Thursday, April 28, 2011

Worldbuilding: Geography is destiny

First up in discussing worldbuilding is a bit of Required Reading.  As far as I'm concerned, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond is essential reading for anyone interested in doing worldbuilding work, be it secondary fantasy worlds or alternate history worlds or even other planets with interstellar worldbuilding. 

The central premise in GG&S is this question: if all human societies are, more or less, equally clever, why did European and Asian societies advance faster and thus achieve domination over the globe?  What advantage did they have?  The only answer possible is those societies had a geographical advantage.  They lived in a region where agriculture and animal domestication could thrive, which then allowed them the free to develop other advances, culminating in the Guns, Germs and Steel that would give a culture the ability to dominate over another. 

So the first important lesson to derive from GG&S is this: no culture has ever advanced technologically without first moving past the hunter-gatherer stage to agriculture.  In order for any member of society (or, more specifically, a significant chunk of that society) to be able to spend their days fiddling with things, they can't be worried about where their next meal is coming from.  If your food source isn't stable, your society isn't growing.  I won't name names, but there is a rather noted series from a highly regarded genre author in which a the depicted society has advanced supercomputers while still being hunter-gatherers.  This is patently ludicrous. 

The blessings of geography boil down to having good natural resources that can be domesticated.  Diamond posits that over 13,000 years of trial and error, there simply isn't a species of plant or animal that humans didn't TRY to domesticate.  (He also notes the key difference between domesticated and tamed.  You can have, say, a tamed lion.  You can't have a domesticated one.)  The plants and animals that are the most important in our society NOW, and have been for centuries, are the ones that have stood the test of time for their usefulness to society.  

What does this mean for worldbuilding?  For starters, if you have a society that's more technological and socially advanced, then it has to have a solid history of agriculture and animal domestication.  Your society should have some Key Crops that forms the backbone of the calories consumed by the people.  Think about what they might be.  Here and now, there are only a dozen species that make up 80% of the tons of food grown: wheat, corn, rice, barley, sorghum, soybeans, potato, manioc, sweet potato, sugar cane, sugar beets and bananas.  Same with animals. There are only fourteen Large Domesticable Mammals: sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, horses, Arabian camels, Bactrian camels, llama/alpaca, donkey, reindeer, water buffalo, yak, Bali cattle and mithan.  Something to note: of those animals, all but one were native to Europe & Asia.  South America had llamas, while North America, Australia and sub-Saharan Africa had none.  

Of course, you can make up different crops and domesticated animals that form the backbone of your society.  Especially with secondary worldbuilding, they can be unique crops to your world.  But they should share aspects that the successful crops and animals from our world.  Your advanced societies will be shaped by the plant and animal resources they had available due to geography.  And a less advanced society should specifically LACK those initial geographical resources to give reason why they didn't develop. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Getting your hands dirty with the worldbuild

As much as I love writing, the thing I really love doing is worldbuilding.  It's never been a necessary evil for me, but a reward of its own.  If I had my druthers, I'd organize an anthology project of short stories where writers work off my worldbuilding notes.  Perhaps someday.

Of course, it's important for me not to then use that as an excuse to bog down the actual writing.  I've read many complaints about sci-fi and fantasy books where the author spent several pages infodumping their worldbuild.  For me, it's the follow-up to the rule, "Show, don't tell."  Namely, "Know, don't show."

One friend of mine compared worldbuilding to an iceberg: 90% of it you can't see.

So, while I would never do it in the text of the writing itself, I want to start excavating the iceberg.  So my next few entries will be about my worldbuilding process.  Geography, biology, culture, and tying it all together, and the resources I use.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Wishy-washy, kinda-sorta weak words

Yesterday, my friend Audrey wrote a blogpost about her "crutch words", words that she overuses in her prose.  It reminded me of how a few years ago, as I was doing an editing pass on the now-trunked Crown of Druthal, I put together a list of words that I was using a bit too much, though in some cases, "too much" translated to "at all".  The list is as follows:
  • half
  • various
  • almost
  • seemed
  • appeared
  • apparently
  • presume/presuming
  • followed/following
  • now
  • smirk
  • grin
The last two were there because they were my use-too-often facial expression in Crown.  Everyone was grinning and smirking at each other.  It was quite the bemused crew. 

"Followed/following" and "now" were on the list because they tended to be indicators of weak prose.  "Followed/following" would often be about character management: one or two people actually doing something, actually going somewhere, and then a bunch of other people would just... follow.  This was a key problem with Crown: a large cast of characters who mostly served as entourage.  Sure, when I got to the Grand Finale, I made sure that Everyone Had Something To Do, but that ended up being more of a reverse-engineering job: determining a plot reason to justify the character rather than having the character come in organically from the plot.  (The whole plot of that book was pretty inorganic.  There's a reason it's trunked.)  "Now" would often be an indicator of poor time management on my part-- glossing over some events of a few weeks and then saying, "Now Augustine was sitting on the deck..." or words to that effect.

The rest of the words all represented the same basic problem: weak word choices that didn't own the action or the description.  Words that expressed doubt instead of certainty.  Words that were vague instead of being clear.  Take "various", for example.  It sends a message that the author doesn't feel like really describing things.  Or worse, really doesn't have a clear picture of what they are supposed to be describing.  Things shouldn't apparently be something, or seem to be another thing, when it's clearer and stronger to actually BE that thing. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Game of Thrones pre-watching thoughts

I have yet to see the first episode of Game of Thrones, though I have every intention of watching it in the near future.
That said, reading one review of the first episode, this sentence resonated with me:

"It’s so taken up with making sure everything is set in place that it largely forgets to do anything other than offer up a long series of stilted introductions."

This was exactly why I was not able to get into the books when I tried to read it. I read about 150 pages and felt like I had met a bunch of people, but no one was actually doing anything yet. This problem crystallized for me when I was reading in public and some guy asked me, "What's that about?" and I had no idea how to answer.

I will fully admit that I would probably give an HBO series a little more latitude along these lines than I would a book, which is probably a terrible thing for me to say, but there you go. And, quite possibly, after this season is over and the show does really hook me, I'll give the book another go with a clearer sense of who the people are, and thus have an easier time investing myself in them.

One thing that occurred to me, after thinking about this for a bit, is how a book like this could not be picked up as an author's first book, not any more.  (Yes, I do know that when George R. R. Martin started this series, he was already a well established writer.)  Same, of course, can be said for Lord of the Rings.  In fantasy, from what I've seen and been told, you simply can't get away with the "Let me paint a scene for you for a while before things really get going" approach.  But it's an approach that, again, from what I've seen and been told, a lot of early writers keep trying.  (Raise your hand if you've heard someone say, or you yourself have said, "It really gets going at Chapter 10.")  But I can imagine it's hard to convince someone NOT to take that approach when it's exactly what several of their favorite works did.  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Out of Ink: Review and some other thoughts

The Austin Chronicle has a review of this year's Out of Ink.  I can't help but be pleased with this bit:

Take, for example, the most successful piece in the evening: "Entropy," directed by Sharon Sparlin. (And yes, I'm going to spoil some of this, so stop reading here if you're going to see it.) In it, two scientists, Boson (Jose Marenco) and Higgs (Jacob Trussell), gradually discover that they are caught in a time loop. Playwright Marshall Ryan Maresca changes up the repetitive dialogue in each successive scene so that we discover what is happening at the same time the scientists do, utilizing just enough techno-speak to make it all sound real and possible, while actors Morenco and Trussell use a blistering tempo, a chair on wheels, a laptop, and not much else to make us imagine huge control rooms, massive computers, and the swirling vortex of time. Plus, it's laugh-out-loud funny.

Got to love that.  And you know what? It IS laugh-out-loud funny, but I've got to give most of the credit for that to Jose and Jacob.  Those two really click, both with spitting out the, I'll admit, downright Trekkian technobabble ("The integrity of the field is quantum tied to the half-life of the sample!") as well as building the necessary spiraling momentum.  And Sharon was the perfect director for this piece.  Rare is the artist who not only is an ace at coordinating movement and text into a stronger integrated whole, but ALSO reads quantum physics for fun

In short, I am incredibly happy, but mostly because I had a fantastic group of people who brought the absolute best out of my text. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tear It Down to Build It Better

Earlier, I mentioned how I had reached an epiphany with USS Banshee as to what was wrong with it, and how I could make it a far more interesting work.  But that would involve completely tearing it down and rebuilding it from the ground up.  The story itself, not the worldbuilding work.  That's key.

The main flaw of where I was going with the USS Banshee earlier was this: despite the unique elements of the characters and worldbuilding, the set-up was more or less a Star Trek book.  A Star Trek book from the junior officers' perspective, but still.  Which annoyed me, because part of my underlying idea behind the future-worldbuild was that, as opposed to the Trek-verse, humans would be the scrappy newcomers to a relatively well-formed interstellar political scene.  They do not forge a bold alliance between themselves and alien races, it's already there, thank you. 

So, thus, the problem of Banshee was staring at me: it's pretty Trek-like, except the ship is all-human. 

And then it hit me: what if the ship wasn't all-human?  What if, as opposed to Trek, the ship we're on is, in fact, human-minority? 

Then the ideas started to get interesting.  Starting with scrapping almost the entire character list.  Also, I'll probably have to change the title now.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Getting into the creative groove

Starting a new project, even one that's well outlined and planned out, is sort of like a first date.  Vanguard has been a constant thrumming in the back of my mind for a few years now, being the fourth of the four different "Heroes of Maradaine" series that I've conceived of. In fact, I think of the four, it was the first one that I outlined the basic plot for.  But the other three found their voice first, so I kept putting it to the side.  I had a few false starts, including my initial attempt which had the cliche "Character wakes up and goes about his day" beginning.  I won't inflict it on you, dear readers, since it is quite atrocious. 

But my problem with Vanguard was getting it started.  I even knew what, in essence, the opening sequence was about, but finding that entry point into it kept eluding me.  On some level, I was starting to dread the idea of it.  Finally, this week, in the middle of a class, this opening sentence came to me:

Dayne Heldrin followed his instructions to the letter: he had come to the Marquellen docks alone, no weapons or shield, and with three millions crowns worth of exchange notes.
I immediately jotted it down, as well as a few more sentences.  For the first time, out of all my attempts to start this project, it felt right.  Now the whole sequence is starting to coalesce.  We'll see how far I can take this groove.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Untitled Heroine Project and the Problem of Sucker Punch

I saw "Sucker Punch" on Thursday, and for the most part I enjoyed it.  It was a flawed film, to be sure, but I think a number of the criticisms are unfair.  This review, though, hits a lot of points I agree with.  I think the movie pretty much dances on the blurry line between empowerment and exploitation, though.  I mean, it is a movie where women get to unapologetically kick ass and take names.  It passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.  But at the same time, it does so by putting said women in sexy, fetishy outfits (though not to the same ridiculous degree as something like the appalling DOA: Dead or Alive), and naming its characters Baby Doll and Sweat Pea.  But if I were to hazard a guess, the movie was sold to its studio on the outfits, and despite the sexiness of the outfits, the women still fight like it's an actual FIGHT that they're in (against zombies, orcs, dragons and robots, at that), rather than a glorified sexy photoshoot with a bit of fighting.

This ties into my core ideas for the Untitled Heroine Project, which I am thinking of right now as a graphic novel project, but that might change.  At its base, the idea is for a team of women who fight and struggle and save the world.  And it would be the whole team: not a group of women led by a Charlie, Bill, Giles or Wise Man.  And how they would be dressed would be dictated by what's most practical for the tasks at hand. 

If anything with this project, my biggest influence is Gail Simone's runs on Birds of Prey

But the ideas are still in a nascent stage.  I'm starting to come up with the characters, but I don't quite have a plot yet. Still plenty of work to do before actual writing starts on it.