Worldbuilding & Relevance

I’ve been doing a good amount of writing this week so far (we’ll see how things go in my weekly writing recap).  Since finishing the first draft of the short story I’m working on, all of my wordcount has been on worldbuilding for “The Book of M”.  And so I got to thinking about the subject of worldbuilding this week.

As I’ve reported previously, the topic of worldbuilding came up during author Brandon Sanderson’s Fantasy Writing Crash Course Q&A at JordanCon 2011.  The relevant question related to avoiding “Worldbuilder’s Disease”.  If you lean toward the “Planner” end of the Planning-Pantsing spectrum (or we can call it the “Architect” end of the “Architect-Gardener spectrum”), you likely know what that means: endlessly tooling around with the background world details – the history, the magic system, the cosmologies and religions, the languages, and so on – without ever reaching an end-point and saying “I have enough now to write the actual book”.  It’s really quite common, and I’ve felt that urge.  Brandon’s advice was to focus on the key elements of the conflict of your story, and worldbuild out from there.  As your worldbuilding gets less and less relevant to the conflict and the plot, you stop worldbuilding and focus on writing the story.

What, then, is relevant?  How do you find that line where the worldbuilding you’re doing becomes irrelevant? Continue reading

Planning for Pantsers

Two weeks ago, as I wrapped up my series of posts on writing Mythopoeia, I mentioned that it would be useful, if you want to produce a work of mythopoeia as the bedrock of your speculative fiction novel, to employ a “planning” method for writing.  Whereas, of course, this can be difficult for someone who’s a “pantser” – someone who writes by the seat of their pants, otherwise known as a discovery writer.

I’m mostly a planner, myself, but betimes I am also occassionaly a pantser.  Meaning, I think writing style is more of a continuum than a binary either/or proposition.  There are times when one methodology is preferrable over the other, I think, but neither is inherently better or worse in general.  I, for instance, will tend to “pants” it when working on shorter-length fiction.  But for those who hover closer to the pantser side of the Force more often than not, treading into the world of planning can seem… shall we say… daunting at times? Continue reading

Weekend Assignment: History

Since I’ve cut back to one or two posts a week, currently, I’ve been pretty choosy about what I post… That means for the past couple weeks, I didn’t join in on the Weekend Assignment, because the topics didn’t quite catch my imagination.  This week I’m going to make a try for it.

We don’t all live near the site of a battlefield or other world-famous event, but any place has its own history: political, cultural, even natural history. How aware are you of the past of the town, city or state where you live now? Share with us a story of local history. 
Extra Credit: Have you ever participated personally in an historic event? (This doesn’t have to be anything earth-shattering.)

The city I live in bears on its seal the motto “Resurgens” and the emblem of a phoenix rising from the flames.  This seal and motto is a reminder of certain historical events.  No, I don’t live in Arizona.  I live in Georgia.  And the events in question were chronicled in a certain classic old movie, that being “Gone With the Wind”. 

In Atlanta, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a sign for a historical marker declaring the site of “so-and-so’s last stand” or “the charge of somesuch brigade”.  It’s part of the fabric here.  Heck, this is largely true of much of the American Southeast.  In the rest of the U.S. the Civil War is an important historical event.  It’s something that happened.  It’s important but it’s over.  The good guys won, the bad guys lost, Honest Abe freed the slaves and everyone lived happily ever after, the end.  Except, in the South, it’s not over yet.  It’s a living part of the culture and personality of this part of the world.

You’d think, too, that in Atlanta this would be doubly true – that here, it’d be personal, what with General Sherman and his rather infamous dealings with the city.  But no, despite the plethora of old bronze markers glorifying the Fall of Atlanta, this is a city quite unlike the South in which it resides.  It’s modern and urban – at least by comparison –  and as such is far less conservative and lives not in the past but is far more grounded in the present than the rest of the state.  And, having lived both in the rural South of Georgia and in this city, I can tell there is a difference, something in the flavor of the place.  It’s a city that acknowledges its history only as prologue for the future.

As for this week’s Extra Credit: yes, I have, though my own role in the historical event was rather small.  The historical event in question occurred on November 4th, 2008, and I am still proud of my contribution.

Beware the Ides

While you wait on a more substantive post from me today, I thought I’d wish everyone a happy Ides of March.

Although, I suppose, “Happy” isn’t the appropriate wish for a day like today.  As you may be aware, today is the 2,054th anniversary of the death of Julius Caesar.   Although by many accounts a brutal dictator bent on subverting the Roman Republic, his death nonetheless advanced the decline of the Republic until it became a complete autocracy with a token nod toward democracy in the form of a powerless Senate.

This situation was precipitated by a long period of economic collapse in which the Roman middle class was essentially forced into foreclosure wholesale by declining land prices and the disrepair of their homesteads (in turn caused by a focus by the Roman government on military conquest instead of domestic investment).  This lead to a serious unemployment problem in Rome occurring at the same time as the large land-owning aristocracy grew in wealth (through the acquisition of foreclosed properties).  Over time this economic situation remained unresolved, which lead to a series of political and social crises that ultimately ended when Gaius Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. and attained complete power over the Plebeian Council and the Roman Senate, effectively making of himself a supreme dictator.  With Caesar’s assassination came not the return of the power of the Senate;  a civil war instead ensued, ending with Caesar’s adopted son (and actual great-nephew) Gaius Octavius assuming the same power and position as was held by Julius, and taking for himself the title “Augustus” or “Exalted One”.  The Roman Republic had ended and the Empire had begun.

Just something to think about, today.  This is the kind of high drama and intrigue that also makes for great stories.  Also something to consider, today.  (Oh wait… someone already wrote that story 😦  Maybe the statue of limitations on Shakespeare’s copyright has expired?)

A Map of History

For some time, now, I’ve had a link to the Cartographer’s Guild website here on my blog.  In light of my recent telling of the story of my novel, and how the CG plays into that story (a part which I haven’t related, as yet), I thought I’d call out that link to the Guild.  And, I’ll tell a little more of my story – the part in which the Guild comes to play a role.

I mentioned on Wednesday that I had suffered a one-two punch that left me with a big gaping hole where my novel-in-progress used to be.  But big gaping holes demand to be filled, and ultimately the writer’s spirit cannot be quelled but by writing.  So, I had decided to start, from scratch, a complete rethinking of that novel before starting a rewrite.

As I considered the process that rethinking the story meant, what going back to the very beginning meant, I started to form a plan.  My idea was this: the story of the novel takes place in a world that has already seen much history come to pass.  Without some of the context of that history, the story of the novel is a little out-of-place.  The story gains meaning and momentum where it touches on the history of this imagined world.  So I needed to rethink that history.  But history is made what it is by the actions of people.  Therefore, I must know more about the people who made that history.  People are profoundly influenced by the cultures in which they live.  So, I must explore those cultures in greater depth.  Cultures grow and develop in ways that accord with the environment in which they evolve.  Thus, I must know more about these environments.  Environments, insofar as I am interested, consist primarily of two factors: the laws governing the universe in which this story takes place, and the geography and natural environment of the world in which the story is set.  The former implies careful development of the physical and metaphysical laws governing this world: gods (be there any in this world), magic, physics, etc.  The latter implies having a map.

Maps have always been one of my favorite parts of fantasy novels.  When provided, I refer to them frequently throughout reading a novel.  Maps give the world a sense of place, a sense of being real in a way that words alone cannot.  The words and the map together make the world what it is, making the characters who interact it in all the more real.  So it was a natural progression for me to realize that, if I was to start writing from scratch, I needed first to start mapping from scratch. 

The next problem, I reasoned, was that all my prior maps, besides being crappy in execution (lacking, as they did, any consideration of geological soundness or believable reasonability) were limited by existing only in hand-drawn hard copy.  I couldn’t search them or zoom in or do anything else cool with them, to help me as I write.  So I decided I wanted to execute this new map on the computer (after I got a new computer, that is).  Therefore, I needed a software program that would help.  Famous art editing tool Adobe Photoshop was about a thousand times more expensive than I could afford.  But, lucky for me, the Open Source movement had answered my conundrum already, by creating the GIMP.  GIMP was the right price point, and though not as bells-and-whistley as Photoshop, it had the power I would need.

So, using GIMP, I started to map.  But these early attempts were not quite reaching what I was looking for.  So, I searched for help.  And lo, the internet doth provide, for there is a Guild, already, on the Internet devoted solely to the topic of creating maps, with tutorials in abundance even on how to use GIMP.  So, I started using some of the things I used there, and after spending some time learning the techniques, I started new maps for my imagined world.

Ultimately, my efforts were stalled by a factor over which I had little control.  I wanted the size to be such that I had a really good, detailed view of the world as a whole.  I wanted it to look half-decent.  But these two factors, combined with the resource-intensive processing of GIMP, meant that, as far I had gotten, each added element to the map brought my computer to its knees.  Still, I was satisfied with how far I had managed to get.  Though it is not complete enough, yet, for my ultimate purposes, the map I ended with will serve well for my current needs.

That, combined with a precipitous drop in actually having free time has meant that I’ve needed to turn my focus to other aspects of the project, only to return to the map at some imagined future date when time and computing resources both will allow me to finish the job.

Hope this little journey down into the world of maps has inspired you, as well.

Happy writing.

The Tale Up-to-Date

I’ve been telling the story of how my novel-in-progress, such as it is, came to be: how I was inpsired by first reading the novels of Lloyd Alexander, and how my skills improved over time, and I continued to write.  But into every good story must enter some struggle.

As I recounted last time, I had been writing a new draft of my novel throughout my college years, and into the first years of my post-collegiate career.  The highest numbered chapter I wrote in this draft was the 28th.  It was just about as far into the story as my first version ever got – roughly two-thirds.  At the same time as all this, I’d been working on and developing my background material.  Some time in college, I started keeping my “Idea Journal”, which I titled The Book of Ideas, in a mostly unused notebook.  The first filled up rapidly with ideas – mostly touching on my book – and I quickly started working on a second.  Not long after I started my first job after college, I was looking for ways to transfer this idea book into an easily searchable digital format.  I’ve mentioned this before, but after struggling with typing those notes up in Word, I later tried the program wikidpad (which is open source).  I also began writing a semi-poetic telling of the ancient history of the world the story occupied.

At that point, I experienced a significant one-two punch that put a setback in my work that has lasted a long time.  I kept all of my work on an external, USB hard drive because the hard drive in my desktop was too small for the volume of material I had collected (including music and inspirational art).  It so happened that I also used my hard drive to store a lot of music to use for a Church dance that I was helping to organize – which I took with me to the event.  After the dance was over, I took my hard drive with me and in the parking lot, it slipped out of my hands.  It didn’t shatter, and it wasn’t until a few days later that I experienced the true nature of the problem: the drive heads had physically crashed into the driver plates.  Some of the data was destroyed.  But my work was everything to me.  I took the drive in to a local computer-fix shop, and they retrieved some 80% of the data on the drive.  Sadly, some of the chapters in my book were not included.  My latest chapter, the 28th, was among those – and that chapter was the one chapter that I had not yet printed out in hard copy.

The second setback came about six months later.  I had moved to Atlanta, I had copied most of the information from my idea notebooks into my sister’s laptop (which I was borrowing).  And I had recovered most of the chapters in my book.  I’d been taking the laptop to work with me on certain days of the week (I went straight from work to a Church function on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, I can’t recall which day, and I usually had free time to work once I got there).  On this particular day, I’d left the laptop in the car, along with my completely filled notebook of ideas.

I got a call in mid afternoon – I was told by the parking deck security that some belongings of mine had been found: a bag holding a book of scriptures (and, coincidentally, my name and contact information) and a bag with a change of clothes (so I’d be appropriately dressed for the Church activity).  Horrified, I left work and rushed to the parking deck.  It was indeed my bag of scriptures and my change of clothes.  But my car window had been smashed in, and the laptop – along with my notebook of ideas – were gone.  With it, the majority of the work that had survived the harddrive crash.  I was devastated.

It was a long time before I started writing again.  But the true spirit of a writer  remains undaunted in the face of every challenge.  I still had the disk with the recovered contents from the crashed drive and reams of other handwritten notes, maps, and hard copies of the old draft of my book.  More importantly, I still had my heart and my mind.  At last, I resolved to start again: this time, from scratch.  I questioned everything, rethought everything.  The name of the main character, for instance, was just an anagram for the name of one of Lloyd Alexander’s characters.  What sense was there in that?  Did the geography of the world the story takes place in make sense?  What about the history of the world?  Who are my characters, really?  Are they people readers – other real people – will care about?  And my plot.  Was anything in it unique?  Any part of it new?  Anything that’s not trite and clichéd?

I  started a new book of ideas, and I switched to using ConnectedText to record my notes and create an interlinked encyclopedia of all my knowledge about my story and my world.  And I decided to start writing some short stories again, to refine my craft and keep my edge sharp.  I was almost on a roll.

And then I got accepted into Grad School.  And I got married.  Both very happy events for me.  But they seriously changed the paradigm of my life, and where the focus has had to be.  Those two events, which happened within a fairly short time together, have significantly altered how I spend my time, and what my priorities are.

But that pretty much brings you up to speed.  I’m still working on background details – in those five-minute cracks between things of greater import – and still working on a short story.  But I won’t start writing a new draft until I’m confident I’ve figured out all the details (or enough of them) about the background and characters and the direction of the plot.  Honestly, I have a long way to go.

Happy writing. 

The Technology Conundrum

My wife and I were discussing preparations for our baby a few days ago when she asked an interesting question: “What kind of technology do you think will be a part of our everyday lives, that we don’t have now, by the time our son is in High School?” Later, she mused that looking into the past the same distance, the Internet was nowhere near being playing so large a role in our daily lives, yet.  It’s exactly this question that science fiction writers, especially those writers of near-future fiction, are constantly contemplating.

The history of science fiction is replete with brilliant, even prophetic extrapolations of future technology, as well as a graveyard of misses, miscues, and fanciful, infeasible ideas.  On the one hand, author Jules Verne famously predicted the naval power of submarines in his 1869 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea long before true submarine warfare was feasible.  It was a spectacular realization of the future potential for what was then an infant technology.  On the other hand, one of my favorite commercials, from a few years back was an AllState commercial in which their rich-voiced spokesman grumbles about the fact that we don’t yet have flying cars – a promise made by a lot of old science fiction stories.

Reading current technology trends and forecasting future developments has always been a major part of the science fiction genre.  Typical science fiction fans enjoy glimpsing the possibilities of the future.  The key to guessing at future technological developments, and having it seem realistic to science fiction readers, is to be a very astute reader of current research and development.  Science fiction writers need to stay abreast of developments in science and new discoveries, and to keep track of where new developments are being made.  Having a good read and where current research is heading can provide many clues to what will be available in the future.  This understanding was so critical that during the “Golden Age of Science Fiction” many sci-fi writers were also scientists in their day-jobs.   

One frequent criticism of traditional science fiction is that the technology often overshadows plot and characters in those stories.  In fact, in some of the long-running science fiction magazines, like Analog Science Fiction & Fact, have traditionally only published “Hard Science Fiction“, a sub-genre in which the science must be accurately portrayed.  Some definitions that I’ve read of this sub-genre stipulate that the story be written in such a way that the science or technology elements are so integrated into the story that their removal would cause the story to fall apart.  Genre rules like this heightened the idea that science and technology were more important than character or plot.  However, as the genre has developed, this old idea is certainly no longer true, if it ever was.  Effective science fiction stories today, even hard sci fi, need to have strong, believable characters to succeed, just as much as contemporary fiction.

While the writer’s craft is just as important in science fiction writing as in any genre, one of the joys of the sci fi has always been the exploration of the world around us, and the wonder and awe at both the possible and the seemingly impossible.  The child-like wonder of new discoveries is one thing that makes science fiction worth writing, and keeps readers coming back for more.  Playing with technologies that have not yet been developed and guessing what the future holds continues to make science fiction a perennial favorite.

Whether you write Science Fiction, read it, or write or read something else entirely, I hope this little jaunt down the tropes of hard sci fi brought a little smile.  Happy writing.

Life Experience

Recently I had a subscription to a magazine that publishes fantasy and science-fiction short stories.  The subscription lapsed because, being in grad school, I get a little behind in reading the stories when I spend most of my free hours in the evening studying for class.  Now that I’m out of class, I’ve been catching up, at least a bit.  I’m currently working my way through the January 2009 issue.

One thing I’m learning from the stories in the magazine is how important it is that we be able to relate to the experiences and feelings of the characters in those stories.  In one story I read from today, the main character is going through a divorce, he was raised in a single-parent home because his father died, and works in a dead-end job in a delicatessen.  At first glance, these aren’t experiences I can directly relate to.  I was raised by a mother and father together, and I have no direct experience with divorce.  My career has moved well beyond the time I spent working in a dining establishment.  But the feelings and emotions brought up by the experiences this character is going through are feelings I’ve shared.  I understand what it’s like to have difficulty in a relationship.  Though my father was usually at home with the family, he served in the Armed Forces, and spent several long tours on TDY in other countries – and though he always came home at the end of his tour of duty, I can remember how hard it was for us, as a family, during the times he was gone.  And although my career never stalled working behind the counter in a diner or deli, I know the feeling of fearing that my career has reached a dead-end and that there are no opportunities to make something better of life.

These sorts of feelings and emotions are pretty common, though the experiences that go with them are as varied as the permutations of our genes and the products of our times.  As varied as those experiences are, they consistently produce the same range of human emotions, and it is the experience of those emotions that gives a reader a real connection to a story.  This is one reason why clichés and archetypes become so common in fiction: they’ve become a short-hand for the emotions and experiences they are supposed to represent.  But insofar as these clichés and archetypes are still able to elicit those emotional connections, they have not yet lost their potency.  (When that happens, the cliché becomes trite, tired, and overused, but that threshold is different, depending on the observer and critic.)

Writing a story that successfully makes these emotional connections is challenging, that’s for sure.  The history and experiences of the characters involved need to be recognizable enough and universal enough that we can quickly connect with the emotional experience of the character.  Yet, at the same time, they need to be  unique and nuanced so that the characters do not become flat, cardboard cut-outs: lifeless, and meaningless.  It’s a fine line to walk, but a necessary one, if the story is going to succeed.

I wish you good luck in finding that emotional connection in the history and experience of your characters, and making their stories resonate with your readers.  Happy writing.