Fictorians Guest Post – Worldbuilding Tools

Josh-Bennett-worldbuilding-1[1]I’m guest blogging at Fictorians this week, talking about tools that you can use to create the world your story inhabits.  From the post:

If you’re writing a science fiction, the tools below can help you populate your vast universe with solar systems for your characters to explore. For fantasy, these tools can provide the scientific backing for far stranger worlds than Tolkien imagined.  

Go check it out!

My writing process

I’m grateful to Kevin Ikenberry, who introduced me to Superstars,  for tagging me in this blog tour on writing process.  To see Kevin’s entry into this blog tour, visit the link above.  You’ll also find links to previous tours on these thought-provoking questions.


What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a fantasy novel that evokes both Caribbean and Aztec themes.

Seacaster is the story of a young man at war with the magic coursing through his veins.  Transformed by magic and enslaved on a distant island, Fike must choose between saving the girl who is his last link to home, or saving the last of his humanity.

Fike signs aboard a merchant ship to make a new name for himself and impress Tiyan, the captain’s daughter.  Days from port, they are enslaved by pirates who expose Fike to a magic that begins to change him into living coral.  Fike and Tiyan are ripped apart when he is sold to the king of the embattled island nation of Cahuatlan.  Fike battles the magic within him, finding that every use deepens his change and leaves him less recognizable.  As the island erupts into civil war, Fike must choose between using his new power to save Tiyan or saving himself.


How does your work differ from others of the genre?

Saladin Ahmed and Elizabeth Bear and Daniel Abraham have all written wonderful books that explore fantasy from a non-European view.

What I hope to add is intimacy.  I love Epic Fantasy with a capital E, and I love Science Fiction’s often grand sweeping scope, but the stories which captivate me most are smaller, more personal.  My heroes won’t save the world.  They’ll be lucky to save themselves.  Their goals are personal rather than global.  A close, intimate point of view is what I am striving for in my work, and I hope that I can bring a little different perspective to a genre that often fills the pages with endless characters, but never really dives deep with one.

All that said, I agree with Solomon that there is nothing new under the sun.  All of this is simply discovering and putting my own spin on what has come before.


Why do I write what I do?

As a kid, I remember reading books like A Wrinkle in Time, Phantom Tollbooth, and the Hobbit.  Those books captured my sense of wonder, of adventure.  I didn’t always understand them (L’Engle’s tesseracts were beyond me, and I admit to occasionally skipping Tolkien’s dwarven songs) but I was drawn in by them.  I’ve since discovered that a book that can recreate that wonder is a rare thing, but it still happens.

I want to write the kind books that my younger self would fall in love with.  I want my readers to disappear into a world and become friends with the characters and be a little sad when the adventure ends.

Science Fiction and Fantasy have great potential to tell stories that explore what it means to be human, by taking us out of the our current reality and putting us somewhere else.  Ultimately, I want to write and read stories that both entertain and move me.


How does my writing process work?

Drilling the pot - Joshua David Bennett
My writing process is itself a work in progress

In years past, I would write a chapter and then polish obsessively, make it as good as possible before moving on.  When done, I would have several brilliant chapters and an unfinished books.

To finish Seacaster, I had to live out Anne Lamott’s advice.  I have to turn off the internal editor, allow the words to flow, and let the first draft be a steaming pile which can be fixed once the entire thing is done.

I always start with an idea, some hook that snags my imagination and carries my brain along.    I develop that, adding notes, generating characters, worldbuilding until I have enough for a rough idea of where the story could go.  Then I create the outline, using scene and sequel to build a plotline.  Each scene or sequel is small, comprised of a specific goal or a problem to react to.  When the outline is done, I prewrite each scene, describing in a few paragraphs what needs to happen.

Then I write.  This is done with chocolate and coffee and occasionally stronger elixirs still.  I’m not sure why the words flow like Niagara some days and like the Jostedalsbreen Glacier on others, but I suspect it has to do with the phase of the moon.


Next up: author Kaylynn Hills 


Being cousins, Kaylynn and I have a shared pool of ridiculous family stories to draw upon.  Kaylynn is a brilliant writer and linguist and I’m quite lucky to be able to bounce around ideas with her.


Kaylynn’s Bio:

A lover of words, syntax, and phonetics, Kaylynn is a linguist at heart, which has a significant impact on her writing.  She is currently a graduate student earning her M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and is boldly determined to weasel her way into the book publishing industry one day.  Her genres of choice are fantasy, realistic fiction, and some science fiction (but she’s picky), as well as a sprinkling of horror and metafiction.  She enjoys writing about people and what she thinks is inside their minds, as well as badass magic things and dragons as pets.

For now, she is a Professional Office Lackey and Administrative Hireling.  When away from her Desk of Stupefaction, she can be found hunting for French pastries, teaching herself the violin, or of course, writing.  She is embarrassed to admit that she likes animals more than most humans, and her biggest fear is anesthesia.

Surprisingly, Kaylynn did not grow up as a ravenous reader, as most writers supposedly do.  While she loved books, she was also an exuberant child, incapable of sitting down or shutting up for too long a period.  When she was 17, she worked the graveyard shift in a haunted book warehouse and was, on several occasions, accosted by a biography of Cary Grant which flew off the shelf.  And so came about the revelation that books are far more interesting that she had previously imagined, as well as the words inside them.  However, it wasn’t until her freshman year of college when she realized her creative potential and made the dubious decision to “become a writer.”  She has not yet regretted it.

You can find Kaylynn online at

The master book of all plots



Plotto by William Wallace Cook - Image by Joshua David Bennett

That was how the Boston Globe announced the publication of Plotto in 1928. The author, William Wallace Cook, was an astonishingly prolific writer. In his best year, he pushed out 54 dime novels. When he finally retired from writing fiction he turned to real life, clipping directly from the headlines, distilling the stories onto cards. His idea was to write a plot generator so that others could follow his suit, using the seeds of stories in this book to mass manufacture their own works. And people did. Erle Stanley Gardner, the man behind Perry Mason, used Plotto. So did a a young Hitchcock, just starting into his directing career.


I picked up the book a few years ago, and have used it once or twice as the seed to a story. My creative method involves jamming different things together and seeing what sticks, a method I happily steal from Orson Scott Card. When I have two things that will mix well, but I know I need another ingredient, I sometimes pick up Plotto and generate an interesting sequence of events to add to the blend.

What does that look like? Well lets do a Plotto demo. There is a deeper method to this, but I prefer to start at random.


Expand full post


Plotto Demo - Joshua David BennettHere’s our setup. Our main character, whom we will call “Alan”* is trying to find his inheritance, which his father has stashed away. And, just like a Choose Your Own Adventure, we pick a number and off we go.* Plotto always refers to the leading man as “A” and the leading woman as “B.” Yes, William Wallace Cook was a product of the 1800s. Don’t blame me.
Plotto Demo - Image by Joshua David BennettAlan fell into a ditch. Or a gorge. Or a canyon. What will he find at the bottom? Off to story seed 1409!
Plotto Demo - Image by Joshua David BennettTurns out there’s a mysterious locked room at the bottom of the chasm.
Plotto Demo - Image by Joshua David BennettUh-oh. Alan takes something from the room which turns out to be contraband!

Four or five steps is usually enough. I’ve used Plotto twice for a story, and the little “story snippet” that I generate never remains intact. I use this as a prompt, and then ditch most of the details and decide what makes the most sense for the characters and for a good read. If you have trouble with “what comes next?”, maybe Plotto can give you a jumpstart.


Pseudoscience: Today’s books are less emotional

The New York Times is reporting that our books have gotten “less emotional” over the last century.  They quote a study on fiction published since 1900, and summarize:

researchers at three British universities tracked the use of “mood” words sorted into six main categories: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. The researchers identified a “clear decrease” in overall use of mood words over the 20th century, with only words relating to fear increasing in the last several decades.

The study also concludes Brits are less emotional than Americans (yay for stereotypes!) and that fiction overall is in a “sad” period now, and has been since the 1970s. Continue reading

Cities in miniature

Rachel asked me last night if the background picture was from Israel.

It is indeed. While we were there, we went to a site called Beit She’an. At the top of the site  they had a scale model of how it would have looked in its prime. Something about that model captured my imagination. I was able to see the city all laid out in miniature beforehand. After that, as I walked through the ruins, my imagination brought to life the tall walls, the people shouting and selling wares on the main road, the smells of first century life. Continue reading

The Great and Powerful Hollywood Formula

As a writing group, we’ve been talking lately about the “Hollywood Formula” storytelling tool and how to use it to make our stories better. I’ll admit to being very suspicious of formulas, especially where fiction is concerned. To me it has always smacked of cookie cutter stories with no heart.

But I’m always willing to learn something new. So I’ve been using some of the Hollywood Formula questions (more on those later) and have been finding that they help. I’ve started to think of the Formula less as an exact blueprint and more as a series of prompts, a guide to greater emotional impact.

I came out of watching ‘Oz The Great and Powerful’ this weekend ready to walk away from the Hollywood Formula forever.

We've got a lot of ground to cover, there's three acts, you know?

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover! There’s three acts, you know?

Let me explain first that there seem to be two minds about this movie. Some reviewers love it while others call it “soulless.” In my theater we had both views. I didn’t enjoy it but a good number of people around me were laughing. I can only imagine this was their first movie, otherwise they would have noticed that the characters and dialog had been cribbed from other, better films.

The main problem with ‘Oz’ is that it wants emotional impact but doesn’t want to work for it. Along the way, the characters aren’t given enough struggle, enough depth, enough sacrifice to make us care for them. Ultimately, the movie is paint by numbers. The “huckster who becomes a hero” story plays out exactly as it does in every other movie that uses the trope. Disney showed no willingness to inject any new magic or originality into that plot. In fact, the most interesting thing in the story are the villains, who get more creative thought between the two of them than the rest of the movie combined.

She seems interesting.  I hope she wins.

She seems interesting. I hope she wins.

By the end of the movie, I was rooting for the witches, because at least I could sympathize with them. The final scene in the movie is particularly flat, with Oz giving an impassioned speech about how his friend the flying monkey was loyal when all others abandoned him. Maybe if the scenes of misunderstanding and loyalty had more lasting impact than a Tic Tac, I would have cared more.

So, I walked out disgusted with Hollywood. But I realized that the problem with ‘Oz’ isn’t the Hollywood Formula, it’s poor execution. One of the key points of the Hollywood Formula is that the protagonist needs to have a goal that is compelling and concrete. James Franco’s Oscar Diggs wants to be “a great man, not a good man.” That’s certainly not concrete, and as we watch Franco settle for gold or for girls, we realize that he isn’t even all that committed to his goals. If he can’t be bothered to care about them, why should we?

The Hollywood Formula also separates the story into three acts with distinct beats. Oz hits all of these beats, but perfunctorily, because they are required, not in any way that builds the characters. The movie is more than two hours long, but spends that time on visual candy.

I think the lesson for writers is this: The Hollywood Formula is not a series of boxes to be ticked. It’s a helpful set of questions, but you as the writer have to own the answers.

I can only hope that Disney’s treatment of the new Star Wars movie is more careful. If it is anything like this Oz, it will be devoid of story and instead be a glitzy CGI showcase calculated to rake in the most money from the widest possible demographic.

I found my name in New Jersey

For years I’ve been keeping my eye on domains I might want if I were to some day become an “established author.” This domain was one of those, already taken, but abandoned, a wasteland, a literal blank page.

I considered going with Joshua Bennett David, which is what I had adults announce over the intercom when I got lost in grocery stores as a kid.  It seems I have trouble with complex ordering operations when I’m flustered.  But I learned from Joel on Mystery Science Theater to never trust a man with two first names.  So that was no good.    

But last month the owner of this domain, Ranjit of Morganville, New Jersey,  let it expire.  Why Ranjit wanted my name in the first place, I don’t know.   He’s already got a nicely unique name that will grab eyes on bookshelves.  In any case, I snatched the domain at auction.

My thoughts on writing and creativity will follow soon, but for now, celebrate with me that I now own a piece of myself.