under the water, and the creature struck the wall of the cave an instant later. Sigge pushed off the wall, away. Her chest scraped the floor below and when she surfaced, she was belly deep in water. She was away from the light. The club! The club!

“Damned, stupid beast!” the monster shouted as it started to draw back again. It had been stunned. It was disoriented.

Where is the damned club?

“Abomination! I will send you back to the hell from which you sprang!” There, near its head.

If Sigge could reach it, she might have a chance. Sigge dove. Hurry, hurry, before it can strike.

Just as Sigge’s hand grasped the log, a coil wrapped around her chest and squeezed. “A mortal?” the monster cried with delight. “A cursed mortal! How wonderful to taste.”

Sigge squirmed, one arm was free. With all her might, she slammed the log down across the monster’s back. Sigge watched in horror as the log crumbled against the unblemished scales. The monster laughed.

“Struggle, please, struggle,” the monster said. “The sorrow when you die will be even more delicious. Nothing is more disappointing than resignation.”

The realization dawned on Sigge as the splinters washed from her hand. She had come here to die, and there would be no one to burn Hedvig. Nor herself.

“Poor little Abomination. I will remember you fondly.” The monster squeezed. Sigge cried out in pain. Her ribs strained; she could feel her organs pressing into each other.

“I can’t–” Sigge gasped for breath, but the creature squeezed tighter. Desperate, she tried to push the coil away. No way out. No way out. She dragged her claws over the scales.

“Linger, Abomination. Fight, you may yet–” The creature howled as Sigge’s claws caught a joint in the armor and pulled it away. It dropped her, writhing, spilling silver blood into the water. Sigge bumped the bottom, and before she could rise, another coil crashed into her.

She slammed her fist against the coil. It rose and came down again, impossibly fast in the water. Sigge felt her rib crack and screamed. Water gushed into her mouth and down her throat. Drowning, drowning, Sigge kicked wildly, hoping for purchase.

The coil pressed against her belly, pinning her to the floor of the cave, pressing her into the sucking mud. It pressed the air out of her, and in one burning, rushing gasp, water rushed in. All was in blackness. Desperate, Sigge dragged her claws across the scales. She felt her claw stick in another joint and pressed. Her claws plunged into emptiness below. Silver darkness clouded her eyes. She didn’t stop until the weight was lifted.

Sigge’s head broke the surface. She opened her mouth, but a wave slammed into her, throwing her back. She hit something hard, but this time when she gasped, she got air. She vomited water.

She was slammed back against the cave wall. She screamed, agonizing white-hot pain searing throughout her entire body.

“I have never met such a determined beast,” the monster hissed. Sigge felt its icy breath against her face, freezing water in her fur. “But I will never be defeated by a mortal, and though you are a hideous abomination, you are mortal.”

Sigge blinked, but she couldn’t open one eye as blood poured into it. She saw red. She hadn’t realized she was bleeding.

The monster’s face was inches from hers. Its pincers twitched, touching her face, yanking out golden strands of fur. Its breath was ragged, though not as ragged as hers. She may have been bleeding, but oily silver puddles pooled on the waters’ surface. The monster was bleeding more.

The monster pressed her harder and Sigge gasped in pain.

It could probably afford to lose more blood.

“You are an abomination, hated by gods and mortals and demons, and you have dared to come to my den to fight me? You should have died in your mother’s womb! But I will give you one final chance.” The created breathed ice in her face. Sigge opened her eyes. She could see the black slits gleaming beneath the pincers. They rippled like water, hypnotically.

“You need not go back to the mortals,” it whispered. “You may stay. Hunt the mortals. Bring them to me. And you may live.”

She was strong, her claws were sharp, she was determined, but the scales covering the monster’s body were unbreakable. However. She had gotten beneath them. And beneath the scales, there was nothing but shadow and ice and nothingness.

Sigge took a deep, ragged breath, ignoring the pain from her crushed ribs, then slashed the monster’s eyes.

The creature reared back, dropping Sigge into the water again. She only had to get under the scales. So she dug her feet into the mud, bared her claws, and caught at the monster’s scales as it dove, its long body gliding past.

Her claws caught, nearly ripping out at the root. She heard the creature scream, but she pressed her heels into the mud and hauled back. The creature writhed and shrieked, but Sigge held on. With all her strength, she pulled, her muscles straining, her joints creaked, but she held.

“I am no monster!” she cried and hauled back once more. There was a tearing sound, and the scale came lose in Sigge’s hands. Oily, silver blood poured over her hands, soaking into her fur, flooding the cavern around her.

The monster shrieked, its scream echoing through the cavern, piercing through the cloud of Sigge’s own confusion. The water around her boiled with the monster’s thrashing, pounding against her, driving her down. She half-crawled, half-swam until she was in the light again. The water stilled. Sigge wiped blood and water from the fur around her eyes.

The monster’s breath came ragged as its thrashing slowed. It twitched and stopped, merely floating on the water’s surface. The wounds Sigge had managed to inflict were widening as the scales crumbled away, “I never,” the monster gasped, “thought I would die at the hands of an,” it trembled, “abomination.”

Sigge watched it dissolve into the hollow of its body. “I’m not an abomination.”

The monster sighed one last time. Its body shattered like a mirror and melted away in the water of the spring. Sigge felt cold to her very core. She had had enough of the spring’s water for a lifetime, no matter how sacred.

~~~

Sigge had hoped that defeating the monster would burn the fur away. It had been an arduous fight. She could taste blood with each breath, and every movement sent pain radiating from her ribs. She was victorious all the same.

But, defeating the monster did nothing.

Sigge had hoped that dragging the trash from the cave would shed the fur from her skin. Hour after hour, she dove into the darkness to find another piece of broken pottery or another discarded farm tool. Hour after hour, the sky grew dark while the water grew clearer. She worked until couldn’t feel her limbs.

But, cleaning the spring did nothing.

Sigge had hoped bathing in the spring would wash the fur away. She shivered to her bones, sitting in the shallows, swimming in the depths, pouring handful after handful of water over her head. She bathed herself until her skin wrinkled and her fur matted with ice.

But, bathing in the spring did nothing.

As she emerged from the cave, she found the sky had turned dark, and she had missed an entire day. Exhaustion filled her limbs as darkness filled her eyes, and Sigge couldn’t bring herself to move. She lay down and prayed that she would wake the following morning naked of fur.

But, morning brought nothing.

The dawn burned the sky crimson, waking Sigge from a dreamless sleep, bathing her in a cold, watery light that would never penetrate the thick fur still covering her body. With it, she gave up hope.

Sigge stretched aching muscles and rubbed aching limbs and found that her fur was still wet. She got to her feet, stomach rumbling, joints shaking, and skin pimpling, to make her way back so she could finally put all this business and Hedvig to rest.

“When this is done, I’m just going home. Spot can go wherever he damn well pleases, but if he comes back with me, I’ll roast him for dinner.”

Thinking of delicious, juicy roast goat made her mouth water and her stomach cramp, and she decided, out of desperation, to ask the townspeople for some kindness and some breakfast. Sigge took a deep breath. This will all be done soon. Then she could hide away from the world forever.

By the time Sigge had made it back to the village the sun had nearly dried out her fur. She looked every bit like she had battled a monster, and she felt an inkling of pride at it.

That feeling ended abruptly as a stone sailed past her head, rustling the fur at her temple. That was nearly a damn fine shot, Sigge thought. Damn cheeky, too, for what I’ve just done for these people.

She glared at the children who huddled behind a fallen stone wall, where a black-haired boy huddled behind the rest. He was the thrower. She spat, and they scattered. Their cries that they too would be cursed gave her a perverse sort of satisfaction.

As she moved toward the village green, Sigge could feel their eyes on her, burning through her golden fur. She could feel the tension of anxiety as mothers hid their children behind their skirts. Men ceased their idle chatter and clenched their jaws and their fists, as children pointed and gaped. Signs of warding were made. Her very presence – her very existence – was a threat to them; she could bring down the wrath of the gods. Sigge didn’t have to look into the eyes to see the same horror she had always seen.

More than all that, though, she could feel the ache in her muscles from the fight, the pain in her broken ribs, the chill from her damp fur, the bruise from the jab of a pitchfork in her side, and Sigge felt anger.

They didn’t fear her, she knew; they feared her curse. Well, if they can’t forgive me for the curse, they will fear me for it.

She stepped onto the cool grass of the village green, where the villagers punished their criminals, held their festivals, and fed their livestock. She turned to face the gathered crowd – some had rocks, some had clubs, some had pitchforks and hoes, all were ready to chase her out of town. Or kill her. Their gods, she thought, are bloodthirsty gods.

She cast a glance over the crowd, an imperious crook to her neck she hadn’t realized she had adopted. No real weapons among them. These villagers have no teeth. Sigge found herself musing. She opened and closed her fists, feeling the claws that she had been born with, comfortable and comforting against her palm. She had teeth as well.

She cleared her throat, surprised at herself for not feeling the panic she had felt so many times. Perhaps she was just too tired.

“Yesterday,” she began, taken aback by the booming sound of her voice. The villagers were startled; she could see blood draining from their faces. She could smell the sweat in their pores. “I came to you asking for help. The spring, Dagne’s Spring, had been defiled. A demon monster had taken residence, and the village had done nothing about it.

“Yesterday, I came to you asking for help killing the demon monster and saving the spring. Yesterday, you spat at me and ran me out of town.”

They watched her with wide eyes and gaping mouths. You’ll catch flies, she thought, but she saw they were listening intently – were they afraid? It confused her but delighted her as well.

“I killed the monster. I nearly died for my trouble, but the monster is dead now and the spring is restored.

“I don’t want anything from you. I don’t want you to accept me as your neighbor, I don’t want you to reward me, and I certainly don’t want you thinking of me as your hero. I didn’t do it for you. I did it so that I could give Hedvig a proper funeral. I only ask for two thing – that you give me something to eat. I have no strength left to finish the funeral rites. And then I ask that you leave me alone.”

It was a reasonable request. It wasn’t asking much. They could oblige her and wash their hands of her forever. It was what they had always wanted of her, after all, to be free of her. She had not expected that they didn’t want her to be the one to want it.

“Hedvig’s dead!”

“Murdered!”

“Monster!”

“Fiend!”

“No!” Sigge shouted, a growl shredding her voice. Fear clenched her heart, but anger burned it away just as quickly. “I would never hurt Hedvig!”

“How could you? She was kind to you!” wailed a woman with freckles across her chest and knotted gray hair. Sigge recognized her mangled hand. Hedvig had saved it from being cut off when her cow crushed it. Sigge had had to set the hand under Hedvig’s guidance since Hedvig’s own hands were riddled with arthritis. Ana – that was her name – had blamed Sigge when the hand never healed completely, even as Hedvig said it never would.

“And since she was the only person who had ever been kind to me, why would I ever hurt her, Ana?” she snapped, letting the emphasis hang in the air like a threat. Ana’s face turned as gray as her hair.

A sharp pain shot through her body, blossoming from her back, and Sigge lashed out. She caught the prong of a pitchfork. There at the handle was the boy who had jabbed her before with his pig-nose and his beady eyes. Sigge watched the glee drain away from his face as she held the pitchfork. He desperately pulled away, but she was stronger. Swine,” she growled.

She yanked the pitchfork out of his hands and sent him sprawling at her feet. Sigge spun the pitchfork, striking him across the fat of his backside with an audible thwack as he tried to stand. The boy sobbed in pain, but Sigge sneered at him. She hadn’t struck him with her full strength; the tears were more from fear than from pain, and Sigge was disgusted by it.

“Now listen!” Sigge roared, her voice spreading out over the crowd like thunder over the mountains. “I have done nothing to you, you ungrateful fools! I have never raised my voice, I have never raised my hand, and I have certainly never raised any curse against you! The only person who has ever suffered from this curse has been me, since the day I was born, because you – you monsters have treated me like some sort of – of abomination.

“This is the way I was born! The only curse I have ever suffered under is you! I have helped deliver your babies, and cure your sick, and heal your hurt, and all I have gotten in return are curses and bruises, and I am saying enough!

“I am a healer! I am a goodwitch! I am Hedvig’s heir! I slayed the demon monster of Dagne’s Spring with my bare hands, and I alone restored it to its former glory! I am Sigge the Golden! I am Sigge the Bear! And, if I must, I will make sure you understand exactly what that means.”

Sigge thrust the pitchfork to its handle into the ground. The crowd split before her as she stalked out, every man, woman, and child eager to get out of her way. Sigge snatched a meat pie set aside on a barrel and glared about her to see if anyone would challenge her. No one did.

When Sigge took her first bite on the way back up the mountain to the sacred grove, she could have sworn she had never tasted anything so sweet.

~~~

Sigge felt better than she had in the whole of her life. She felt free, unburdened, and, perhaps even in control. And she certainly was not going to allow those two little demons Boo and Hush to change that for her. They had been building a pyre, Sigge saw, or at least Boo had, for it was still piling twigs atop the oversized mound as she approached.

“You’re back!” Boo exclaimed as she strode up. “Did you do it? Did you defeat that monster?”

“No good,” Hush replied. “Look, still covered in fur.”

“Once an abomination, always an abomination,” Spot declared. Sigge wondered how long Boo and Hush were going to put up with him. Boo, irritably, snapped a pebble at his flank, hitting with an audible clap. Spot screamed and hopped away.

Not long, apparently.

“I did kill that monster. I cleaned that spring. I took more than one bath in that spring, too,” Sigge replied. “I nearly drowned in it.”

“Too bad,” Hush said, lounging in the abandoned goat cart. “It was a long shot. I mean, if anything could break a curse like that, it would be a dunking in that spring, but looks like you’re stuck with it.”

Boo looked like it was about to cry. “But… that monster’s gone. We won’t have to–”

Hush threw a pine cone at Boo, but Boo leapt onto a tree branch and hissed at Hush like a cat. Hush hissed back. “That’s none of her business.”

“It is so!”

“No, it is not!”

“What’s not my business?”

“We were supposed to chase that monster out of the spring,” Boo blurted out, only to be beaned by another pine cone.

We have the grove to guard. We were allowing Sigge to deal with the spring so that she could break her curse.” Hush turned back to Sigge, flashing a row of pointed teeth at her, but the way it bit its lip told Sigge it was nervous. “You know, gods are all about heroic deeds and that, so, I figured, that’s the most heroic deed we have at hand, why not try that?

“Too bad, gods are fickle and all. Looks like you’ll–”

“I don’t care,” Sigge said, crossing her arms across her chest. “I am going to finish giving Hedvig her rites, and then I am going to go home, and you, little one, are not going to stop me.”

Sigge stepped into the sacred grove and was pleased, relieved really, to find that lightning didn’t strike, fire didn’t leap from the ground, pits didn’t open. Nothing happened. She smiled to herself. I knew it.

“You can’t do that!” Hush started to object, but Sigge turned around in a flash, towering over the tiny demon.

“And who’s going to stop me?” she asked. “You? I killed your monster, and either you let me burn Hedvig’s body or your taking a dunking in that spring and see how well it treats a demon like you.

“I don’t care what anyone thinks, god, demon, or otherwise. I am blessed to be the way I am, and nothing and no one is going to stop me now.”

Hush stuck out its bottom lip, glaring up at Sigge. They were just children, she thought to herself. And just like children, they needed to be taught how to behave.

“Now, go gather some of those dried leaves so that I can light the pyre and be done with it.”

Hush hesitated, a defiant glare in its eyes, but Sigge returned it with a force that even the obstinate little demon couldn’t stand against it. Hush bowed its head and scuffed its feet as it took its time gathering leaves. Sigge smiled again.

I’m sorry it took so long, Sigge thought as it hefted Hedvig’s body onto the pyre Boo had built. Everything is taken care of now.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Writing is like Cooking

I like food and I like food analogies. So, here’s a good one.

To put it otherwise: once you got the basics about making sure vegetables are tasty, meat is cooked, and seasoning can be fun, you’re good with experimenting.

Baking, on the other hand, is a chemical process that can easily be thrown off if you mess with the ratios, so don’t experiment unless you’re experienced.

Bread-making is an esoteric process control by ancient chaos gods, it doesn’t matter how experienced you are, if you experiment you may end up summoning the Devourer of Worlds.

People think that writing is like bread-making: pray to the gods and maybe sacrifice a goat beforehand, and there’s no guarantee of success.

However, I would argue that writing is more like cooking: once you’ve got a few elements under your belt, you can experiment to create something knew. Sometimes, it’s awful, mostly, it’s pretty good, and occasionally, you’ve created the next worldwide food craze.

So, what are the elements of good writing? I’d say there are seven.

Setting

Setting is where the story takes place. It can be as specific or as vague as you want so long as it provides the arena in which the story can unfold. Maybe it’s “Somewhere in the desert at night” or it’s “October 16th, 1972 in the bedroom Helen had shared with her husband for fifty years, in the house on Mulberry Street in the small town of Haven, New Hampshire.”

The setting is kind of like your cooking vessel. It provides the environment in which the story can happen. It can set the mood and be a touchstone to help orient (or disorient) the reader.

Certain vessels are better suited to certain cooking types – and certain settings are better suited to particular stories – but I can tell you from experience, you can still saute onions in the bottom of a stock pot if you don’t have a saute pan.

Theme

When you’re cooking, you really need a fat to grease the vessel. It makes sure nothing sticks, makes the good you’re cooking tastier, and adds satiety to your meal. You might be able to go without when cooking, but it really improves your food.

Similarly, a theme is sort of the background “thing” that your story is actually about. It’s “what’s at stake.” It’s the story you’re trying to tell outside of the plot.

Try to write down what your story is about. Not a summary of the plot, but what it’s really about. That’s the theme. For example, on Monday 7/14/19 I’ll be posting a short story called “The Curse of the Bear.” I love that story, and what it’s about is “You can’t overcome the pressures of society until you can accept yourself as you are.” That’s the butter. Or olive oil. Or whatever.

Now, look, you can go without a real theme. Just like you can just boil chicken and steam broccoli, but you’re not going to get a very tasty meal.

Conflict

Conflict is the heat. If you’re going to cook something, you have to apply to heat to it. Or, in the case of ceviche, acid. But sushi doesn’t need cooking. Neither does salad. How does conflict apply to stories here? Shut up, the analogy isn’t perfect, besides, sushi rice isn’t raw and please don’t slap raw meat onto your salad. Also, roasted nuts and seeds are far tastier on a salad than raw ones, so try it.

Anyway, conflict is the heat. It’s what keeps your readers hooked. It creates tension and anxiety. Conflict is what has to be resolved in order to have a plot.

Incidental Comics has the best example, frankly.

Characters

Here we get to the meat and potatoes.

Characters are the food you’re cooking. They’re the ones getting cooked by the conflict and they’re the ones being processed through the plot.

Now, all characters are going to have certain qualities: history, motivations, personality, and development. You have the protagonist and most of the time you have an antagonist, but maybe not, unless Nature or Self become a separate character in those conflicts.

You can have a lot of characters or only two, or maybe only one. And different characters are suited to different conflicts. Just as a tough piece of meat does better with a long, low heat, a character with a lot of issues is going to do better in a conflict of Person vs Self.

Plot

Plot is the process of cooking. Okay, this is where the metaphor gets really iffy.

There are certain steps you have to take when cooking, and they have to be taken in a certain order. You can mess things around sometimes, but, there are certain ways you cook that will get you to a particular dish. For example, if you’re going to make gumbo, first you need to make a roux.

Now, Christopher Booker argued there were nine basic plots, but only seven were worthwhile. This is a really good article about it if you want to read it, but briefly, they are:

Overcoming the Monster (eg, the movie Fern Gully)

Rags to Riches (eg, Cinderella)

Quest (eg, Odyssey)

Voyage and Return (eg, The Road to El Dorado)

Comedy (eg, A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Tragedy (eg, Medea)

Rebirth (eg, Beauty and the Beast)

Mystery (eg, literally anything by Agatha Christie)

Rebellion against the One (eg, The Giver, or really any dystopian fiction)

Pacing

Each food you cook is going to take a different cooking time. Potatoes take longer than spinach. A thick pot roast is going to take longer than scallopini chicken.

Your story is going to require careful pacing in order to get a good meal out of it. Or… something like that.

Pacing is where you build and relieve tension. A story that goes by too quickly exhausts a reader, but one that goes by too slowly bores them. Pacing also allows you to give the reader a break. Maybe you need to give the reader a laugh after so much emotional anguish. Does it break pacing? No, it creates it.

Point of View

Finally, POV is the seasoning. Now, don’t act like I’m just throwing this in here because the metaphor is getting away from me.

Let me tell you a story: my brother-in-law grew up without eating any seasoning. His mother never used any seasoning whatsoever when cooking. Mashed potatoes? They were were boiled and mashed, and that was it. If you wanted salt or pepper on it, you could add it at the table.

My sister moved in with them while they were looking for a place to live, and BIL started taking over cooking. His parents so enjoyed his cooking that they begged my sister and him to stay even after they purchased their home.

You need to season your food when you cook, of you’re going to have a very sad meal. If you don’t have the right POV, you’re going to have a very confused story.

Now, you can have multiple POV characters, you can have first, second, or third person (limited, multiple, or omniscient). You could have past, present, or future tense going on. You could have an unreliable narrator.

If you’re going to make a great curry, you need like a million different herbs and spices, but all you need for a good steak is salt and pepper. If you’re telling a simple, linear story, you may only want a single, first person POV. If you’re telling a complex story with a ton of actors, you may want multiple first person POVs, or omniscient third person, or multiple third person.

Having the right POV only improves a story.

So what are you supposed to do with all of this?

Every story needs every element listed above. That’s that.

But, not every scene needs every element.

I saw a tweet this week which is why I’m writing this article at all. The original tweet asked if the author should cut a chapter that didn’t drive the plot. A lot of the responses were they, indeed, they should. If it doesn’t drive the plot, cut it without mercy. (and I’m sorry, I can’t find the tweet.)

I argued otherwise. I argued that as long as the scene does at least two of the seven above (establish setting or POV, set pacing, create conflict, develop character, enhance theme, or drive plot), it’s worth keeping.

A story that only has scenes that drives plot screws with pacing. A story with scenes that only develop characters has no real plot. A mess of POV creates a disaster, but without characters development or conflict, no one will care.

A well-crafted story, like a well-crafted meal, has every element, at least once, in the process.

Good luck, my friends, and just keep writing.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Write What You Know

When I was in 1st grade, my teacher had us make a little 12-page book using cardboard, paper, and duct tape, and we each wrote our own little story in it. That was when I realized I wanted to be a writer.

By the time I was 10, I was writing novels – none were very good, but boy-howdy could I pump out a word count! It was then that a teacher gave me advice that I think all of us have heard: write what you know.

Even then, I knew that wouldn’t work: what the hell does a 10 year old know?

I feel that advice is a little misplaced, though.

I like fiction. I like fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. And, as you may have noticed from other posts on this blog, that’s what I write (shut up, I did write those words). And a lot of what I read (and write) doesn’t take place in any real universe. So, here’s the question: how can I know anything about a world that doesn’t exist?

I want to re-think the Write What You Know advice.

Write What You Invent

The great thing about the fantasy/scifi/horror genres is that you don’t have to know anything; you can invent it. All of Narnia is made up – C.S. Lewis famously included a lamppost in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to prove to Tolkien that, yeah, you totally could include that in a fantasy story because you can just make it up!

Tolkien, obviously, took it the other way. Entirely. He created a vast and intricate world, with centuries of history and just… multiple languages. I’ll never get over that.

Absurdist literature works this way, too. All of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is the greatest modern example of absurdist literature out there, and if you haven’t read it, seriously do. Does any of it make sense? Not really. Is it still wonderful? Absolutely.

However, I think it’s worth noting that, even when you make it all up, there does have to be a central string that holds it all together.

The greatest fantasy/scifi/horror stories take place in a world with an internal logic. It doesn’t have to make sense (see Lemony Snicket) outside of its world, but it does have to make sense within it. And the story you’re trying to tell has to make sense in the world you’re telling it in.

Tolkien was telling an epic story about the struggle of good and evil, and how that struggle is not always as simple as it seems it should be – we need a vast, intensely detailed universe to tell this story.

Lewis was retelling Christianity in Narnia. Like Tolkien’s, these stories are also about the struggle between good and evil, but the lines are obvious and it’s obvious whose going to win. Narnia is an allegory; it has to be told in a world where heavy symbolism can exist side by side.

Snicket, on the other hand, is telling the story about how “good” and “bad” may not be good divisions at all and that part of growing up is navigating a world that may not always make sense. An absurd world allows Snicket to examine these themes through many lenses.

If you’re going to make it up, be prepared to dive deep down into that.

Write What You Research

Or maybe it’s research what you write, but I wanted to keep the format.

Anyway, part of the great thing about writing is it can be what you want. But, let’s admit, if you’re not writing in the fantasy/scifi/horror genre, you can’t always just make it up.

If you’re writing a historical fiction, you’re going to want to be well-versed in whatever historical fiction you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a real world setting, you might want to brush up on what that place (and the culture where that place is) is like, you know, where things are and what it looks like. That sort of thing. Words.

Bernard Cornwell pumps out historical fiction all the time. His The Saxon Stories are somewhat fictionalized story of one of Cornwell’s paternal ancestors. A great deal of the story is made up. The protagonist is fictional, but based off a real person. Many of the characters in the book existed, but they’re actual character is shifted to fit Cornwell’s own imagination, and Cornwell’s played with the actual historical timeline.

But what no one complains about is how it is historically inaccurate. The series is amazing, well-researched and incredibly immersive.

Alternatively, you have his book Stonehenge. Stonehenge is nearly entirely made up. We have no idea why people built Stonehenge, but Cornwell writes one possible explanation while creating an immersive world using research he’s done on what we know about the people of that age.

Important Note

You may also choose to write a character or characters who are a different race, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or so many other qualities. I would encourage it: the value in creating characters who are not like you both give people who they are like a chance to see people like themselves (representation matters, yo), but also helps teach others to empathize with them.

But, do you research. Talk to people. Ask questions, LISTEN. Read up on people’s lived experiences. Make use of sensitivities readers. They’ll help you understand things you may never have before, pointing out areas you need to research more, and creating characters that are multidimensional and far more real.

Research is also a shockingly good place to find inspiration. Learning more about the characters you’re writing and the places where they live can create new avenues of storytelling you’ve never thought of before.

Write What You Learn

Writing is a great learning process.

I mean, not just the mechanics of POV, pacing, etc. Those are all important, and everything you write will help you teach that, too.

No, I mean, think about your WIP. What are you trying to say with it?

So, some of the best advice I ever got was to tell your story in a single sentence. Not a synopsis. But a summary.

In my first article, I described a story I had spent years writing about a girl who had been kidnapped by fairies as a child. It was a fantasy story, but it dealt with a lot of the psychological scarring she had experienced after losing her family and being told for so long that what she thought had happened hadn’t.

But, the story was about how sometimes, the only person you can save is yourself.

Ultimately, when I was writing the story, that was what I was exploring. That was what I was trying to learn.

The project I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo (can’t start preparing too early, right?) is about how growing up is as much about what you leave behind as what you take with you.

You may not know what you’re trying to learn as you’re writing. Sometimes, you have to get it out on paper. You may have to go through a couple of drafts.

Ultimately, though, when you’re writing, you’re trying to say something. You’re trying to explain something. There’s something you’re trying to learn and that you’re trying to teach.

That’s what you need to write about.

Conclusion

Write what you know is fine advice, but I don’t think that’s what it really is trying to tell you.

Write what you invent, what you research, what you learn. Or rather, know what you write. Even if you know it because you made it up, researched it, or learned it as you write.

Whatever you do, just keep writing.

Rejection Sucks

And I’m not going to give you some saccharine-sweet truism about how every time your piece gets rejected is another step toward it being accepted. Yeah, you can learn from rejection, when the rejector actually gives you some criticism. But, rejection still sucks.

And it’s a kind of suck that you don’t really get used to.

You can experience rejection in all manner of ways in every aspect of your life, and yet, whenever it happens, you can’t help but feel disappointed.

It’s something that you’re told to expect as a writer. And you will get it. It can take many forms, too, not just rejection from publishers. Rejection from readers hurts just as much, even more so. And don’t get me started on critics.

Rejection in all its forms, whether it’s “We won’t publish this,” “We won’t read it,” “We don’t like what we read,” or, “What we read really sucks, and here’s all the reasons you should never read Ainsel’s stuff again,” hurts.

It’s also a part of being a writer, because even when you’re on top of the world like J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter series, you’ll end up the scorn of your former fans, like J.K. Rowling with tweeting weird things she never included in the canon about her characters.

You can let rejection tear you down. You can let it stop you. And I can see why you would want to. More than once a week, I wonder if I should keep writing. So I get it. But, may I suggest an alternative?

Acceptance.

There’s a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy out there called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s got a pretty zen feel to it, arguing that the problem isn’t that we have thoughts and feelings that make us unhappy, but rather, that we fuse with them.

Think of fusion like this: Let’s say you take a fashion risk and wear a shirt you wouldn’t normally do. Someone, apropos of nothing, tells you that your shirt is hideous. Maybe it’s a shirt you like. Maybe you spent a lot of money on it. Whatever, you start thinking, “I have a horrible sense of style. I should never have worn this shirt.”

You’re embarrassed and disappointed, and you decide not to try any new styles.

You have fused with your thought. You have taken the thoughts “I have a horrible sense of style” and attached your identity to it.

What ACT argues is that the thought “I have a horrible sense of style” is just a thought. It has no real meaning. Is it true? According to ACT, doesn’t matter if it is. The question is, Is this thought helpful? If it’s not helpful, you need to defuse from the thought.

When it comes to writing, it’s really easy to “fuse” with your negative thoughts. It’s really easy to see that you’re not the next Stephen King, and think that you’re a terrible writer. “I’m a terrible writer,” is just a thought. It has no real truth to it, and you don’t have to fuse with it.

Similarly, when your short story or novel or poem or piece of artwork is rejected, it’s really easy to fuse with that and feel that you were rejected.

So, what do you do?

There are plenty of exercises that help, but I prefer the following:

When I noticed I’m having a harmful thought, and that I am fusing with that thought, I stop and say to myself, “I notice that I am having the thought that I have a horrible sense of style. I want to thank you, Mind, because I know you are trying to help.”

Usually that’s enough to distance myself from the thought.

And when I experience an authorial rejection, I find myself saying “I notice that I am having the thought that I’m not a good writer. I want to thank you, Brain, because I know you are trying to help.”

“I notice that I am having the thought that I could only write twenty words today and that I will never get published. I want to thank you, Brain, because I know that you are trying to help.”

“I notice that I am having the thought that because my story was rejected by a publisher that I am never going to be a real author. I want to thank you, Brain, because I know that you are trying to help.”

You see, your brain regularly throws out random thoughts to try to identify dangers. Is that a snake in the weeds? Is that a tiger by the water? And that’s great when you’re actually surrounded by danger. But when you’re surrounded by office settings and research notes, it can make you feel pretty trapped.

ACT argues that you will always have these negative thoughts. The point is to accept that you have them, allow them to pass, and move on with you life.

The next part is commitment. While you can get a “values worksheet” to help you write out all your values, let’s assume that you’re visiting this blog because you want to write, so writing is a value for you. So, you commit to writing.

When that niggling feeling comes that you want to quit writing because of the rejection, you ask yourself “Does quitting writing help me live a value-driven life, when writing is one of my values?”

That answer should be self-evident.

So, rejection.

1) Accept rejection will happen.

It just will. The most popular authors still experience rejection. They still have readers refuse to read their writing, publishers refuse to publish it, and critics calling it garbage. Accept that it will happen.

2) Learn what you can from the rejection.

Maybe the publisher will tell you why they rejected the piece “the viewpoint keeps shifting,” “there’s nothing at stake for the character,” or “this is a cooking magazine, please stop sending us your Star Trek slash.”

Take the advice that is helpful.

3) Learn that some rejection will not be helpful.

My mother loves me, and she believes I am a very good writer. She, however, likes neither fantasy nor horror. She will never regularly read anything I write because I insist on writing in genres she just doesn’t like. It’s a form of rejection. It’s not a form that will help me learn anything.

And sometimes you just get a form letter saying something about how this just doesn’t fit them at this time and they wish you the best in the future, feel free to submit again!

That’s going to be a lot of the rejection you experience. Learning to decipher which is helpful and which isn’t will help you going forward.

4) Write

That’s it. Commit to writing and write. Take a deep breath, recognize when you’re fusing with a thought that you shouldn’t, and move on. 

But, Ainsel, how do I write when I’m so miserable over a rejection that I feel like my world is caving in?

Start at the beginning. First, if rejection makes you so miserable that you feel like the apocalypse has landed on your doorstep, that means that you are fusing with the rejection. You are thinking you’re a terrible writer who will never be published, and you need to work a bit on your self-awareness and re-examine that. 

Take a deep breath, take ten, notice that you’re having these thoughts, and let them pass.

Then, well, let your imagination run for a bit. Maybe do some daily writing prompts to prime the pump. Maybe read through your ASeOWME IDEAS! folder to remind yourself that you are a good writer. Maybe toy with a pet project for a day or two. I have a comic I play with (not that I can draw to bring it to life, but I can still use it to inspire me) in my darkest times.

Then get back to your project and write.

And just keep writing.

How to Get that Word Count

Daily word counts are a pretty standard goal for lots of authors. Me, I’ve been aiming for 2,000 (and failing for the most part) for quite some time. That’s Stephen King’s purported word count. Ernest Hemingway had a much more modest 500. Anne Rice has the more ambitious 3,000, whereas Michael Crichton claims the extreme 10,000.

As I said, I would be satisfied with 2,000, but no matter how long I stare at the blank screen, I often fail to hit that limit. Or, sometimes, with work and other obligations, it’s just impossible (one reason plenty of writers use a weekly rather than a daily word count).

Writer’s Block. Our ancient nemesis. It affects the best of us. Consider Franz Kafka.

Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s written some pretty classic stuff like The Metamorphosis, Amerika, and The Trial. Pretty famous guy, too. Apparently, though, he hit that writer’s block pretty regularly. Here are some of his diary entries:

  • JANUARY 20, 1915: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?
  • JANUARY 29, 1915: Again tried to write, virtually useless.
  • JANUARY 30, 1915: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.

I feel it. In my soul.

So, how do you get that old word count? Here are some tips I have:

Outline

Lots of writers “pantsers.” They prefer to sit in front of a page and just write whatever comes. There may be some vague plans, some scene or event they want to get to, some character they want to get to know, but ultimately, they’re just seeing what happens.

And that can be fine, but…

The first time I did NaNoWriMo, I hit 50,000 words and then had completely no idea what to do. I had been pantsing the whole thing. I knew I liked these characters, this scene, and a basic idea of what scenario I wanted to play out, but what I didn’t have was an end. I got to a place where my ideas had played out, and I had no idea where to go from there. How was I supposed to end this thing?

Outlining could have helped.

Outlines are guidelines, and you can do it in different ways. It could be a list of scenes, a series of plot points, or a group of plot points one has to hit at some point. It can be a bare list or a huge plan of every scene that will take place.

Aside from helping figure out the basic arc of the story and giving you a chance to foresee plot holes, the outline gives you something else: it tells you where to go next.

When the word count hasn’t been hit, you’ve got a guide for where you can punch out a few more.

Pants It

I just said outlining helps with word counts, but, pantsing can to.

Before I write an outline, I pants a bunch of scenes. Those scenes may never get used, they may be from well before or well after the story taking place, or they could exist anywhere within the story’s timeline. The point is to get to know the characters and they world they like in. It’s also a great way to generate new ideas for a story that may have grown stale or too stiff.

Pantsing is a great way to exercise your writing muscles, too, as it lets you play in ways you might not were you dedicating those words and paragraphs to a particular story.

And, frankly, even if you end up deleting the words entirely, I still think it counts toward a word count goal. Any writing is the practice you need to become a better writer.

Try a Different Project

This, you gotta be careful with.

I love knitting. And I’ve been knitting this one octopus for damn near a year now. And it’s a pretty cool looking octopus, but I am just. so. tired of this thing.

I’ve interrupted this octopus to do other things. Sew a quilt. Cross stitch. Crochet. Paint. I have put this octopus aside so many times, I’ve probably 6 months of progress on it. I could have been done already, but I just. Couldn’t.

Writing can be like that. Sometimes I don’t want to work on The Blackwells. I stare at the outline I’ve got, I stare at the file of it, and I find myself just. Ugh.

And then I don’t hit my word count.

Sometimes (and I do mean, please be careful), you just need a break. In those instances, I have a couple other pieces I’m working on. A short story I want to publish here, maybe, or working on my NaNoWriMo plan.

It allows me to keep in the habit of writing when I’ve just gotten tired of the story I’m working on. Look, even the best meals gets boring if it’s the only thing you eat everyday.

I think this only works if you’re willing to put deadlines on yourself. For The Blackwells, if I haven’t got a scene to post by Monday, I don’t let myself play with another story.

Use Your Awesome Stuff Folder

I’m completely behind having a physical or digital Awesome Stuff Folder. It’s your little cauldron of inspiration. It’s your reminder that you’re a good writer. It’s a great compilation that reminds you that you love writing.

Those scenes you wrote while you were pantsing? Throw them in here if you aren’t going to use them. When you have writer’s block for your story, go back and re-read them. It’ll get you excited again or give you new ideas.

Finished your recent WIP and need to start something else? What else is the Awesome Stuff Folder for.

Just can’t keep going on with the story you’re working on? Awesome Stuff Folder has some stuff for you, too.

Keep an Awesome Stuff Folder.

Edit

Generally, once you finish a first draft, you should let it sit for a while before you start editing it. You gotta take a step back from it, so that you can look at it again with fresh eyes.

And that’s fine.

But let’s say you wrote WIP A six weeks ago, and now you’ve finished WIP B. What do you do?

You gotta edit at some point.

So, start editing WIP A. If it’s 10,000 words and you count 2,000 a day, divide it up over 5 days, and call it good for your word count.

Editing is as much a part of writing as just writing. Use editing toward your word count. You have my permission, and encouragement.

Conclusion

Word counts can be intimidating, but they don’t have to be. We all have to measure our progress somehow, and word counts are a great place to start.

The above tips should help you punch out that word count when you’re hitting writer’s block. Use them up as much as you need.

Good luck, my lovelies, and just keep writing.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Inspiration, Motivation, Dedication

I was once on a fitness forum in which someone posed the question “How do you get the motivation to run every day?”

I love giving advice, and I like running, so I started typing.

Try as I might, though, I was having a hard time expressing my experience, because it went something like this: I would get a sudden desire to do it, and so I would do it for a while until such a morning came that I really, really didn’t want to go but I forced myself to do it anyway.

The former was motivation, but the latter was something else.

Finally, I wrote something like this:

“You’ve probably been motivated to change a million times, but after a month, a week, a day, it disappears. Dedication is what keeps you going after the motivation disappears. It’s the part that looks at your urge to stay in bed instead of running and says, ‘Staying in bed doesn’t help me reach my goals, so I will get out of bed and run.’”

Writing adds another element: inspiration.

There are plenty of times in my life that I have been inspired to write. Suddenly, the muse is upon me, and I can pump out thousands of words. I once was so inspired that I wrote out more than 6,000 words in one sitting on a story I wasn’t even working.

And, Blessed Saint Francis de Sales, it’s wonderful when that happens. But, the muse is a fickle master, and trying to guide the flow of her inspiration is more likely to dam the river than direct it. Relying on inspiration to make your writing career is like waiting for dinner to fly into your mouth. Or, as Confucius probably never actually said, “He who waits for a roast duck to fly into his mouth will starve.”

Of course, connected and disconnected at the same time, I will get the motivation to write. I will decide that I will hit that 2,000 word count daily or die trying. A few days go by when I am successful, and then, just as suddenly, I’m staring at a blank computer screen and hating every word I have to punch out just to get to my goal. And those words are not good words. Not good words at all.

If you really want to write – or run or learn a new language or climb mountains – what you need to cultivate isn’t inspiration or motivation, although those will be incomparable tools you can use. What you really need, the gas that will power your writing engine, is dedication. It’s the dedication to sit down and write every day.

Dedication is the part of you that says, “I see that I don’t want to write today, but sitting here playing Stardew Valley isn’t going to help me finish my novel.”

Inspiration makes you love writing, motivation makes you want to write, but dedication is what makes you write.

How to cultivate inspiration

I’ve mentioned my Awesome Ideas folder, and frankly, I think it’s an invaluable tool. I love going through stuff I’ve written – maybe some purple prose, maybe a scene that doesn’t belong anywhere – and think “ah, yes, I am a writer.”

I have a tumblr account (yes, I’m on that hellsite) that I use to help accumulate and curate inspiration. Pictures, writing prompts, bits of historical facts. I tag them all so that I can sort back through them later. This account is a sort of digital Awesome Ideas folder.

Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter can all be great tools where you can accumulate inspiration. Quotes, writing prompts, pictures, just ideas that people share, you can save things that make you feel excited about writing. Use those tools.

If you see a picture in a magazine that gives you an idea, cut it out and put it in an inspiration box. If you see a quote that enthuses you, copy and paste it into a doc. If you read a story that fills you’re shriveled little writer’s heart with joy and light, link that shit and re-read it.

I have digital and physical Awesome Ideas folders, and I happily use them both. You can even create different Awesome Ideas folders for different novels. I once found myself watching Howl’s Moving Castle nearly every day because it inspired me to write a story I was once working on. When it comes to The Blackwells, watching BBC’s Pride and Prejudice miniseries usually does the trick.

And if there’s ever a time when I just can’t bring myself to work on whatever main project I’m writing, I fiddle through my Awesome Ideas folders to find something else that inspires me, just to prime the pump.

Get into the habit of reviewing things that inspire you. The more you do, the more inspired you’ll get by just about anything.

Inspiration is a spark – you need it before you can start the engine of dedication. Learn to turn your shriveled little writer’s heart into a flint.

How to cultivate motivation

Motivation is, I admit, very similar to inspiration. But, I think it goes a bit like this:

When I see art someone has posted somewhere, or I read a good book, or I spot a quote that makes my mind race with ideas, that’s inspiration. When I want to start putting those words down on paper, that’s motivation. Inspiration makes you want to think; motivation makes you want to act.

Motivation is hype. Motivation is seeing people on Twitter gearing up for NaNoWriMo and wanting to be part of it. Motivation is seeing the advice “put aside fifteen minutes a day to write” and you put an alarm in your phone for tomorrow.

Cultivating motivation is a little harder than inspiration, because it can be the flipside of de-motivation.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some story or advice that I supposed to me motivating only to feel utterly demotivated.

Sometimes, seeing that someone you knew growing up has published a book, you can feel pretty deflated. Sometimes, seeing that Michael Crichton writes 10,000 words a day makes you want to throw your laptop out the window. Sometimes, seeing some true book that you know is nowhere as good as your writing (I won’t name names) is getting published just makes you feel like none of this is worth it anymore.

Things that should be motivating can become de-motivating pretty quickly if you’re in the wrong state of mind for it. So, what do you do?

Time for some brain-training.

The first you think need to do is be aware. Be aware of what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. When you notice that hearing “500 words a day is a reasonable goal” but all you can think is “I can’t even get 500 words a day out, I’ll never be a writer,” you need to stop. Call it out. Say to yourself “I notice that I am having the thought that I will never be a writer.” Name your thoughts and feelings.

You need to be aware what you’re thinking and feeling, and you need to spell those thoughts and feelings out to yourself.

Once you’ve done that, you can then remind yourself that it’s just a thought, not reality. You didn’t get psychic all of a sudden. Let yourself feel that feeling, recognize it is just a feeling, and then let it pass.

Now, spite can be a decent motivator, but it isn’t the only one, and probably not the healthiest. Lots of things should motivate you. Inspiration can motivate you! But, frankly, the idea of writing should motivate you.

My best advice: when you see something about writing, remind yourself “I want to write.” Just say it to yourself. Out loud. “I want to write.” Keep your brain thinking that.

Idiot from high school is published? “I want to write.”

Inspiration strikes? “I want to write.”

Read an article about writing? “I want to write.”

How to cultivate dedication

You can have inspiration without motivation – that’s daydreaming. You can have motivation without inspiration – that’s writer’s block. Writing, though, writing takes dedication.

Dedication is looking at the endless void of a white page and punching something out anyway.

I can’t give you much in the way of pretty quotes for this section, but I can give you some tips to help you out. Because, really, this is the brass tacks of it. This is where we want to be.

1. Create a writing environment.

I don’t mean a room filled with your inspiration. I mean, create a separate space and time that is  your “writing space and time.” Don’t just sit in front of your tv or at your kitchen table. There needs to be something in the environment that tells your mind “now is writing.”

Changing into specific “exercise clothes” can help remind your brain that “now is exercising.” Sitting at a dinner table creates a different feeling in you than plopping in front of the tv with a hot pocket. You need an environment that helps flip that switch, too. It can still be on the sofa or at the kitchen table. But something needs to be a cue that says “this is different, this is writing.”

It could be a set of clothes, a piece of music you play, or just a chair you don’t normally sit in. It just has to be different.

2. Get rid of distractions

Don’t watch TV, don’t have Youtube playing in the background, don’t keep social media open in a different tab. You need to focus.

When you are struggling, you’re brain is going to try to find something else to do. It’s not interested in what you’re writing, so it wants to pay attention to something else.

Don’t let it.

Take a deep breath, take a drink of water (or tea or coffee, or something stiffer; as the saying goes, write drunk, edit sober), and then say to yourself, “This is writing time, and I want to write.”

George R.R. Martin writes in a DOS word program to write. And hell if that isn’t a distraction-less way of writing.

3. Try different tricks

I had read somewhere that white was too intimidating of a color, and that you should try turning the page green instead. And I did. And I do.

Someone else pointed out that using Comic Sans as a font makes it less intimidating. And if that works for you, great.

There’s that one program that will delete everything you write if you don’t keep typing, and if that starts your engine, go for it.

Experiment. Play around. See what works for you, and once you find it, abuse it maliciously.

4. Aim for time first, than word count

Back to running, there are multiple “Couch to 5k” programs out there to help you get up and running that 3.1 miles. Funny thing is, you don’t start with distance. You measure and extend the time you spend running. Once you can run for half an hour, then you start working on distance.

NaNoWriMo makes you think word count is all that matters, but I gotta say, focusing on time first is a better way to start. Set aside 15 minutes or half an hour a day. That is the time where you will sit in your writing environment without distraction using whatever tricks you like until that time is up. Even if all you’re doing is staring at a blank screen for the whole time.

Word count is great if you can get a reliable word count out, but sometimes you just can’t get it out. Aiming for a goal you can never hit is just training yourself to fail. But, all of us can set a time limit and wait for an alarm, so start there. Once you see that you can reliably punch out 500 words in that time, only then can you aim for a word count.

Conclusion

So, there you have it: inspiration, motivation, dedication. You need all three, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to cultivate all three. Whatever you do, though, just keep writing.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Worldbuilding and Language

Many and many years ago, I attended a Passion play told from the point of view of Pontius Pilate as he tried to come to terms with having to crucify this uppity Hebrew guy named Jesus. At one point, as he’s soliloquising about this, he gets interrupted by some dude, and he shouts, “Jupiter, Mars, and Venus, what do you want?”

To this day, that is the only part of the play I remember.

Language is an important part of worldbuilding. Not just how your characters speak, but what they say helps build the world they live in. Language informs and is informed by the history and culture in which it exists. Sure, you need to have a landscape, a climate, a culture, and that’s the “meat and potatoes” of worldbuilding. Language is the spices.

So, here’s some useful ways to add a bit of garlic, cumin, or cinnamon to your world.

Profanity

There are plenty of reasons not to use profanity, just as many as there are to use it!

Profanity is linguistically and culturally based, and I think that the difference in cussing between the United States and the United Kingdom is illustrative. The obvious place to go here is to look at the different curse words themselves. “Bloody” is a common enough one used in the UK that is only used by anglophiles in the US. I was in my twenties before I learned that it might be referencing “the blood of Christ,” which would make sense in a Christian society.

Moreover, certain words are offensive in one location and not so much in another. “C*nt” is a common term used throughout the United Kingdom, but is considered one of the worst cuss words you could use in the United States (which is I was censored it – I don’t want to have to upgrade this post to “over 18”). Jackass, on the other hand, is used frequently in the US, but is not often heard in the UK. In other words, you can get a sense of where you are by the cuss words being used.

Additionally, Americans have an interesting relationship with profanity that is reflective of the US’s puritanical history. While profanity can be rife in certain movies and music genres, using profanity in public and by public figures is still intensely taboo. So much so that even I, who regularly cusses like a drunken sailor, felt uncomfortable when reading Stephen King’s It because of how much the children protagonists cussed. Brits, on the other hand (having historically kicked out the Puritans that moved to America), are far more fluent in profanity, to the point that travel guides warn Brits to censor their language in the US less they offend the natives. But that’s part of it – the relationship with profanity is reflective of the history. A puritanical culture will be more uptight about profanity.

In writing, you can create profanity that makes sense in the context of the world your building. While it isn’t necessary to create profanity, having character-appropriate profanity adds an additional layer of “realism.”

In Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series (written in the Warhammer 40k universe), we have a military unit from a destroyed world, serving the Emperor of Mankind, fighting an endless war across the universe against the forces of Chaos.

“By the throne!” or “Golden throne!” are common refrains in the massive universe of Warhammer 40k – minor profanity nearly on the level of “for Pete’s sake.” The Emperor of Mankind is, essentially, a corpse, kept alive by a massive life-support system called The Golden Throne. Though considered mildly blasphemous (did I mention the Emperor of Mankind was worshipped as a god?), it’s a common phrase throughout the Imperium.

Dan Abnett goes a bit deeper with his Ghosts. The Ghosts have a particular curse they use regularly – “feth” – and only men from Tanith (their destroyed world) use the term. At some point a couple books in,  we learn that Feth is actually the name of a fertility god that was once worshipped on Tanith. So, you can imagine what “feth” is supposed to mean. When survivors of Vervunhive join the Ghosts, they bring their own local curse word: gak (no, it’s not as good, but how can you really surpass the simple elegance of feth?). Abnett goes so far as the have Gaunt even muse that he knew the new and old recruits were really bonding when they started using each others’ profanity.

Now, each character doesn’t have to use profanity the same. A young mother (in the US anyway) might never curse in front of her child and would scold anyone who does (this has literally happened to me in real life), but the teenager trying to sound tough is going to drop some f-bombs pretty frequently, and might throw a c*nt in there if they’re feeling extra spicy.

Idioms

Once, in Spanish class, we had an assignment about writing a short paper in Spanish about our vacation. My vacation that summer included going to hole-in-the-wall restaurants to eat clam chowder and drink beer, so I found myself trying to find a way to say “hole-in-the-wall” in Spanish. I got points off, because, in Spanish, that literally translating that phrase made no sense. Similarly, when translating a German paper into English as a final exam, I had to try to explain a German idiom, something like “if you invite the Devil to eat at your table, use a long spoon.” Despite hours of googling, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to mean.

Idioms are metaphors – they mean more than the words themselves mean. “Meat and potatoes,” which I used at the beginning of this article, is barely an actual dish. As an idiom, it means that it’s the basic, fundamental part of whatever it is you’re referring to.

Idioms have a cultural and historical basis. “Meat and potatoes” doesn’t make sense in a culture where many dishes are not meat (pork or beef) based and potatoes aren’t used. Another common one “pot calling the kettle black” doesn’t make sense if kettles aren’t ever used, and, frankly, probably doesn’t make sense to most people now since pots and kettles are usually stainless steel and therefore silver!

Like profanity, because idioms draw from cultural and historical environments, adding idioms to your world creates an extra dimension to it. Some idioms can be understood even without much context. For example, the Polish idiom “Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy.” Literally, it means “not my circus, not my monkey,” a phrase I’ve heard occasionally in English. Even if you’ve never encountered the phrase before, you know what it means: it’s not my problem.

Some idioms are really indicative of the culture, like the German “Alles hat ein Ende, nur die Wurst hat zwei.” Or, “everything has an end, only the sausage has two.” Germans are known for being big sausage eaters, so having an idiom referring to sausage makes a lot of sense. And, you can probably decipher the meaning as “everything comes to an end.”

Finally, some idioms make no sense at all outside of their cultural context, like describing something as “hole-in-the-wall.” If you’re not already familiar with the term, it’s actually difficult to explain even in English. It’s referring to a restaurant or shop that’s small, probably family-run, it’s not fancy. According to Etymonline.com, it may have been the name of a public house at one time?

George R. R. Martin is great about sprinkling idioms into his writing. “Words are wind” for example. Look at that. That world has language. That world has nuance. That world has a culture that has created a high level of language! We can guess what those idioms mean at first glance. “Words are wind” means “talk is cheap.” And it’s not just the words of one wise person, but a phrase used by multiple people. We see a small example of a shared culture.

Similarly, J.K. Rowling models wizarding idioms after common ones we may already know. For example, “don’t count your owls before they are delivered” is a version of “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” The value of manipulating commonly used phrases to make sense in your world is that it creates a world-specific idiom that still makes immediate sense to the reader already familiar with it.

There are a few rules for creating idioms.

  1. It has to make sense in the world. An idiom like “cat’s got your tongue” would feel awfully forced in a world where there are no cats.
  2. It has to say more than just the words themselves. Idioms mean more than what they are saying because they’re metaphors. “To let the cat out of the bag” means more than letting a literal cat out of a literal bag.
  3. Most importantly, it has to make sense pretty quickly to the reader. Sure, in the real world, you have idioms that take a lot of explaining to parse out, but if you have to create an entire half-page footnote to explain an idiom you’ve decided to make up for your world, you’re risking breaking immersion for your reader. The only instance I’ve seen where a footnote doesn’t break immersion is with Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, but then, Discworld is built in such a way that that sort of meta-narration makes perfect sense.

Memetic Language

Ah, memes, the language of the internet.

Actually, memes are creating an interesting linguistic change in the modern world. We can communicate using simply pictures or phrases, and, if you know the meme, you can understand exactly what is being said. It’s more than just an idiom – memes require so much more referential knowledge to grasp.

I can say to just about any of my friends “Look at them, Anakin,” and they know what I’m saying. Hell, I could just show them this picture, and they know.

“It’s “I don’t give a f*ck.” Because look at all the f*cks I don’t give. Look at them, Anakin.”

Individually, that’s even more meaningless than an idiom! Those words can’t be deciphered in anyway that actually makes sense beyond the literal. You can’t guess what that means just by the context. Sure, “words are wind” is a great idiom, but you and I can guess that it means the same thing as “talk is cheap.” “Look at them, Anakin,” requires knowledge of the franchise and a previous iteration of the image.

Truly, the greatest example of memetic language as a worldbuilding device is in the Star Trek: Next Generation episode “Darmok.”

It’s really one of my favorite episodes, so indulge me while I ramble.

There is this race of aliens called the Tamarians and no one is able to communicate with them. Oh, the truly miraculous technology of the translators are able to give the crew members of the Enterprise a translation of the words. But, even with that, the things the Tamarians say make no sense!

But, the Tamarians are desperate to communicate with the Federation, so they kidnap Captain Picard and throw him on a planet with their own Captain Dathon, in a last ditch effort to force someone in the Federation to speak plain Tamarian ffs.

The Tamarians speak in phrases, like, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” or “Temba, his arms wide.” Dathon says this to Picard who just stares at him in confusion. It takes Dathon being nearly killed by an invisible predator (hey, come on, even then they had a limited special effects budget) for Picard to really understand what’s going on: the Tamarian language is entirely referential. They communicate in phrases that refer to their myths and stories.

Deanna Troi makes an analogy, it’s like describing love by saying “Juliet, on her balcony.” Or, I suggest, like describing you don’t care about something by saying “Look at them, Anakin.”

The Tamarians speak in memes. And that’s a hill I’m ready to die on.

Obviously, you need to be even more careful with memes than you do with idioms, but it’s a language form that can and does work in a world.

Can you go too far?

Obviously, you can mess up anything suggested above. Profanity is going to be more than culture-specific, it’s going to be character-specific, too, because not all characters cuss and not all characters cuss the same way. Idioms have to be understood rather rapidly by the reader in order to be useful in writing while still holding a cultural legacy, and memetic language is actually going to require you as the writer to explain what the meme means without breaking up the flow of the story, which is why it’s the most difficult and least used tool in this toolbox.

But, can you go too far?

All I’m saying is that while you could be a linguist and literally create separate, whole, unique languages to help build your world, it’s not entirely necessary. Looking at you, Tolkien. (No, this section isn’t just an excuse to take a potshot at one of the most beloved authors of all time, shut up.)

Conclusion

Language is a great way to add a bit of depth to your world. Profanity, idioms, and even memes help to create a world and culture that exist beyond the surface of the plot of your story. There is a world bigger there than just what your characters are experiencing, and it has a deep and lasting impact on the characters themselves. Sure, it’s not a substitute for a well-built world, but it’s hard to build a well-built world without it. Like garlic.

© Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ainsel Greenwood and AinselGreenwood.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.