The Edge of Magic: Story Building, World Building

Late January, 1996. A fire broke out in my apartment building, damaging the hall below the one I lived on and the apartment next to mine. I was absent, fortunately.

That weekend I attended a short fiction writing workshop led by Candas Jane Dorsey at the Black Cat Guest Ranch in the Alberta Foothills.

I was working on The Lost Room, Version 1, Chapter 12. Candas was revising her first book, Black Wine. Plenty of writers from her writing circle attended as did others from around central Alberta, including Amber Hayward, owner of the ranch.

Candas had just decided to reorganize Black Wine into two converging timelines, since a linear telling of the story did not engross readers. With the new organization, as you read Black Wine you follow what seems like two stories. But then you get the feeling that the events in the stories could not be synchronous. They finally converge and become one story that concludes Black Wine. (The point of convergence is also in the first chapter.)

When I returned home at the end of the weekend, I found my apartment building pitch dark, hauntingly empty and oppressively acoustic. I did not step in beyond the threshold, which was a fateful decision. The floor just beyond my apartment door was gutted from wall to wall; the drop to the hall below in the echoing blackness would have been agonizing. I ended up spending a few nights at my cousins’.

Challenges to Story Building: Throughlines vs Timelines

Stories unfold in three dimensions: spatial, temporal and structural. These effect how a story is told: events occur in the same place or in different places; synchronously, sequentially or discontinuously; and in a certain told order and layout. The nature of the story changes as these dimensions change and interact.

The Edge of Magic, my current short-story compendium, consists of three cycles: the Keeper of Dreams Cycle, Trapper Cycle and Possession Cycle, and a few chapters connecting The Edge of Magic to The Lost Room. These cycles follow different, albeit interacting, throughlines, fundamentally making them separate story arcs, like the two stories in Candas’s Black Wine. Yet each feeds and is fed by the others.

Which brings me to The Witcher, by Andrzej Sapkowski, which I just started watching on Netflix. This series follows three characters — Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer — as they interact with a large cast of supporting and recurring personae.

I just watched episodes 4 and 5, and abruptly realized that the three characters are not coursing different stories at the same time, but are in fact traversing three converging timelines, as Black Wine traverses two. The throughlines of Yennefer and Geralt meet in episode 5, while the actions of Geralt in episode 4 produces the storyline of Ciri, as revealed in episode 5. (This was the source of my realization. Prior to this episode, I believed the three throughlines were synchronous.)

The Edge of Magic was designed this way from the start. The Possession Cycle always was the last cycle and Keeper of Dreams and Trapper cycles mixed, with the Keeper of Dreams Cycle spanning more time than the Trapper Cycle.

The fringe between a novel that progresses serially through three timelines and one that metes out the timelines in parallel until they converge is perilous. Either novel could fascinate readers, leave them indifferent or repel them.

In the case of Black Wine and The Witcher, the parallel development of each of the timelines worked great.

Since The Edge of Magic naturally evolves along three converging story- or throughlines, with a chronological order to them, with the push of Candas’s Black Wine and Sapkowski’s The Witcher, I organized the throughlines of The Edge of Magic in parallel. I am interested to see how the experiment plays out.

One of the exhilarating acts of writing is world building. This is particularly true when the world matures as the story evolves.

What do you think? Do you like stories like Black Wine and The Witcher that play with story structure to tell a possibly more engrossing story?


Challenges to World Building: Light and Gravity

A major difference between writing a novel with dependent chapters and a compendium of short stories that contribute to the same overall story is that each story stands alone in the compendium while simultaneously kneading and building the story and world all the stories are set in. At the same time, building the world influences the story and the individual stories. It adds to a lot of edits, revisions and rewrites, which I thrive in.

Tals, the setting of The Edge of Magic, has always been set in a small pocket universe (it is the pocket universe), since the pocket universe has always been destined to merge with Stiefrasta in the Stiefrastan stories, including The Lost Room. The universe of Tals is the Gift, or Bridge Hub, of Stiefrasta.

This brings a few challenges to world building for The Edge of Magic. Since the pocket universe of Tals drifts through space-time in the Split Universe, it has no consistent external interaction with the outside universe. So how does it experience night and day? And why does it have a ground and a sky when it does not experience asymmetric (up-down) gravity consistently?

As you can imagine, this influences all the stories in The Edge of Magic. I have been building the world of Tals, while writing the stories of The Edge of Magic, for a couple of years now, but it was not until recently that I started exploring questions like these. Sure, I have been using skinlight to allow for daylight, and lack of skinlight to account for night. But really this is an avoidance solution that allows me to write stories while I continue to create Tals.

I have answers, but I am going to keep them secret so you can discover them as you read the compendium. I still have to refine why ground and sky exist — the solution I have now is weak. I think you will be pleased with my solutions when I am done.


Do you have any questions about Tals, The Edge of Magic and my story and world building?

I plan to keep you apprised as I develop the compendium, without of course spoiling the fun of the overall story and its component shorts, though a few teases, such as those I embedded in this post, are not out of the question.

I wish you all a great new year — new decade. May both be better than the mess we have been going through recently.

Keep writing,

Book Creation: The power of role playing to engage, market and connect

When I was a kid, up to age 16, I loved to play, master and create Dungeons & Dragons games. The thrill of these games for me lay in the act of creating stories, places and characters while designing and playing the games.

This thrill complemented and fed my drive to write, which by this time was already well developed. I was in fact outlining my second book, Oenn, and just conceiving The Lost Room during this time.

My association with Dungeons & Dragons was my first taste of publicly sharing my writing, an early form of a writing group for me. The interest of others for more of my games made me quite prolific in game creation and writing, and is a testament to the potential of good writing groups.

Role playing games then, though limited in their storytelling depth and scope, bestowed a special boost to my writing development.

Around this time, I discovered a single choose-your-adventure book, The Forest of Doom by Ian Livingstone. It was a good book for its purpose (I take it out and replay it occasionally), but it lacked the substance of comprehensive story and the collaborative socialization of multi-player Dungeons & Dragons.

The idea of choose-your-adventure books intrigued me. I still think about their potential, but also their shortfalls. For me, a growing writer bursting with story, writing full stories and poems dominated my attention and practice. Choose-your-adventures and even Dungeons & Dragons took a back seat, present but neither driving nor co-piloting.

The Book of Briars

Jump ahead a few decades to a couple of weeks ago when I read a guest post, How to Build a Readership & Sales — Before Publishing Your First Book, written by C. J. Bernstein in Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10,000 Readers blog.

I highly recommend you read this article. Nick says it himself, “sometimes, a story lands in my inbox that I just can’t ignore”.

Let me summarize for you. C. J. wrote a book. He had no fans, no followers. No one knew his book existed. And he bet his family’s financial stability on the chance he could sell it and future books connected to it. Sounds familiar?

With all the unsure, and let’s face it low yielding, ways of promoting a book and building a platform out there, he wanted to find a way to engage fans who craved The Book of Briars (his book) and writing, something that would really involve them.

So, he wrote a choose-your-adventure prequel to his book and world. Then a choose-your-character prequel to that to immerse his potential readers into his story world. And he advertised that, once, in Facebook. (His guest post in Nick’s blog serves as more advertising, as intentionally does this post.)

His marketing went viral. Strangers flocked to his choose-your-adventures and formed a society, the Mountaineers. C. J. not only grew a following but a lively fan base, not just people craving his work, but people already enjoying it and wanting more.

Hmm. Did I mention the interest of others in my Dungeons & Dragons modules? I know how C. J. is feeling and expect great writing from him.

Read C. J.’s guest post on Nick’s blog. Not only does it describe how C. J. came to market his book with choose-your-adventures, but it also describes the awesome concept behind The Book of Briars. And while you’re at it, enter C.J.’s Magiq world.

The Edge of Magic

As you may recall, I am writing a compendium of independent, contemporary, magic realism shorts, tentatively The Edge of Magic, that have been organized into a story world through a common world map, connected elements and a sweeping underlying story.

The underlying story is wrapped into cycles: the Possession Cycle, Keeper of Dreams Cycle, Trapper Cycle and Lost Room Cycle. Each cycle contains a number of stories.

(And for those of you who have been with me for a while, the Lost Room Cycle does indeed connect The Edge of Magic with my Stiefrasta stories. You might consider The Edge of Magic a coquel to the Stiefrasta world. It has in fact a specific and vital niche, a tangent point, in Stiefrasta.)

I have outlined and written several origin and connecting tales that bind the complete independent fictions of The Edge of Magic together into the underlying story. These tales bring unity and continuity to the compendium and the world. They also, however, fit tightly together, making them less stand-alone stories and more chapters. This has the adverse effect of featuring the independent fictions like out-of-place sore thumbs, even though the book is designed around them — they are its purpose.

To rephrase, the underlying story, which I meant to keep subtle, threatens to overwhelm the star fiction shorts.

Enter choose-your-adventure stories.

First, yes, I think I would enjoy marketing The Edge of Magic with a choose-your-adventure exploration of Tals, the world of The Edge of Magic. That would be exciting.

But, the concept of choose-your-adventures has potential in The Edge of Magic itself, as links and conveyors between the independent stories.

Grouping the stories in a cycle into a self-contained adventure that in turn is interconnected with other adventures so that all cycles and all stories are visited, though in any order, can bring structure to the compendium and underlying story. This would emulate Bateman’s dynamic object-orientated narrative structure with the stories serving as nodes.

I might reverse the role of adventures and stories, where adventures might become nodes (gates) in the compendium, rather than the stories being nodes (narratives) in an adventure.

Either structure would make The Edge of Magic a hybrid adventure-compendium.

Now, I don’t think I will do this exactly. There would be problems with those wanting to play the adventure stalling on the stories and with those wanting to read the stories having to endure the adventure. As I mentioned above, and as confirmed by the resources I provide below, choose-your-adventures are great for reader engagement and immersion, but are limited as media of alluring story.

The choose-your-adventure stories do give me an out from the interdependence of the origin and connector stories of The Edge of Magic. Even if I do not include choose-your-adventures in the book, just having the possibility of them allows me to shift the connectivity of the origin and connecting stories to the adventures, enabling the origin and connecting stories to stand alone, independent from each other and free to be written in a variety of styles and scopes.

I like this idea.

A Pique (Pun)

As a gift for reading this far into this post, I offer a short excerpt from one of my Edge of Magic stories, The Wicked Slaver. This is one of the origin stories for the book. The excerpt comes from page four of this story.

A deafening drip shattered Ceap’s thoughts. The drip chimed around the forest cavern, reverberating in the darkness and back to him. Ceap stiffened. His skin crawled. The drip fell into the dark water beneath him.

“You never could do anything right, Ceap. You couldn’t even walk decently without falling.”

The voice rasped into his ear. Even so it still lulled him. The darkness hid all other sound. Even the forest whispering was silenced. It had been silent for a while.

“Grab him and let’s get going. The sooner we are back in Andhorm, the sooner we sell him and make some money.”

“You hear that, Ceap? Drod’s eager to get you to market.”


Interactive Story Creation

Interactive Story Programs

Interactive Stories

World Creation: A Book From a Map

For fifteen minutes after every lunch when I was in grade six, from her desk in the far front corner of the room, Penny Gwillim read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to our class. I was already a storyteller by then, but those stories read by Penny Gwillim inspired me to write.

Tolkien populated his world with story. Every named element — person and place — had a purpose and story built into it. Every horizon hid a land beyond. Each name and land had a history and significance. This built boundless depth and breadth into Tolkien’s world. And, as these persons and places overlapped, so their purposes and stories intertwined.

Today’s post is about world building. It is about creating endless story potential by mapping instead of outlining.

My favourite Tolkien quote is this.

A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached — or if so only to become ‘near trees’ (unless in Paradise or N’s Parish).

— J.R.R. Tolkien (1945)

He also extolled, in the same letter (1945), “the heart-racking sense of the vanishing past”.

Tolkien’s underscoring of names and unexplored-places-beyond-horizons with histories and stories, to me, is a powerful way to build worlds.

Plotting and Pantsing

I am a plotter and a pantser. I typically write short stories and poems on my computer with no plotting nor sense of where the story is going, other than the steeping inspirational idea. Many of these stories and poems comprise my best writing. They sing and dance for others and me. Long stories and “important” poems I sketch, write on loose-leaf, then after several versions revise and edit further on computer.

The sketch is my tool of choice: a quick list, map or outline of places, events, scenes and characters that I typically then ignore and pants around. On the continuum of pantsing to plotting, I believe most writers do some form of sketching a little in each story. Usually I sketch after I get a good start on a story.

A Sudden Insight

I have been writing several unrelated magical-realism shorts over the years. I label these as fantastic folktales. They are subtle stories, with that unmistakable undercurrent of impossibility and fantastic flowing through them. They are explorations of my imagination and my craft, vents of my passion. They have different styles, different characters, different premises, nothing really connecting them.

One morning a couple of weeks ago, I woke with the idea of creating a map for one of these stories. And to this map I added the landscape of another story, then another. Suddenly, these stories all fit together. They even had a chronology to them. Further, the map and story element connections suggested several connector and origin shorts. And under them was that hidden undercurrent of overarching fantastic which suggested it own story.

It seems so obvious, with that map and the similarity of the genre of the stories, that the stories belong together, that beneath them was a larger, suggested, untold story.

Several of the stories are ready for publishing. Others need fleshing and tweaking. But this is a project I am excited to pursue. This is a book I want to write.

It would be just if my first book contained a selection of my short stories, which each took a short while to write, rather one of my long ones that I have worked on and played with for so long. And to discover this potential in an odd urge to create a single-short story map is thrilling.

My Take on Plots and Maps

Plots come in many forms. Some plots originate from intuitive exploration (pantsing). Some from first drafts. Some from outlines. Others from maps.

Maps also build worlds (more) and, unlike the constriction of outlines, manifest unending stories, just like Tolkien’s names and horizons.

Every map is an outline to endless stories. Details and names infill a world with story. Horizons in space and history inspire a broader and deeper world and more story.

A Comparison of Outlining and Mapping

Outline maps out a story. Like a pathfinder of new lands and events, it explores the lands and events and chops a route through them. The path it picks clearly leads further travel through the lands and events. But it also restricts the possibilities of exploration. It winds from point A to point B, however complex the labyrinth of its trail. Further travel may head off the outline, but in doing so will clear its own route — its own outline — between A and B.

The outline is a good guide and even its winding and rolling trails and oxbow loops can be revised into a smooth road.

Map outlines a world. It does not blaze a trail from point A to point B, but instead suggests wilderness (forests, oceans, city blocks), encounters and adventure between and far beyond the two points. The map opens new places, new events and new context to explore — in fact, uncounted places and events, and burgeoning context. But more importantly it reveals endless new places, events and context to explore once the current story is complete. And a map can be grown. Its limits can be pushed deeper and farther beyond what the map revealed before. Horizons always have story beyond them. Unnamed places can always be named.

The map is an atlas of unending potential tales. It is not direct and smooth like an outline, but it reveals possibilities and twists the outline misses.

Used together, the map and the outline can guide the writer to and through grand stories. The outline unearths and shepherds a story. The map opens and reveals a world of stories. Just like Tolkien emphasized.

How do maps influence your stories and build your worlds? Join the conversation. Comment below.


World-building Resources

Culture-generating Resources

Map-making Resources


Tolkien, J.R.R. (1945.) Letter 96. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. First Edition, 1981. Carpenter, H. and Tolkien, C. London: George Allen & Unwin. P. 125.