Monday, April 29, 2013

Worldbuilding: A Glance Under the Hood

So, last week, I shared a map and some worldbuilding details for one of the nations in the world I've been building, and opened the floor for questions. The questions I got were more about process than the world itself, which is just fine with me. 

I loved the level of detail that you spent on the government.  Do you have a process that you use?  Perhaps you can write it down and share it with your peers?

So, in this case, I've been particular blessed to have a worldbuild/brainstorm partner, in Dan Fawcett.  Dan is far more of an academic than I am, and while I'm pretty good at the research side of worldbuilding, he's really the master.  He's the one who first turned me on to Jared Diamond's works Guns, Germs & Steel and Collapse, both of which I consider required reading for worldbuilders.

As to the process itself: Dan and I hashed out the real broad-brushstrokes, soft-import, high-concept stuff of each nation/cultural area.  Then we came up with tour National Document template-- something I want to rework to a degree, but that's neither here nor there-- which I would use to write up each nation*, and then pass it off to him.  He'd tear into it, usual with questions about specifics, which would help us drag each culture away from its broad-brushstrokes, soft-import, high-concept origins and give it something unique.

In the case of Waisholm, a big aspect was making it something that Druthal wasn't.  Druthal is a parliamentary monarchy, a relative enlightened state for a fantasy/renaissance type of culture, and I wanted Waisholm to be... not so much harsher, but further back on that path.  And more to the point, a place where small-group insularity and in-fighting was the main thing holding them back.  So this required the throne to be a weak title compared to the local lords, and a place where "civil wars" are a relatively common part of their history.  So this required creating a government system where fealty and identity function strongest at the local level.

The question was about achieving that level of detail, which I attribute to the national document, which is relatively comprehensive (what I posted came from sections on government, military, law and criminal activity, for example), and it went through that question-and-respond process to make it stronger.

How did you create the actual map?

The maps have had a long history-- the initial map started nearly twenty years ago, hand-drawn of the whole world.  I eventually got that scanned (and this was in the 90s, where "getting something scanned" meant going to Kinkos and giving them your 3.5" disk to put the scan on), and started making more detailed maps of each respective part.  Over the course of time, as the capabilities of the computers and drawing programs I had access to improved, so did the details of the maps.

So maps that had their origins in hand-drawn, followed by MS Paint, have now been worked over in PhotoShop 6.  There are some that I haven't updated as much as others, of course-- Druthal itself has had the most evolution-- but on the whole it's a far more advanced and detailed work.  And, more to the point, more advanced and detailed than it could have been back then.  Somewhere in the house I still have the 3.5" floppies that have zipped-up files of the maps-- i.e. it took multiple disks and compression to carry it all.  Now I have map files that would have made the old computer explode.

*- There are a few nations he did the initial write-up of, though I don't recall which ones off the top of my head.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Perils of the Writer: The Importance of the Trunk Novel, and Recognizing it for What It Is.

I know a lot of people, if the reviews on Amazon are to be taken as a valuable sample, found David Eddings's The Rivan Codex a waste of time, but for me it was a vital and rare look under the hood of a writer's process.  One thing he said stands out:

"Write one million words.  Then throw it away.  Now you're ready to start actually writing."*
That one million words, almost without fail, boils down to a trunk novel or two. Or more.  So what is a trunk novel?

It's a novel you write that's never going to see the light of day.

This isn't an easy thing to do.  Writing a novel is a heart-and-soul exercise.  No one writes a novel with the intention of sticking it in a drawer and not selling it.  Why would anyone do that? 

Of course, you never write a trunk novel as a trunk novel.  When I wrote Fifty Year War, I had every intention, every belief that this was going to be the real dealWhich it wasn't.  And then when I wrote Crown of Druthal-- spend YEARS on Crown, to be honest-- THEN I really thought THAT was going to be it.

Both works were messes in their own way, and it took me a while to see that.  But at what point do you say, "You know, this isn't working, this isn't going to work, and I need to move on."

When do you decide that you aren't going to fight the good fight anymore, because that fight isn't the "good fight"? 

For me, it was the realization that I wasn't really writing a proper novel.  Both were, essentially, worldbulding exercises in novel-like form (history and travelogue, respectively).  They weren't stories at all, so much as excuses for me to say, "This is the world I made, let me share it with you."

Once I realized that these works were inherently unpublishable, that they were fatally flawed at the core... I knew it was time to put them in the trunk.  I'm glad I wrote them, I don't consider the time invested in that as "wasted".  But it is work that isn't going anywhere besides my archives.  And that's really a good thing.  For everyone.

*- This is not an exact quote because my copy is high up on one of my shelves and I'm 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Worldbuilding: Maps and thoughts on Waisholm

It's a busy day and a busy week here, so: here's a glance at one of the nations that shares a border with Druthal.  I still need to re-work my various "national documents" to a format that suits me, so this is still somewhat provisional.  Of course, this sort of worldbuilding writing is usually only personal and provisional; you'll not see another book that starts with "Concerning Hobbits".  But I'll share.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course.  If you want to know more, let's have a little Ask Me Anything About Waisholm.  Challenge me.

"Waisholm has a quality that I cannot put my finger on.  When you're there, the sun seems brighter, the air crisper.  The whole world seems… better.  An overly romantic notion, of course, given that the average Waish must break his back to put food on the table.  But yet, Waisholm seems to evoke the romantic in all men's hearts."  -Duke Auren Dale of Acora

"We have often observed in families a second son, desperate to prove to both father and brother that he is as much of a man as they."  -Tsouljan Cultural Report

"The Waish have held on to some traditions of their culture that date back to before the Empire ever encountered them, which is commendable.  However, they have held on to some things with such blind devotion that they fail to realize that it is what holds them behind as a nation."  -Kieran Senator Polimanitix

"So you want to know about Waisholm, do you?  Very well.  You best sit down, because this could take a bit of time.  And we ought to get your glass filled as well.  And mine, for my throat is apt to get quite parched in the telling.  Barman, two beers for my friend and I!  Make it four, so we don't have to bother you later.  Now, before I start, what you ought to know…"  --Calthinn Ringfire, eminent Waish historian

The government of Waisholm is a monarchy, however in the Waish system the king, despite being called the Chief of the Clans, is not truly above the rest.  Each of the clans are led by the Clan Lord (who is sometimes given the Druth/Kieran title of Duke), and the King of Waisholm (who is also a Clan Lord) is considered first of his peers.  However, at the Clan Council (as this group of Clan Lords is called), ancient tradition gives control of the proceedings to the Clan Lords of the Strongtree, Ironroot and Kinslayer clans.  Therefore, if the king is not the Clan Lord of one of these clans (which is often the case), he starts out as an inherently weak king.  Thus, Waisholm has a decentralized, clan-based rule.

Within each clan are a number of septs, and the leader of each sept (given the title of Thane) pledges fealty to his Clan Lord.

The general Waish character includes immense pride in one's group.  When interacting with someone from another sept, one will be fiercely loyal in defending his sept.  With another clan, they will defend their clan, and against other nations, they will defend Waisholm.  There is an almost tangible sense that all the clans are together and united against the rest of the world.  They view each other as an extended family, and fights within the family are acceptable, but if someone from outside the family starts a fight with one, he will have to fight them all.  A traditional story is told in which a Druth traveler enters an alehouse in Strongtree country, where the patrons were all exchanging insults about the Ironroots.  When the man joined in with the insults, however, the Strongtrees all proceeded to physically eject him from the establishment.

Most law in Waisholm is a combination of new concepts handed down from the Kierans and the Druth mixed with traditional Old Waish Clan Laws.  It reads similar to the Druth Rights of Man, with some additions.  These additional laws primarily concern two things: respect to the sept and clan, and ensuring personal freedoms.  One freedom that is strangely unique to Waisholm is the Right to Quarrel, which gives one the freedom to start a brawl (in other words, a non-lethal fight), if one feels they have been sufficiently provoked.  This law is put in tandem with the Right of Provocation, which gives one the right to say or do something that would provoke another to fight, since you choose and accept the consequences thereof.

Any crime done in Waisholm will usually cause one to be imprisoned for five to fifty days.  The length of this imprisonment is at the discretion of the Thane in whose territory the crime occurred.  The Thane usually appoints a Sentencer, whose job it is to lay out punishments, so the Thane does not have to deal with it directly.

Each Thane, and through them, each Clan Lord, is responsible for assembling the men under them into a fighting force.  This mostly takes the form of a rough militia in which the Thane is General.  Other men of noble birth take the role of officers in the militia.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Worldbuilding: Cultural Rituals and Coming of Age

I just turned 40, and my son just turned 13, which has me thinking of significant milestones and coming of age.  We make a big deal out of turning 40, of course, and 13 is considered at least a gateway into adulthood.

When I was 13, I went to several bar- and bat-mitzvahs (and one b'nai mitzvah), and I always found the highly ritualized element of "and now you are an adult" fascinating.  Of course, in that case, it was partly fascinating because, on many levels, it was just about the ritual.  My friends weren't expected to get their own apartments and get jobs, after all: they were only 13. 

How a culture deals with that transition into adulthood can be a fun bit of worldbuilding.  It can be something very specialized and ritualized, or it can be a casual observance.  Here in North America, the tradition of a Sweet Sixteen/Quinceñera party is more the latter, but it says the same thing: you are (nominally) an adult now.

In Druthal, it's not much of an observance at all.  Druths tend to be a practical, unsentimental people, so it's mostly understood that at 15 you start some sort of work or higher schooling.  In Thorn, Veranix is 17 and is in his third year at the University of Maradaine.  In Maradaine Constabulary, one of Minox's younger brothers is 15, and he's just started as page in the constabulary-- the traditional form of apprenticeship before becoming a proper patrolman. 

Other cultures on that world have more specialized methods of marking their coming of age.  In Acseria, a theocratic state, there is the Rite of Declaration, where a young adult commits themselves to one of the specific sects of the church, as well as claiming their "adult" name. These two choices are, of course, deeply personal, and represent the child's readiness to be their own adult person.

Another culture with a highly ritualized coming-of-age process is the Bardinæ, who are divided into clans.  Clan affiliation is not finalized until the age of thirteen, when children and their clan-guardians take a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jaukmeira, and each child is allowed-- for the only time in their life-- to touch the Jaukmeir, the great sacrosanct obelisk in the center of the city.  From touching the Jaukmeir, they then declare to either join their clan or be one of the Yja, the clanless holy men. If they choose their clan, then the mark of that clan is tattooed onto their face.*

However, my favorite tradition comes from the Bürgin, a culture of loose city-states.  Bürgin is the farther southern part of its continent, close to the antarctic circle, and it's filled with nearly-frozen rivers.  These rivers are the life-blood of the culture: the source of food, trade and power.  So if you're a child the community believes is ready to be considered an adult, the ritual is very simple: they throw you in the river.

If you manage to survive and swim to shore: congratulations.  You're an adult.  If not, you weren't ready.  Too bad.

*- Since children aren't marked as being in a clan, it is a tradition amongst the Bardinæ to kidnap children from rival clans, and then deliver them to the Jaukmeir as their own. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Perils of the Science-Fiction Writer: Avoiding Obsolescence

I'll admit I'm not a big short story reader, nor am I as versed in the classics as I ought to be.  That said, I have a certain fondness for Ray Bradbury's All Summer In A Day, and to a lesser extent, The Martian Chronicles.  Both are very human stories that take place on Venus and Mars, respectively.  But they were very much the Venus and Mars of imagination, the Venus and Mars that couldn't be written about after the 1950s.

It's easy to see how, when all that was known about Venus was its cloud cover, a writer might imagine a Venus where the rain almost never stops.  Now we know that isn't even remotely close to the truth.  We know that All Summer In A Day is an impossible story.  It's still a great story, and it holds up in the sense that you can willfully ignore real-Venus in favor of its pulp-Venus setting.  You allow yourself that willful suspension of disbelief because you know the context.*

We live in an exciting time, in terms of astronomical news.  We are constantly hearing news of another planet being discovered in orbit of a distant star.  We've just learned of an Earth-sized planet in orbit of Alpha Centauri B.

But that also makes it a... challenging time to be a sci-fi writer, especially one that does the kind of in-depth worldbuilding that I do.  Any day I expect the news of a discovery to come that invalidates a major element of my work.  And I can only imagine if, say, such news comes in between finishing a work and it being published.  Would that be embarrassing?  Will it be embarrassing in 60 years?  Or will readers shrug and say, "Hey, that was the 2010s.  They hadn't even met the Helari** yet." 

This is probably why some of the better sci-fi gives themselves some breathing room-- putting a few centuries between now and the story.  Therefore the minor or major discoveries in the near future can be handwaved away.  Write too close to the day-after-tomorrow, and the work seems very dated.  I love Snow Crash, for example, and it's still a highly regarded work... but it's set in a 1998 that was a nigh-absurd extrapolation when it was written, let alone in retrospect.

For some other news: Rayguns Over Texas now has a cover!  I'm absurdly excited for this book, especially since I'm being printed with such good company. 

*- And, of course, one can write something in a deliberate retro-pulp style, but then you're almost writing fantasy instead of sci-fi. 
**- The Helari, of course, would find it amusingly quaint.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Talent, Discipline and the Lure of the Crazy Success Story

While I might sometimes be at odds with what makes "good writing", I do think there's such a thing as talent.  Raw, pure talent, an instinct for craft that gives an artist an edge over their peers.  I know my son has it.  He's been drawing since he picked up a pencil, and he has skill that astounds me.  I don't know where it comes from, because I can't draw worth a damn.  Do I have talent?  I'll let others be the judge.

Because here's the thing about talent: it needs to be tempered with discipline.  Discipline wins over talent, in my book: someone who does fantastic work but can't be bothered to deliver on time is not someone I'd call on; the solid, dependable work that's ready and on time will always win with me. 

This is where the Crazy Success Story creates difficulty, because it's usually about the triumph of talent.  Talent being plucked out and held up high despite discipline.  Or at least despite apparent discipline.

Take, for example, Stephanie Meyers.  Now, I've got no issue with the Twilight books.  I've not read them, and I won't comment on their quality one way or the other.  But it's got fans, so on that level, she's done something right.  So: good on her.  What I do take issue with is Meyers's own narrative of writing and publishing the first book, as I heard her describe on NPR some time ago.  She more or less described the process as some sort of wacky accident:  she was just scribbling stuff down, and someone told her she wrote a novel and she should get it published, and so she did!  Just like that!  She wasn't even trying!  It just happened!

This sort of story undermines what it takes to actually write a novel.  It probably undermines what Meyers actually did to write and publish Twilight in the first place. 

Another one to think about is Douglas Adams.  Now: I am a huge Douglas Adams fan.  HUGE.  But if we're being honest, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy probably wouldn't have been published in today's environment.  It's a Crazy Success Story that is very much the product of its time: Adams was working in BBC Television and Radio at a time when it was a grind job*, and wrote a sci-fi/comedy radio program that was a huge success despite being done on the cheap and shuffled away on Radio 4. This is Adams's talent shining out, pure as sunlight.  The radio show was such a hit that a novel version was demanded by the publisher.  So Adams, despite having no history with writing a novel, was given a contract to write the book.  Then he missed one deadline.  Then another.  Then the "no, really, THIS is the deadline" deadline passed.  Eventually the publisher called and said, "Where are you with it?"  "I'm at this scene." "Well, finish that up, because we're sending a courier on a motorbike to pick up the manuscript, and that's gonna be the book.  Write the rest in the sequel."**

Can you imagine that today?  Let alone George R. R. Martin taking a long time with the next Game of Thrones-- imagine the idea of an unknown, untested writer being allowed to do that?  Wouldn't happen.

But that appeals to the people who believe in talent over discipline.  It appeals to the idea of, "I have an idea for a book, so give me a contract and I'll write it."  Because despite completely failing in terms of discipline-- he didn't even finish the book, and they published it anyway!-- it was a huge hit and launched his writing career.  Because he was insanely talented. 

However, that's a-billion-in-one longshot.  You can't plan a career on that.

*- Consider this: Adams was a producer on Doctor Who.  In the Tom Baker years. Because at the time it was considered something of a crap job no one wanted.  Can you imagine that being the case in the TV world today.  Especially on Doctor Who?
**- If you can, pick up Neil Gaiman's biography of Adams, Don't Panic.  It's quite a fun read.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Clarity and "Literary" Writing

There are, of course, several schools of thought on what makes "good" writing.  And, frankly, half the time I'm at something of a loss.  By which I mean, many times I will read something that's been identified as "great writing" and think it's a muddled mess.  And many times I'll read things that are scathingly referred to as "puerile" or "simplistic" and think it's fun and entertaining.

When it comes to "great writing"-- in other words, writing that aspires to be literature-- some writers come away with an idea that they need to be obscure.  That just coming out and saying what happened is too base or something.  That to be great, you have to make your readers work for it.

I don't get that.

More to the point, this idea creates the impression among learning writers that they need to avoid clarity in favor of obfuscating the action.  Especially on the academic level, this sort of idea is drilled into heads to the point where it's very hard to knock those bad habits out.

I read one sample chapter for workshopping in which the actual action in the chapter involved the main character visiting the grave of her friend.  I had to re-read the chapter four times before I figured that out.  Words like "grave" or "cemetery" or "headstone" did not appear.  Why?  I can only presume the author had gotten the idea that they needed to avoid direct telling of events in favor of sensory details.

This may not be a popular opinion among writers, but "sensory details" can be the death of clear writing.

Not that sensory details are bad, but many times it's done in a way to be obscure.  Instead of telling the reader that the character sees an elephant, the writer tells us about the sight of large leathery ears, the earthy scent of dung, trumpeting calls and the ground shaking from a thunderous walk, and they hope that we put those pieces together and come up with "elephant".  That type of thing can be fun, in a puzzle-box sort of way, but it isn't necessarily good writing. 

Also, too often I see sensory details are thrown out the for the sake of putting sensory details. I remember one piece of writing advice that said something along the lines of, "If you go a page without each sense being represented, you're doing something wrong".  This is terrible advice.  A sensory detail should be used if it's relevant to the action.

Take smell, for example.  Are you smelling something right now?  Is the fact that you're smelling it strongly on your mind?  To put that to writing, in the scene itself, is the fact that a smell is being noticed key to the scene?  Or is it a detail you're adding because you feel you're supposed to add sensory details?

Of course, sometimes confusing the readers is the point.  And that can be fun, but if you're going to do that, do it well.  For every Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, there are dozens of books that are just unclear.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Twelve Part Structure and Pacing

I will probably never stop being an advocate of structure and outlining.  For me, it's the best way to write.  But figuring it out, working the way to make it work for me, that was a process. 

I've talked, quite a lot, about my Twelve-Part Structure.  Part of working that out, of course, was figuring out the pacing of each part.  If you go into it thinking each part is an equal part of the book, the pacing is going to be very wonky. 

Now, one thing to remember: This is structure.  It is not formula.  There isn't a mathematical way to Write the Perfect Novel.  Anyone who tells you that just wants your money.  

1. Establishment: 5%
Since the purpose of this section is to introduce your protagonists, what their situation is and what their capabilities are-- you need to get your hooks in and land them solidly.  So you don't want to waste too much time with, say, an overabundance of backstory or infodumping here.  So if your target length is a 100K novel, you're looking at 5000 words.  This is handy since a lot of writers' workshops or other critiquing processes want only 5000 words*, so if you can hook your reader and make them want to read more.

2. Incitement: 15%
 Here, you need more work.  Setting up the dominoes, introducing secondary characters and antagonists, really building the world.  Here, once you've drawn your reader in, you can get away with more backstory and infodumps.  The plot starts rolling, and that build of momentum is a bit slow, of course.  But that's all right.

3. Challenge: 10%
Now that you've got your protagonist juggling the various balls of the plot, it's time to start really throwing rocks at him.  The small rocks.  But you can throw several. 

4. Altercation: 10%
The Challenge should flow into the Altercation.  Your protagonist can rise to the occasion, and have their first real "Hell, yes!" moment.  (They might get minor ones up until this point, but the first big one comes in here.)  So, at this point, we're about 40% in. 

5-6. Payback-Regrouping: 25%
I'll admit it, this part may be the hardest section.  This is that "mushy middle" where, having knocked down some of the dominoes early, you set up even more elaborate ones.  This is where you can get away with more backstory and infodumps, but sparingly, as you don't want to lose your audience.  Drop the first shoe here, and build up the bigger set of problems. 

7-9: Collapse-Retreat-Recovery: 15%
Drop that other shoe and run like hell.  I'd like to say the breakdown of this is about 5-5-5, but that isn't always the case.  "Collapse" is the moment when things fall apart**, it's throwing the big rock, and you don't need to dwell on that.  The running away and dealing with what just happened is the more fun part, anyway.  But the point is, this can all blend together.

10: Investment: 10%
Now, the book has to breathe a little bit.  Only a little, because you're at 80% in, and the story should be just on the verge of getting completely away from you.  Of getting away from the protagonists.  But take a moment to appreciate why they're doing what they're doing, and who they are.  All while running like hell.

11. Confrontation: 8%
 Here the pacing should be relentless.  This is the point where your readers should be emotionally incapable of putting the book down, because things are happening like crazy and they're almost at the end and they don't know what's going to happen next and they cannot stop themselves.  No need to draw this out: if you set up things well enough in Investment, then it's just a matter of things falling where you need them to here.

12. Resolution: 2%
Finish up, sew up the remaining issues, throw a little tease for book 2, and get out with your reader wanting more.  No need to overstay your welcome.

*- Like the ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop, for example.  There won't be one in 2013, but you could start planning to attend the 2014 one now, if you want.
**- Yeah, because that's what "Collapse" means...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Writing is Very Funny Business

I have to confess something: I'm not big into April Fools' Day.  Mostly because the "jokes" and "pranks" tend to be rather obvious.  I do have a certain fondness to ones where a certain degree of craft gets put into it, though.  For example, John Scalzi's "Shadow War of the Night Dragons" is a pretty brilliant bit of satire.  I mean, yes, it's a joke, but it's well written and the cover art is nigh-perfect.

But it seems most April Fool's Jokes boil down to, "I'm telling you something that's blatantly untrue.  Ha ha got you."  Bleh.

So, anyway, I'm not a "funny" writer.  That doesn't mean what I write isn't funny.  It often can be.  But I don't write it to be funny.  Because if I actually tried to write comedy, I'd probably fail spectacularly. 

Actually, I know I'd fail spectacularly, since I did try and do that in college, writing sketches for the talent show that were not particularly funny.  Except perhaps to me.  Or to the people who knew that I was blatantly attempting to rip off Monty Python.  Actually, it probably was not funny to those people.  But that's what you do in high school writing, right?  Take whatever your influences are, barely file off the serial numbers, and do a blatant copy of the style.  Also back in high school, I attempted to write a comedy/sci-fi romp, and it was exactly what you'd expect it to be: a poor copy of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

That said, several short plays I have written have turned out pretty funny.  Which is strange, given that funny wasn't the goal at all.  Sometimes they became funny in the process of production. 

In my novels, I'm not going for comedy at all.  However, there will always be moments of comic relief.  Holver Alley Crew, for example, has a jokey banter between Asti and Verci throughout.  But, again, I'm not writing jokes.  Something about that seems destined to fail.

As an example, I've always been a big fan of Babylon 5.  However, the comic relief bits never really worked for me.  Always felt off, like it was trying to hard.  However, I have a strange fondness for the appearance of Rebo & Zooty in the season five episode "Day of the Dead".  Not because they're funny-- because they aren't-- but because their humor is presented as utterly subjective and of-its-moment.  It's not funny, but most people on Babylon 5 are laughing at it... except Capt. Lochley, who, like us, just doesn't get it.  And there's something interesting in that.

All right, enough of this.  Off to the word mines.  I have self-imposed deadlines to meet.