Why Proper Formatting Is Important -a guest blog by Joyce Reynolds-Ward
We’ve all read the different essays from editors about editing, right? All of that good stuff about slashing excessive adjectives and adverbs, eliminating said-bookisms (definition: going out of your way to use any other dialogue tag besides “said”), cutting prepositional phrases and the like, correct?
All of that is good information to have. But I want to harp on something else about editing that isn’t discussed as often as another big issue.
Formatting is one of those processes that can make your editor either love you or hate you. And if you work with an editor who charges by the hour—i.e., actual time spent working on your manuscript—a clean format saves you a lot of money. Even if you work with an editor who charges a flat fee, clean formatting means that your editor has more time to focus on actual wordage rather than fixing a messy manuscript so that they can get around to working on the words rather than the formatting.
You get a better deal for the money spent on an editor if you spend a little bit of time formatting your manuscripts correctly. Period.
Some of this is simply common sense. A clean manuscript causes less eyestrain for the editor. It’s easier for anyone doing the layout in a production program if the manuscript fits standard formatting protocols. Copyediting and proofreading go much more smoothly.
Most of all, a properly formatted manuscript demonstrates that you are a professional. Period.
So let’s get started. What sort of formatting setups am I talking about?
First of all, if you aren’t familiar with the basics, please go to this site—https://www.shunn.net/format/
Also keep in mind that all of my references are for Word. Again, that’s a professional standard. I understand that others prefer other programs, but in the long run, your documents end up in Word when editors and publishers are working with them. Your formatting needs to be compatible with Word.
The Shunn formatting style is widely accepted by all publishers. Use it, especially for margins and typeface (that means no Calibri! Use Times New Roman at the minimum. I prefer Palatino but others like Garamond, Helvetia, or Bookman Old Style. Essentially, you want to use a serif font that is readable. I personally do not care for Courier or Courier New, but that’s because I no longer find them to be that readable).
I want to emphasize something that Shunn mentions in that first page, which is start with a blank document. Some editors recommend Styles. I’m not fond of using Styles, because it adds extra codes to your document, which can cause problems when someone starts formatting for publication. Plain old blank document works just fine.
Another thing—you’ll see a little symbol that looks like this ¶ on the ribbon at the top of your document. Click it on, and you will see all of the formatting codes that Word wants to show you. This is helpful for figuring out some issues, and allows you to see when you’ve inadvertently hit the space bar multiple times (or your hyperreactive touch pad or keyboard does that for you), or other issues. More on that later.
Set your margins. Then format your paragraphs. That means, in Word, that you go to Format>Paragraphs. Set your line spacing to double spacing and your first line indent to 0.5, with no extra spacing between paragraphs. This means that all you need to do to start a paragraph is hit return.
DO NOT USE YOUR TAB BUTTON FOR PARAGRAPH INDENTATION. That just causes more problems for whoever is laying out the manuscript for publication. Don’t hit the space bar five times, either. Again, that causes more issues.
Single space between sentences. Yes, yes, I know that double spacing used to be the standard and for some people it doesn’t look right. However, that era is long gone, even for those of us who started out writing on manual typewriters. Don’t do it. Otherwise, your dear editor or formatter will at the minimum need to do a find-and-replace to eliminate those extra spaces—and that double spacing between sentences can add quite a few pages to your manuscript, especially at novel length. If an editor is quoting you a flat fee based on manuscript pages, single spacing between sentences can save you a little bit of money.
One of my editors automatically deletes any spaces between a period and a hard return, because that space can cause issues in some formatting programs. I haven’t noticed that issue in particular when working with my formatting program (Vellum), but I understand that this is a problem with some programs.
Always use left justification (the default) unless you are doing something in particular with a small section, or centering a title. Right-side ragged edge is not an issue when drafting and editing, as modern formatting programs automatically convert left-justified Word documents to full-justified documents.
If you use scene break dividers instead of an extra space (I recommend the dividers, but some people don’t like them), show them with a #. Some people use asterisks, or multiple #s. I’ve found that formatting programs understand # just fine, and will put a prettier scene break divider in nicely when # appears between paragraphs. Some presses have different standards—<<<>>> for one, or ~0~ for another, but # also works just fine.
Spelling and Grammar Check
Do not completely trust your spellchecker or grammar checker in Word. I have discovered numerous mistakes in Word alone, including indicators of extra commas, word substitutions that don’t make sense (such as “cheap” when I was describing a bird’s “cheep”—my most recent gripe). One of my greatest rants is the misuse of “free reign” for “free rein.” Word will tell you to use “reign” instead of “rein,” and it is WRONG. The idiom refers to giving a horse more rein when you are riding or driving it—i.e., telling the horse to set its own pace and direction. That is what the idiom means. Period. “Free reign” is meaningless in that context. But Word also makes mistakes when it comes to the proper use of “its” versus “it’s”; “lets” versus “let’s”. Be aware.
If you don’t trust your spelling and grammar understanding, use other checkers besides Word. Also, don’t trust that it will identify all of your misspellings and typos. If the mistake looks like a real word but doesn’t make sense in context, then Word may not flag it for you.
When you are cutting and pasting across documents, or if you are working on different devices (especially switching between a tablet and desktop or laptop) be aware that Word will insert a superscript “o” irregularly in those sections. Those have to be edited out by hand, as far as I know. Some people may be macro wizards who know how to do it otherwise. It’s a pain but there’s no way around it. If everything else is clean, then editing those “o” appearances isn’t that big a deal.
Version Control (during edits)
This leads into the related but short topic of version control when working with editors or beta readers. I do not recommend working within the document that you get back from an editor or beta reader. My suggestion is that you designate one version as your final document, and do all editing within that document without cutting and pasting. Why? Because that introduces other formatting into your document, including those dratted superscript “o”s.
I learned this lesson the hard way when working with a British editor. Working in the document I got back instead of my own designated final document ended up with that person’s formatting instead of my own—including British English spell check and usages. Designating that separate final document also lets you work with multiple other versions. I do like keeping earlier versions around when drafting, because sometimes I end up cutting things that I wanted to keep in the long run.
Basically, the lesson here is to spend a little bit of time learning how to set up your formatting options, at least as much as you can do with your device. Apps on mobile devices such as tablets and phones can be more restrictive for formatting setups than laptops or desktops. It’s probably a good idea to indicate to your editor or beta reader that you may have been doing this work in an app on a mobile device, because then they know what to look for in fixing it.
Play with your formatting and understand it. Your editor will thank you—and you may save yourself a little bit of money in the long run.
About the Author -Joyce Reynolds-Ward
Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a speculative fiction writer who splits her time between Enterprise and Portland, Oregon. Her books include THE MARTINIERE MULTIVERSE series (Amazon, Kobo, Apple, B&N), THE MARTINIERE LEGACY series, KLONE’S STRONGHOLD, THE NETWALK SEQUENCE series and GODDESS’S HONOR series. Joyce has edited two anthologies, Pulling Up Stakes (2018), and Whimsical Beasts (2019).
Besides writing, Joyce enjoys reading, quilting, horses, skiing, and outdoor activities. She has been a member of Soroptimist International of Wallowa County since 2017.
Mara Lynne Johnstone and I met via Twitter when I was preparing to become an indie author. I was an ARC reader of her debut SciFi novel Spectacular Silver Earthling, which stars a robot with attitude, whom a friend compared aptly to Bender from Futurama.
Tell us a bit about you. Where’s home and what’s your life like outside writing?
I live in California, where the weather is lovely when things aren’t on fire or flooding. Husband, son, cats. I do a lot of writing-related things even when I’m not working on my own projects: organising events and anthologies for the local writers’ club, judging for contests, and planning multiple cooperative projects with other writers. Plus I play a lot of D&D with good friends, which is an excellent form of storytelling that sometimes leads to actually writing things down.
What drew you to your genre/audience age?
I’ve always loved reading fantasy and science fiction— all the exciting adventures that I couldn’t expect to do in real life. While I would have loved to grow up to be a dragon-rider, dimension traveller, or shapeshifting magician, I made the decision early on to write about it instead. I’ve never looked back.
What are some big themes your writing explores?
I’m sure if you look closely, a lot of my stories boil down to “Treating others well gets you farther than treating them badly.” That’s a pretty basic trope, but it’s amazing how many different ways you can show antagonists who are cruel and sow the seeds of their own downfall while the protagonists cooperate. Now that I think about it, the last three books I wrote all hinge on the main characters making friends who help make victory possible. It’s definitely something that’s held true in my own life, so I’m not surprised it comes through in fiction. Anyone who’s worked retail can tell you that the nice customers are the ones who get all the favors, while the pushy ones only think they’re getting a better deal. Friendship is magic in all forms.
What drives your point of view characters?
They often have a catastrophe to avert, a kingdom/species/planet to protect, but sometimes the core conflict is as personal as specific friends that they care about intensely. My characters tend to be optimistic and resilient, though with a definite range on the “dignity to silliness” meter. A good sense of humor is crucial in coping with all manner of crises.
Some are more like me than others, but there’s always a facet that makes them feel familiar on a deep level. An element of “Oh yes, this is what I would do.” That can mean being patient and chronicling part of their life through art, or being the centr of attention with witty things to say, or being ready and willing to befriend any random animal that crosses their path. I like to say I’m an ambivert: just as happy reading alone as dancing on a table with friends. I can see myself in the quiet characters just as much as the wisecracking loudmouths — as long as they’re kind. And I like to think that all of my main characters would make good friends, just in a variety of ways.
How much do your point of view characters resemble or differ from you?
And for the record, Robin Bennett of A Swift Kick to the Thorax has the most similarities of any character I’ve written, simply because her first short story was an exploratory bit of nonsense that I didn’t expect anyone to ever see. Ha. It turned out to be great fun, and snowballed into two novels and an endless list of short stories. I regret nothing.
What influenced the settings they inhabit? (What real world places, experiences, studies etc influence your world building?)
I keep a collection of ideas to use in fiction someday, and that includes many interesting locations. The sandstone beaches and bizarre rock formations in Spectacular Silver Earthling were based on those at Salt Point State Park. The car chase through a lightning storm in Swift Kick was inspired by a photo of thunderstorm weather over farmland. I am endlessly fascinated by how many awe-inspiring sights there are in our world; more than enough to create a whole galaxy of others. I’m always taking note of more.
What do you gain from writing your books and what do you hope your readers will gain from them?
I have fun with it, first and foremost. Delightful adventures; memorable experiences; fictional friends who are near and dear to my heart. Since I grew up reading constantly, I’ve lived many a life through other writer’s books, and I hope to bring readers along for the ride with my own. There’s so much to do and see: excitement and drama, exploration and close calls, good times and cathartic emotion. My characters can find things to enjoy in even the darkest times, and they’ll see you through to the other side. Often with a feeling of “Woo, that was intense! Let’s do it again.”
Mara Lynn Johnstone grew up in a house on a hill, of which the top floor was built first. Interested in fiction, she went on to get a Master’s Degree in creative writing, and to acquire a husband, son, and three cats. She has published several books and many short stories. She writes, draws, reads, and enjoys climbing things and can be found up trees, in bookstores, lost in thought, and on various social media.
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You’ll find more talk of fantasy characters, setting and world-building inspiration in: Fantasy Author Feature: Debbie Iancu-Hadad
I’ve never considered myself to be ‘normal’ or ‘just like everyone else’. When you’re a nonbinary person, and an asexual aromantic in a world of binary gender adults interested in romantic relationships and sex —you don’t fit. You often don’t quite present, sound or act like most people. But as I try to iron out creases that trip me up in my teaching career, and talk to neurodiverse friends on Twitter, I’m seeing another set of differences in how I think, feel and function that also set me apart.
I’m guessing neurotypical people rehearse conversations in their heads when they’re giving a speech, or telling someone they really care about something that really matters to them. By the time I was around fifteen, I was I rehearsed ANYTHING and EVERYTHING I may like to say to my friends before saying it aloud. I would approach social situations with prepared topics and comments drafted in my brain and would be happy when I got to say them all.
Did I monitor the interest levels of people as I plunged through my pre-rehearsed topics? Not really. Sometimes when I’d finished talking I did. Knowing how much to say about a topic and not rambling on and on when the other person isn’t as interested as me is a life skill I am probably still learning, in my thirties. I have to consciously and consistently monitor people and reflect on whether I’m maybe saying too much.
What are You on About?
As a teenager, I routinely initiated conversations with peers because it was the easiest way to communicate. Even as an adult I find other people starting the conversation challenging. With people I don’t know well, the first thing I think they’re saying usually isn’t what they mean. I’ve developed a habit of listening, ignoring my first interpretation, and waiting until a second or third interpretation forms before I respond. Usually by then I’ve correctly identified the topic and their intended meaning. If I take too long to do that, I comment on one aspect I’m sure I understand, to encourage them to say more, to give me more time to figure out what they’re talking about.
When I’m tired, I also struggle because I interpret things literally. I suspect that any other time I remember what I know about that person, or topic and do mental gymnastics to get from what they literally said to what they actually mean. That gets socially awkward because neurotypical people, especially adults in a professional context, tend to want immediate answers to their questions. But they don’t say what they literally mean, so I need processing time to do mental gymnastics before I can answer.
This can make social interactions difficult. For example, when I’m planning what I’m teaching next week I plan teacher groups on four days of writing, despite 30 minutes earlier discussing having three Writing lessons that week. Because if I am planning Writing, my brain is NOT thinking about the timetable, it is thinking about WRITING (this is the case for almost everything, almost always).
Often in meetings I’m hyper focused on one main thing, and someone asks or talks about something else. There’s a mental distance between me and them. To cross it, I have to pull back from that one thing I was thinking about. I need at least two, if not three details to figure out where on Earth my colleague is standing, let alone how to cross the mental gulf between us to talk about the same thing. And piecing together those clues takes time, so again I need more processing time in face to face, or on the phone conversations, when adults expect an immediate response. (This is why I love emails and social media, because I can take all the processing time I want before responding.)
Picture this. You’re in a meeting in which other people frequently give very few contextual clues, and elaborate on each other’s thoughts or change the topic rapidly. You don’t have enough contextual information to pull back from your hyper-focus to get what Joe is saying, and now Jane is saying something else, and then Max changes the topic again. Its like everyone else is is cycling on a level surface as a group, and you’re in the skate park stuck on jumps. You’re hitting road blocks, and doing all sorts of crazy gymnastics to move in a straight line and wondering why its so hard to keep up with the group cycling/ conversation. This is me in staff meetings.
What are Social Graces?
I’ve never been a fan of a few basic social conventions.
1. I don’t use names.
I’m a teacher. I know that people like being addressed by name. That a simple thing like that can fill people’s buckets. But in a state of nature I would never speak to anyone by name unless they had their back to me. I’m just not wired that way. I’ve had to learn to use my students and colleagues names often and it’s something I often have to do consciously and deliberately, where everyone else seems to do it naturally.
So how do I speak to people? As I sociable person who likes people, I just walk up to them and start talking about whatever I notice that relates to them/ us/ the setting at the time. I often catch people off guard, and they take a moment to process what I’m saying, and introverts struggle. But I’ve started some great conversations that way.
2. I don’t like eye contact.
This is a classic, obvious autistic trait but I was unconcious of it for quite some time. Because people look you in the eyes and insist you look back from childhood. So you make yourself do it and pretend it doesn’t bother you. Or you make eye contact so they know you’re listening but you keep finding excuses to look away. They don’t notice anything. And you don’t want to notice how uncomfortable eye contact makes you, because God knows how often how many people are trying to make eye contact with you and you’re trying to uncomfortably meet it!
3. I don’t do small talk.
When you talk to people you’re supposed to ask how they are. When they’re strangers you’re supposed to do ice breakers, or ‘polite conversation starters’ or —hell, I don’t know because I don’t do it. Why? Because I’m not interested. I’m interested in what I’m interested in, so I’m just going to launch into that with no names, greetings, preamble or niceties —no time wasting— lets get into it! (Yeah the impatience is likely ADHD which I have quite a few traits of, and not just the ones that overlap with autism.) Again, I have had to spend lots of time learning and practicing asking how people are, or thinking of things that matter to them and asking how those things are going. I do care about the latter. If they start talking about it I will show interest in my responses. But its not natural for me to think to ask about other people. I used to just assume that if something mattered to people they wouldn’t need an invitation to talk about it and would just say it, but I’m learning there are many exceptions to that.
Time Managementhigh school
I had no idea what the above words meant as a kid or teenager. I lived a five-minute walk from the back gate of my school. I walked to school and was often a few minutes late. Why? Because to get to class on time I had to know how long it took me to get ready for school, how long the walk was, factor in the time to get from the gate to my locker, to carry my books from my locker to my classroom. I had to juggle four things I have no inclination to deal with it, at the same time.
[And what was the point of being on time to class? Lining up outside the room? Waiting for everyone to slowly take their seats? If I came in right as the teacher was starting the roll —no time was wasted. I’ve always known I was a why person. If you asked me to do something I saw no reason for doing and gave me no reason —I wouldn’t do it. (More on this later.)]
Time Management University
At University I quickly realised I was not going to keep track of which assignments were due when, or even remember the assignments I had to do. And I’ve always found dates meaningless. There’s just days of the week, and which week it is of the school term or holidays (which works well for me as a teacher). So how did I manage time around classes, a casual job and getting all the assignments done? I learned early on that starting an assignment within a week of getting it, working on it as often as I was motivated to, then doing the next got things done on time. So my ‘time management’ is just ‘start early and hope it works’.
Navigating to New Places
I sucked at this, for over a decade after getting my licence. Navigating to an unfamiliar place meant looking it up in the Melways (a print book as this was pre sat nav and pre Google Maps), calculate travel time, factor in time to find a car park and time to walk from my car to the unfamiliar place. I got lost A LOT the year I got my licence. As an adventurous, easy-going person, I learned to embrace and enjoy it. If you drove too far out of town, the green signs would tell you where the next town/ suburb was and I trusted those signs and didn’t worry too much.
But when I had to be at that unfamiliar place at a certain time? That remained a challenge because I found it REALLY hard to factor all four of those things to get there on time for… about fifteen years. Not because I’m stupid. Not because I’m too lazy to plan. But because the night before when I set my alarm clock, or when I decide my departure time, I forget time to find a carpark, or get from my car to the unfamiliar place or that peak hour traffic is a thing (to this day that one catches me out).
This has advantages too. As a teen, my mum and brother could be arguing in the next room, and I wouldn’t really hear them because I was hyper-focused on writing or editing my latest novel. But it wasn’t the greatest for my health as a teenager. In hindsight, I didn’t dress warmly enough in winter. I’d hyper-focus on the fun stuff I was doing with friends and not notice how cold I was. That wasn’t good for my asthma or hey fever. Or I’d hyper focus on writing on school holidays, then realise it was four o’clock in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. I still have to be careful when I’m working on anything important to me —at work or books at home— to keep an eye on the time, and not go too long without meal or bathroom breaks or get too hot or too cold. Its a constant thing.
What’s the Point?
As I said earlier, why be on time for class, so I can line up outside, wait for everyone else to enter and sit down slowly and get zero benefits for having got out of bed a bit earlier? If you want me to do something —tell me why. The fact you want me to do it doesn’t motivate me. The fact you were my parent or teacher and even now, the fact alone that its my boss asking doesn’t motivate me. Intrinsic motivation for me is not conforming to other people’s expectations, their wants, being obedient or doing anything purely because someone asked. I care about, I want to understand, I am motivated by WHY. Tell me how it benefits people —students, colleagues, my boss, me —anybody— or how it makes my work more productive, or easier, or safer or whatever. That’s what motivates me. I don’t know anyone else so strongly motivated by being told why.
Who Cares What People Think?
I concluded as a teenager that collectively: people are stupid. Everyone else’s main motivator at high school seemed to be ‘does this help me fit in’? or ‘is it cool’? And what makes something cool? Cool kids think it’s cool. And what makes them cool? They just are. Does that make any rational sense whatsoever? No. So are they all nuts? Obviously. So did I have any respect for their opinions about anything? No.
I suspect the weight I’ve given to rational arguments over everything else since about the age of seven, and especially throughout my teens, the black and white way I tend to see people and complex situations is another very neurodiverse trait I have. Yes, I like people and I’ve always desired friends. But I want friends on my terms. I want to be me. I don’t want to conform to other people’s expectations of me. They expect me to a binary female. They expect me to be hetro sexual. They expect me to be neurotypical. I am none of those things. So I’ve always been disinterested in anyone who doesn’t like me for me and created my own space to be me. Since I was 15, my attitude has been “I am me and if you don’t like it you can get stuffed.”
I’m Excited! Are You Excited?
There are many reasons I love teaching primary school children. Mainly, because so many things are new and exciting to them. They’re excited to be alive, and so am I. They see new amazing things and cry ‘Wow!’ They don’t care if they draw attention to themselves. They don’t care if people judge them for their enthusiasm. I don’t either.
I remember sitting in a tutorial in my first year of university and being astounded at how un-animated my classmates were. They sat so still. They looked so out of it. I put my hand up to give a wrong answer on purpose because no one else would answer the question. I wanted to knock on their skulls and call, ‘Hello? Is anybody home? Or am I taking this class with a bunch of zombies?’
There’s always been a large disconnect between my excitability and the majority of the adult population. When I meet new people, or familiar people, when I’m outside experiencing nature or exploring new places —I’m energised. I’m excited. I’m animatedly loving and living life to the full. I’m surprised that everyone is smiling at me. Then I realise I’m doing that thing where I walk around with a big smile on my face and am oblivious to doing so.
Does my brain have an off button?
I have two speeds: fast and stationary. I’m functioning at 100 miles an hour, or I’m asleep. There are rarely inbetween modes. This is because my brain DOES NOT STOP. No matter how tired I am, I am almost always thinking something, often something complicated and deep (this nearly killed me when I had long covid. My body was FUCKED and I still couldn’t rest properly for weeks). The only things that keep me present in my physical surroundings are hyper-focusing on the scenery around me and or the inner symphony playing in my head (I often have instrumental music playing in my head, usually matching my mood, especially when I’m really happy).
As a teenager I’d sometimes stay up writing novels till midnight, when my exhausted body would insist on sleep. In my twenties I switched from power walking to running five days a week, to make my body so tired that it would drag my brain to sleep at night. (That was still crucial when I started teaching full time, which should have tired me sufficiently but didn’t). In my thirties I tire more easily and don’t need as much exercise, but regular exercise still makes a HUGE difference in how well I mentally switch off and how deeply and effectively I sleep at night.
Stopping and Resting to Get Well
Self-care has perhaps been my single greatest challenge as a teacher. I always underestimate how sick I am. Usually drastically (and with a weak chest and asthma I can get SICK in winter). I spent years being terrible at lying in bed or on the couch. I’d get bored so easily. I’d try to write novels when my brain wasn’t up to it. I’d read them when it was still tiring. I’d go out for walks when I was barely well enough to stand because I HATE sitting inside all day. (Yes, even when long covid fatigue made me feel I’d gained literally gained 20-30 kilos I’d still drag myself out to walk even when a three hour lie down was what I desperately needed).
I suspect ADHD levels of desire for sensory and mental stimulation make rest very challenging for me. That’s probably why if I’m on Twitter a lot —I’m sick. Tweets are short, easy to read and write unless I’m in a comma. And they’re stimulating. So Twitter is how I talk my brain into taking it easy. Then I try to switch to tv shows, then reading, to properly relax my mind and body and let them rest so I can get well. Again, learning how to do this defies all my natural instincts and has taken YEARS. I really see ADHD all over this.
Why did you change that?
In a recent meeting at work, I was asked to do something in a different order, for which I couldn’t use my normal data, with no forewarning. I sat there going WHAT? How am I supposed to do that? We’re supposed to do the other thing first? And I won’t be able to use the thing that normally helps me. How on Earth am I supposed to do that?
There was a solution, and having had to develop all sorts of habits to make navigating a neurotypical world as a neurodiverse person easier my entire life, I quickly found it. But I’m not fond of things changing without notice. Last time I missed a flight, I had to take time to take it in. Just breathe. I can’t now do x, y, or z. Plans have changed. Then gradually, one step at a time I make a new plan of how to do things. Standing in the ticketing queue for two hours was a perfect opportunity to do this.
So heads up, if you know a neurodiverse person (especially someone who’s autistic): don’t spring sudden changes on them! Sudden change is stressful. It often needs to be processed faster than I’m capable of processing it. And if you’re the parents of an autistic child: always give them an idea of how long they can do that thing they love, that they must pack up in five minutes, in two minutes, now. Sudden change is bad!
What was I doing again?
It’s classic me that at this stage in the blog, if there was any logical connection between one subheading and another —I completely forget what it is. I knew I’d fully recovered from long covid the day I found myself working on the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth jobs I wanted to do at home, having started, not finished and forgotten about jobs 1-5. I’m very easily distracted. The notion of beginning one thing and continuing it until its finished without starting at least three other things first is utterly foreign to me.
I normally have 70 tabs open on my computer, the maximum. If I don’t have every tab I use as an author and in my private open at once, how will I possibly remember all the digital jobs I was doing? When I completely lose track, at least once I week, I open all tabs I don’t recognise. I find writing competitions, book promotions, the latest author platform to join etc. I like open tabs for the same reason I write to do lists on physical sticky notes: because its right in front of me. I never understood the point of diaries. You write dates in them, shut them, and everything inside them ceases to exist. If I can’t see it, I forget its there. So I keep my to do list on one page, and in some cases literally put physical tasks where I will fall over them so I don’t forget them.
My high levels of energy, inability to switch off, tendency to prefer doing umpteen things at once, to forget anything I can’t see, to fail to focus well enough to manage time or navigate to new places all point to ADHD for me. My doctor thinks so too. I’ve bumbled along, noticing things I find it easier to do differently to everyone else, accepting things I suck at that they find easy, and just doing what works for me. Or making it work for me, like exercising regularly to sleep well at night. I’m relearning to manage it all, long covid having suppressed all my ADHD tendencies completely for seven months. So my next blog on this topic will be strategies I’ve developed to help manage my neurodiversity.
Debbie Iancu-Hadad is author of YA Fantasy and SciFi with strong romantic threads. Our debut trilogies publishing journeys have run parallel and we’ve been critical readers for each other during our editing journeys. My favourite things about her books are her well-developed characters, their flaws and the banter and relationships that exist or develop between them. I also enjoy the fast pace of her stories, which keep me turning pages through her fantasy and sci-fi worlds. Here, was discuss her characters and story worlds.
Tell us a bit about you. Where’s home and what’s your life like outside writing?
I live in Meitar in the south of Israel. I’m self employed and when I’m working I give laughter yoga workshops, chocolate workshops and teach people how to improve their humour.
I’m married and have two kids, my daughter is almost twenty and my son just turned 18. And my writing buddy Shugi is a five months old golden retriever mix.
What drew you to your genre/audience age?
I write the kind of books I’ve always read, which is fantasy and sci Fi for YA. Maybe one day I’ll write for adults but I’d probably need to grow up first. My first Nanowrimo project “The goodbye kids” was inspired by my daughter when she was 16, and I just stayed in the zone. My Achten Tan series has characters ranging between 16-22.
What are some big themes your writing explores?
I like to discuss what makes us belong to a place and how where we’re from shapes our perspective. All my locations are very immersive, whether it’s a space station or a town made of bones in the middle of the desert.
Another issue I want to promote is body positivity and the inclusion of people with disabilities.
What drives your point of view characters?
A profound desire to prove themselves. Mila in Achten Tan wants to release her magic and get her voice back. Kaii the chief’s son in The Bone Master doesn’t want responsibility but won’t turn his back on a friend. Haley in the Goodbye Kids just wants to avoid getting hurt again, but desperately needs a friend.
How much do your point of view characters resemble or differ from you?
There are probably pieces of me in all my characters, if not my current self then the way I was when I was younger.
I’d love to say I have magical powers but sadly I have yet to come into my powers (I’m hoping it’s an old lady thing that’s still in my future).
Joking aside, all my characters work through the sense of being an outsider. For me that reflects moving from England to Israel as a child and always feeling like a part of somewhere else.
What influenced the settings they inhabit?
Achten Tan is a place like no other, a town built inside the rib cage of an ancient leviathan.
The place is the brainchild of Chris Van Dyke, who initiated the original Achten Tan anthology. I just moved in there and refused to leave.
The space station and futuristic world of The Goodbye Kids are nothing I’ve ever experienced outside of my imagination. I was going for a sense of extreme isolation.
What do you gain from writing your books and what do you hope your readers will gain from them?
Millions and millions of dollars…ha ha, I wish.
No, but seriously, I love having people share my character’s journey and being able to leave daily life aside for a while. I write about magic and it might be a cliche, but books really do have the ability to transport us to another time and place.
Where can we find your books?
My fantasy debut, “Speechless in Achten Tan,” has a kick-ass tattooed witch who can’t speak, a city made of bones, giant ants, a heist by a cool ensemble cast, magic, romance, banter, innuendo, & cute boys kissing.
My name is Debbie Iancu Haddad (46), I’m a mother of teenagers (it’s like being a mother of dragons except they burn you with sarcasm).
for my day job, I am a public speaker specializing in teaching people how to use humor and a laugh yoga instructor.
I was born in Israel to a British mother & Romanian father who met in the immigration center in Beer-Sheva. When I was 10 months old the family returned to England for six years and re-emigrated in 1981.
Growing up bilingual in Israel was a huge help and saw me through a BA, an MA, and a third of a PhD. Even though I take studying seriously (almost no one who knows me would say too seriously) – my research interests focused on humor.
My MA was an exploration of Diet humor and my doctorate research was about humor as a communication tool used by managers and headmasters.
You may ask “don’t I take anything seriously?”
The answer is: “No. But thank you for asking”.
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You’ll find more talk of fantasy characters, setting and world-building inspirations in:
Many writers study writing. I studied history, archaeology, politics and religion in my Bachelor of Arts, to inform my world-building. I don’t just want to build worlds that mirror eras of ours, in the past or present. Or to write only speculative fantasy that challenges flaws of the present. I want to write alternate worlds that differ from ours. To develop culture and elements like Tarlahn attitudes in my Ruarnon Trilogy, where the term ‘gender diversity’ doesn’t exist, because the male, female and midlun genders have always been. So before you begin borrowing societal and cultural inspiration for your fantasy or SciFi world wholesale from ours, take a speculative lens to things. Think about aspects of society and culture you want to write alternate realities of.
Consider a Bronze Age matriarchy. A queer-positive iron age. Different races who interact not with racism, slavery or colonisation, but perceive each other as equals, in war or peace. Don’t import patriarchy, monarchy, democracy, monotheism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, liberalism or capitalism just because they thrive in our world. I challenge you to begin considering every aspect of society in your fictional world from ground zero (this being my personal goal in future series).
I began world building Umarinaris (in my Ruarnon Trilogy) by considering the progress of western history and tweaking it. The first humans arrived from Earth during the Bronze Age. Umarinaris’ combines bronze and iron age technology and it has sailing ships like those of the western colonial era and monarchy and sexism. But feminism is on the rise, and nonbinary people are established. Multiple gods are worshipped, as are ancestors. There are deists (who believe the gods created the world but had no further impact upon it) and atheists. I’ve cherry picked features from different eras of western history, and written nonbinary people’s status in society speculatively. I invite you to cherry pick for or alternate your SFF world similarly, as we unpack many features of society below.
Is it written? Do cave paintings, frescoes or statues with engravings recount major events?
Do bards recite poems or songs of legends and myth?
Is history written by the winners (winning throne or religious leader claimant/ conquerers/ winning political ideology etc)? What lies does any group’s history tell? Will these be exposed in your novel?
You might not think of fantasy civilisations having pure fiction, as opposed to recalling myths and legends. But by the early second millennium BCE, hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt morphed into a linear script and stories, like fanciful tales of adventure to the mystical land of Punt (an actual trade location near the Red Sea) were written. So when your characters make references to people they admire, abhor or whose actions they are inspired by, are these references mythical, historical or fictional?
Do roaming bards sing of the past, or bands of musicians travel? Or do the rich act as patrons to orchestras or bands? Will we find musicians serenading a feast scene, or are their marching bands in your world’s parades?
Do painters and sculptors have patrons who supply their materials? And perhaps provide them with board and meals, in exchange for favourable art of their patrons? (Like in Rome?) Or are the arts valued and paid for as civic entertainment by a republic or oligarchy, like in ancient Greece? Or can only the ruling class afford to employ artisans to build monuments, paint frescoes and proclaim their patrons beauty and great deeds to the world? (As was the case in ancient Egypt, where the arts differed in style and some critics would say degenerated in skill when the kingdom wasn’t united under a single ruler).
Will we see actors in your world? Are they travellers moving from inn to inn, or from one wealthy home to another to perform?
Do the arts portray and reinforce the values, ideals, myths and heroes of your cultures or their rulers?
The meaning of the word ‘Science’ may vary a lot in your civilisations, depending on which era of scientific understanding or Dark Age superstition they parallel. But there are two areas of science I think very relevant to world-building —medicine/ anatomy, and natural science.
Human knowledge of what various internal organs are for, how the body works and how to treat wounds may depend on religious beliefs in your world. The belief in ancient Egypt that a physical body was required to house the spirit of the deceased meant important organs required to sustain life needed preservation after death. Dissection and mummification taught the Egyptians that the heart causes blood to circulate through the body and the basic functions of the lungs and kidneys. But they believed the heart was the body’s centre of emotional feeling and the seat of the mind, lacking an understanding of the brain.
So if your culture practices mummification or permits autopsies, does your world have at least a rudimentary understanding of most organs? Does it know that losing too much blood is fatal?
If you have a Dark Age civilisation where study of the human body is banned, you might have absurd notions like those of medieval Europe/ Roman hangovers. For example, that the four humours –blood, bile and white and black phlegm must be equally balanced for good health. Or that getting leaches to feed on the blood of a sick person will ‘purify’ their blood and ‘make them stronger’ (as oppose to weaken them from blood loss). If it suits your plot for people to die of medical complications/ suddenly, ignorant, superstitious beliefs and traditions about the body could be a handy plot device/ killer.
Medicine & Medical Procedures
Again, depending on how enlightened your civilisation is, some medical conditions may not plague characters as much as you think. For example, in ancient Sumer (a civilisation that began around six thousand years ago in modern day Iraq), physicians could remove cataracts. They had the knowledge, tools and skill (but alas not the anaesthetics). Your civilisation may be able to perform simple operations on people. But medical procedures may require a blow to the head or strong alcohol, if the opium poppy or its equivalent isn’t known/ doesn’t exist as an anaesthetic.
Whether soldiers survive battle wounds may depend less on medical procedures (stitches etc), and more on knowledge of hygiene. If, like medieval Europe your culture lacks Rome’s custom of bathing (or worse thinks water makes you vulnerable to sin), doesn’t keep wounds clean, or use alcohol for sterilising them, infections may be the biggest killer of soldiers after wars or of injured workers.
Medicines & Herbs
I mentioned opium already. It might be worth researching real-world herbs used for poultices, healing teas etc. Do women or ‘witches’ administer herbal remedies? Or is there an educated, enlightened society that trusts nature and researches it, studying anatomy and reads books to obtain medical knowledge?
You may have other plants which are useful too. As an Australian, I’m aware that the eucalyptus gum when crushed and inhaled can make it easier to breathe with asthma, or a cold. I was surprised to find eucalypts growing in Vietnam, where the Vietnamese use its oil for all sorts of things, including insect repellent. What medicinal or other uses can people put plants to in your world?
Another thing to consider is medical treatments that are the only known cure for an illness, but have disastrous side effects. Mercury is effective in treating syphilis, but not only can it kill you because it’s poison, it can also trigger hallucinations and delusions. Meanwhile, many plants are effective cures in small doses, but poisonous and even fatal in large doses, another plot device for accidental deaths or murder.
Religion & Culture
The first thing I’d consider about religion in a fantasy world is the role it plays. Is religion just collection of creation myths no one pays much attention to? (Like one civilisation in my Ruarnon Trilogy). Do people give offerings to the gods of the house, inanimate objects and abstract principles, and pray to them for guidance (as in pagan Rome). Will people try to divine the future from the stars, flights of birds or goat’s entrails? Does religion otherwise have little impact on daily life?
Do people in your world believe divinities, demons or magic are responsible for scientific occurrences they do not understand? Eg. pestilence, natural disasters, crop failure, human sicknesses? Is religion in your world an attempt to explain gaps in human knowledge?
Does religion mean ancestor worship? Or worship of the spirits believed to inhabit all natural things or of a pantheon of gods? Is any civilisation arrogant enough to proclaim they worship the ‘one true god’? Is anyone disaffected and atheist? Or do they accept that gods creating the world is a likely enough explanation, but see no divine impact in the world ever since (deist)?
Are differing religious identities a cause of war in your world? Or is it like the pagan world, in which each culture excepts that the others have different names for the sun god? And have different traditions and stories about the sun god, but everyone accepts that there IS a sun god? And he doesn’t have a dogma so no-one kills anyone in the name of dogma?
What is religion’s relationship with morality?
Does it have one?
If you have a pagan civilisation, ‘good religious practice’ may mean making offerings to the spirits as you trespass through their forest/ stream etc. In the western world, it wasn’t really until the last two thousand years BCE that personal religions, saviour gods and the idea a god had moral standards they expected you to adhere to personally A, existed, and B became popular. So while we may see religion and morality as inextricably linked today, they weren’t always, and they may not be in your world.
Does religion in your world have doctrines, and dogma?
Can people be shamed and publicly shunned for their ‘sins’? Can they be stoned to death or burnt at the stake as a heretic? Do people live their lives in fear of the judgement of a jealous, angry god who may send them to hell? Or do they have spells or means of tricking the gods who judge them, to avoid a second death and enter the afterlife (as they did in ancient Egypt)? Does religion prescribe what role people will play in life by gender or social caste? Does it suppress certain sexualities? Is it used to oppose racism or bolster it? Does it oppose slavery or legalise it?
Or do people have loose moral beliefs associated with their gods?
Do people try to live up to these beliefs to get closer to their god, and hope that will unite them with their god at death? (Like the mystery religions of western antiquity which often involved saviour gods, resurrection etc.)
Religion and the State?
What is religion’s relationship with the government? Do you have priest-kings, like the earliest civilisations of the ancient Near East? Or a Pope-like figure vying with medieval kings and queens to dominate hearts and minds and govern the life of a continent? A theocracy? Do priests/ diviners/ fortune tellers advise the rulers of your world?
Christianity dominated the west utterly for centuries, but at times South-East-Asia had Hindu rulers, a Buddhist empire and now it’s largely Muslim. A transition between religions may be a fascinating time to set your story. And like South-East-Asia, you could have two or more prominent major religions in one region, at the same time.
What is Religion’s Relationship With Science?
In ancient Greece, religion was fairly liberal. Worship of an entire pantheon of gods flourished alongside the birth of scientific study and theorising. The first theory of the atom was produced and the first rudimentary steam engine invented, though never utilised, because slave labour left no need for it. But even the ancient Greeks had a notion that the gods only wanted humanity to know so much. It tended to be philosophers who, when they questioned too deeply about the gods, were charged with ‘corrupting the youth’ (like Seneca) and censured by the state.
Christianity was more extreme, early Christians burning the greatest collection of literature in antiquity (the Library of Alexandria in Egypt). Even the bible was written in only Latin for centuries and only ranking members of the church were permitted to read it. (Yes, I blame Christianity and its mindset for the European Dark Ages as much as the fall of Rome). To what extent does religion ignore science, contradict or smother it or sponsor an intellectual dark age in your world?
Or do your gods intend for humanity to learn and develop? (Which is considered the path of salvation in my Timbalen Empire). If you have a pantheon, is for example, study of botany considered a form of respect, even communion with Mother Earth? Do learning and respect for divinities go hand in hand in your world?
History & Religion?
What does history say after your world’s religious creation myths? Does religion agree with history, or re-write it to conceal a rival religion/ sorcerous power/ a sect dismissed as heretics? Or did someone use religious texts to calculate that the world was 4000 years old and argue history that disagreed should be discarded? If your world has more of an ancient leaning, its culture may not have a clear distinction between history and myth or between science, religion and magic.
The Culture of death
Is there an afterlife? If so, how is the body prepared? Is there mummification? Do mortuary practices return the body to the embrace of a mother goddess via burial? To the sky gods via exposure? Or carry its embers to the sky gods with smoke from cremation?
If there is mummification, is it common to visit the site with offerings to nurture relatives in the afterlife? If cremation (or mummification because this did happen in Egypt in Late Antiquity) is the urn or mummy kept in or near the house so the deceased can partake in or witness family activities?
Or does the spirit of the deceased (as in Tarlah in my Ruarnon Trilogy) transfer to an image of the deceased by a ritual performed by a priest?
After death, can the deceased be prayed to for guidance? Or for the comfort of the mourners?
What’s the Afterlife Like?
If the deceased go to an afterlife, is it heaven? Hell? Or will the spirits of those judged by the gods as unworthy suffer a second, eternal death and be fed to a monster, as in ancient Egyptian mythology?
Do they ascend to the Pole stars like the Egyptian pharaohs (in one tradition)? Or join Re on his celestial journey through the sky to light the world by day, and through the underworld by night? Do warriors go to an eternal feast with the war god, as the Celts believed? Or can you envision your own afterlife inspired by any or none of these?
Does the deceased (as many ancient cultures seem to have believed), have the same social standing in the afterlife as in life? Or is their equality in the afterlife?
Is the deceased united with their deceased loved ones and a god or gods in the afterlife?
This is the last of my blog series on Worldbuilding. I hope it’s been helpful! If you missed any, they’re linked below.
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Further World Building Reading
Power & Conflictconsiders types of government, religious, technological or advisory powers, rebels and the ways any of the above could contribute to conflict in your world.
Geography considers how geography may influence everything from general and defensive architecture, to water supply, heating, farming and how geography may connect to religious beliefs, sacred spaces and magic.
Humanoid Life offers suggestions on physical things like clothing, food, work, pastimes, family life, legal status and opportunities may differ among social classes and offers food for thought on sexual and gender diversity.
G'day! I'm an Aussie (they/ them) who graduated from playing imaginary games in my extensive backyard to writing YA Fantasy. In between educating energetic, enthusiastic minds as excited about life as I am —kids— and adventures in Europe, North America, South-East Asia and locally, I enjoy writing adventures and epic conflicts for the young and young at heart.
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