World Building Confessions

The biggest confession I have about world building is–I despise it. I loathe it. There are not enough words to say how much I dislike world building. It is far from one of my natural writing talents. I have spent decades sucking Gibraltar through a bar straw with world building.

That said, the only thing I really want to write is Fantasy. Which means I had to find a way to make world building work for me.

The first option is the obvious one: Take an Earth culture and adapt it.

Simple, right? Well, it doesn’t work without more thinking about it. Pre-Christian Ireland (one of my favorite eras and cultures) is that way because of the land, the weather, the resources, the people who settled there and what they valued. Let’s change something simple, like giving them coinage instead of a barter system. Yes, it makes them not-Pre-Christian Ireland, but if that’s the only thing I change, then the world doesn’t feel right.

And it doesn’t feel right, basically, because I don’t want to do the work and ask questions to make it right. So what I get is a fallow area that doesn’t contribute to the story.

In Fantasy, the world has to be the richest source of story growth because that’s where everything fantastic comes from.

And story growth is things that sparks questions. You’ve got to ask the questions. You’ve got to follow the logic of those questions and see if that’s where you want it to go. Find a variety of answers. See what grows the best story.

But I didn’t care for many years. I hated world building, so I did as little of it as I possibly could. I mean, I didn’t actually have to do the stuff I hated, right?

Yeah. I was self-delusional for a long, long time. Decades.

Then I met someone who not only became my best friend, but she is the most naturally gifted world builder I’ve ever personally known. I’ve seen her sit for a half-hour and create an entire world that four people can role play in and it all hangs together perfectly. I envied her that, but it all worked out. She couldn’t plot for spit and envied me my natural talent there.

Over the years of our friendship, she taught me some basic world building tips that have improved my stories massively. I still dislike world building intensely, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can do some good work without feeling like I’m flaying my soul during the process.

What I realized is that I was uncomfortable coming up with all those questions I mentioned before. The questions that enrich the world, which affects the concepts leading to characters, conflict and all the elements of story. I was uncertain that I would be asking the right questions. I was afraid of doing it wrong.

It took a long time, years, for me to figure out that there aren’t any wrong questions. There aren’t really right questions. All the questions are for is to get me to think about things outside of whatever’s comfortable. Once I accepted that, I can’t stop myself from coming up with questions now.

Her tip? Find a “world feel” and use that as the ruler for all other ideas.

Sounds both simple and hard, which it is.

Because a “world feel” can be anything. “Magical Pittsburgh” is the world feel for my series of short stories. As I mentioned in the previous post, Crimson and Crystal. is the world feel for my MIP, Legend’s End.

So how does that work? Making a song into a world feel.

Basically, it boils down to: I hope to make people feel about this world the way I feel when I hear this song.

I find the song haunting, mystic and beautiful. It’s filled with longing, hope, and a touch of despair. There’s no confusion, it’s all very clear, very right there.

Now the questions start–what kind of culture makes me think of mystic, beauty and haunting? Or at least two out of three? What can I do to add the missing element? How do I keep it all clear? What attitudes, traditions or plot elements will lend the longing, hope and despair? Is there any way I can tie some of those elements into other areas of the world?

Once I have a firm sense of what the world feel is, when something comes up while writing, I can see if it fits. Weird things will come out of my imagination. I’ll be writing and they’re just be there. If they fit, they stay in and flavor the story. Often, they’ll become more important as I keep writing, lending itself perfectly to a plot twist, act as a foreshadow, or just giving real motivation for a character to do something.

Figuring out how to ask questions has opened the world building for me. I’ve actually gotten compliments on the world building in my recent works, so there’s come validation. It feels good not to be fumbling so badly anymore.

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Ideas Become a Story Seed

Ideas come constantly and some stay for ages before they’re actually used. The novel I’m working to finish now is the result of long-lasting ideas coming together at the same time. So set the Way-Back Machine and let’s trace how things came together for Legend’s End.

Back in 1979, I started attending SF/F conventions and discovered filk. (That’s not a typo anymore, it’s what SF/F music is called.). One the songs I heard and loved was Crimson and Crystal by Cynthia McQuillan. Even simply played on a guitar and sung, it was haunting. Unlike many of the other songs I loved, I didn’t recognize a book or movie that might’ve inspired it. I determined to write a book someday that song might be filk of.

Fast forward to 1986 when Julia Ecklar recorded Divine Intervention, going outside the traditional voice and guitar and using a fuller orchestral experience and her own awesome voice. While the album contains many of her own fantastic songs, track three is Crimson and Crystal. The orchestration magnified all my feelings for that song and renewed my determination to write something inspired by it. But I’d also matured enough as a writer to know I didn’t have anything at the time.

So the idea went into the eternally simmering pot in the back of my mind.

When 2000 brought the launch of the Xmen movie franchise, one of my favorite fandoms got a kick in the pants. Hugh Jackman brought one of my favorite comic book characters to life: Wolverine. His is a different interpretation from the simplistic quasi-psychopath in the books, which worked and I liked it.

Talking to a good writer friend some years later, she told me about a world she’d invented where immortals had been created in ancient times, so I decided to translate the movie Logan into her world and we started role playing there. Over many RPs and several years, that character came into his own and, as I’m wont to do, I wanted to write a book about him.

The world he “grew up in” belonged to my friend, so that wouldn’t work, so I had to find a world, a plot, a story, that he would fit into. In 2006, I decided officially participate in NaNo at the writer’s site I was active in at that time. I decided to grab my Logan-clone and do something with him. But I needed at least a world and a conflict idea to pull it off.

I guess I kinda turned the simmering pot up to boil, in a manner of speaking. I wanted something to bubble up and I was open to whatever ideas it might toss at my consciousness.

On the commute home on day, I popped in Divine Intervention and started singing along. And up came Track 3. Something twinged inside my head, but I couldn’t grasp it. I put the song on repeat and played it the entire trip. I put headphones on at home and kept repeating the song over and over and over.

My first thought was that my immortal character could be the singer of the song–he would have a unique relationship with Lady Death, after all. But that wasn’t it. It just wasn’t it.

What it was hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks: This wasn’t a character or a plot or anything, this song was the World. (More on that in another post, probably the next one.)

Then things started coming together, the feel of the fantasy, the type of magics I’d be working with, societies, and such.

But I still didn’t have a conflict. Immortal vs. Lady Death just didn’t cut it.

And here’s where myth mugging came into play. Y’know how I said that I get a zillion ideas in my breakfast cereal? Well, one popped out of “nowhere” to smack me between the eyes:

What would happen if a reborn king is murdered on the eve of saving his country?

Y’know, like Arthur is Britain’s reborn king–there, waiting somewhere, to be called to save his country when it’s in dire need. What would happen?

Somehow, in my mind, that dovetailed into all the thoughts of the immortal guy, Lady Death and a world based on a haunting song. It all came together so that when November 1st arrived, I could start writing.

Now, mind you, I failed that NaNo. I didn’t get 50K words. I got about 35K or so. The push to just get words didn’t work for me and I had pages and pages of word salad. So I went back, started to work through it, to get things together, adjusting characters, pulling it this way and that until it finally jived. I worked on it, on and off, since then. But the initial ideas came together to form a story seed with so much energy, I haven’t been able to put it away and forget about it in all this time.

And the ghods willing and the creek don’t rise, it’ll be finished very soon. Wish me luck.

Plot Plodding

Something I hear writers talk (read: complain) about a LOT is plot. They worry about having one before they start writing. They worry about holes in it. They worry it’s boring. They worry about all kinds of things having to do with the plot.

What catches me up is that I’m not sure some of them know what a plot really is, so it seems to me that they’re worrying and fussing about the wrong things.

Plot is not the sequence of events, the flow of causes and effects, which is what most people talk about. It’s not the be-all-and-end-all of the story.

Plot is the release of information to the reader.

That probably needs more words to explain it better, huh?

Let’s go back to the beginning for a moment. What is story? What is storytelling? How does plot fit into it?

Story, in my experience, is the sharing of something that’s either universal or interesting to the human experience. Storytelling is the asking of questions by the teller and the interest in the answers by the listener. Thus, plot is the structure of that sharing, when the important points are revealed to listener.

In other words: You can run cause-and-effect scenes one right after another and get a novel-length manuscript, but, if you think about it, that’s all our real lives are. This happens, then this happens, and something else happens, and it’s all pretty boring. The bits we share are the unusual moments (So I was taking care of this customer, and all of a sudden he starts vomiting on me!), the moments that will connect us with other people (Oh, my child/pet/spouse/coworker does something like that too…) or the just plain humorous moments (And then she just slipped and fell flat on her backside!) that we’ve experienced.

It’s that kind of interest that makes it a story. The larger the story, the more important those moments, and the more frequent those moments have to appear. There’s an old adage in writing: “Conflict on every page.” I don’t know about conflict, but there’s got to be something on every page that will either have the readers asking more questions, giving them some tidbit of information or finalizing the answer from all those tidbits. That doling out of information is the plot.

Of course, this is assuming that the storyteller is aware of the fact that they’re giving questions to the listener in the first place. Many, many writers I’ve talked to don’t understand the concept of story questions, which is kind of amazing to me. To give an example of story questions, let me post the first two paragraphs of my manuscript-in-progress, Legend’s End

Sullore never thought he’d resent watching the moon rise. He could see its ascent clearly through the large opening in the cave wall. Its fullness washed over the farmlands outside of the city, highlighting the massive rise of the King’s Carn and, finally, hinting at the distant foothills. The landscape taunted freedom. As the light grew brighter, it sliced through the darkness of the prison floor.

 

This was Sullore’s sixth time knowing judgment might well come with the dawn. Repetition made it no easier. There was no guarantee there would be another reprieve, and he refused to expect one. Sullore knew the crimes he was accused of, knew his actions, and knew the judgment was out of his control. He would die or live at the word of the yet-unknown queen, whenever she took the Crystal Throne.

If I’ve done the work correctly, the story questions I hope the readers comes away with are as follows:

1. What did Sullore do to be in prison?

2. Why isn’t there a Crystal Queen?

3. What is a Crystal Queen?

 If the reader has more questions, all the better, but those are the ones that will lead them into the main story. As for answers, the first one is answered later that scene. The second question is answered by the end of the next scene, which should also emphasize the third question. There’s tidbits of information throughout the first three chapters, but isn’t mostly answered until midway through Chapter Three. But in the course of giving those answers, I’ve raised more by introducing more characters and their situations and relationships. By the end of the third chapter, the war that is the main conflict of the book has been declared by assassination.

Please note that I called the war the main conflict. That is driving conflict that influences every character’s choices and attitudes, it is not the main plot. The conclusion of that main conflict is the resolution of the main plotline, but it, in and of itself, isn’t the plot. The conflict is the topic of questions and answers. The plot is still when questions are asked, and answers given.

Throughout the novel, I have a lot of topics I ask questions about. Character relationships, a certain character’s sanity, the nature of magic and gods in this world, the meaning of responsibility. Each of these questions form their own story arcs when the question is asked, heighten as tidbits are given, and end when the answer is given. And all of these story arcs intersect and merge with the main story arc of whether or not our heroes will win the war and prevent their homeland from being invaded.

Hopefully, this perspective makes some sense. It’s rather difficult to take something that I know fairly instinctively (plot) and don’t need have to think consciously about and try to explain it in words. How’d I do?

Small stone, Big ripples

It seemed like such a small change. It really did.

There are chariots in Legend’s End. The world is loosely based on Ancient Egypt/Sumer, so I was kinda thinking of that kind of chariot. One of my heroes is a charioteer (the driver of said chariots) and I need to show how good he is with horses for the climax to work right. Having gone through the about 100,000 words I’ve written, I see no place to dramatize that without adding a scene that screams “Hey look–Joaw’s really good with horses!” No, don’t want to do that.

So I decided to move where the charioteer stands while driving the team. Rather than take up space in the chariot itself, I added a little shelf space in the front for the driver to stand and drive. After all, if someone’s standing right there, they’ve got to be good with horses, y’know? There’s scenes where Joaw’s driving the chariot in battle. All very cool.

But, then, I got to thinking. If this is the normal way that chariots are driven, that means there’s an expertise there, a servant class occupation. Which means all the scenes where I have kings and such driving their own chariots–that’s not going to happen. Chariots are going to be built for that driver. Reins aren’t going to be long enough to reach back to the guy riding in the chariot proper.

Which means that every time I mention a chariot, I’ve got to look at it and see what’s going on and if I have to insert a driver, if the driver is in the right space. The first time we see a chariot, another hero (Drais) is driving it, so I had to add a bit that the only reason that works is because Drais is so tall, his arms so long, that he can still grasp the reins.

Then I realized that when the heroes take a ship, I didn’t mention what happened to the chariot and team of horses. Gotta get that in, and yet not change too much of what I have because it works well. But it’s a great way to get in just how good Joaw is with horses.

There’s a scene where one of the antagonists intends to murder the POV character, but he doesn’t while en route because he’s driving the chariot. But if he’s the equivalent of a four-star general, why is he driving his own chariot? And if he’s not occupied by driving, why doesn’t the murder happen earlier?

When it comes to the big climatic battle, Joaw is going to be in front of the chariot in the midst of everything, which is a much more trapped position than I thought he’d be in. Interestingly, I’m not bothered much about that. That kind of tangle is normal to figure out in the course of writing.

All this rippling is also normal in the course of writing, I know. It’s just one of the annoying normal things. Not much fun at all, but I’d rather do it then annoy the reader out of the story, y’know?

Playing nice with others

Because of my autism, I don’t always play nice with others, I have to admit. I won’t play unless I understand and accept the rules as fair. I will only play by the rules (so if the rules change, I have to be OK with that up front) and I will call anyone not playing by the rules on it every time. I’m hardwired to be a spoilsport–and it doesn’t matter if I’m “winning” or “losing”. Rules are rules and are there to make the playing field more level and keep the game honest.

The writing world is usually a solo game. It’s my world, my story, my characters, my rules. I don’t have to think anything about anyone else wanting to play, because there won’t be anyone else who does. Period. No discussion. So my characters can be as kick-ass as I can dream. The world can be as wild, goofy, cool, whatever. The only limitations lie in what I can sell the reader on and how well I can write it.

And then there’s things like Children of the Vortex. It was created specifically to play nice with others. There’s other writers involved even if I’m the only one writing the story because the world interconnects everyone’s characters. What I write will ripple out and affect a lot of other characters. Nothing here happens in a vacuum. Not that I have to get everyone’s approval for whatever I want to write, mind you, but we all need to be aware and we all can kibitz–and some of that kibitzing has to be considered in the story building process.

So when creating a story line for COTV, even creating a character, that has to be considered. We want big, dramatic stories for the series, events that will redefine life as the characters know it. We want characters who will face the challenges of those stories and be interesting whether they succeed or fail. But there’s a balance to doing that, and that takes a very different mindset than when I know I’m just going to be (pardon the expression) playing with myself.

 In my novel, Legend’s End, Drais is one of the heroes. He is the son of two gods and is slowly becoming a god in his own right. Drais is the legendary Immortal Warrior. He’s a master of every form of combat, every weapon ever devised, and he will not stay dead long. He has a magical talent that no one can counter and is absolutely devastating to opponents. Gods will answer his call for aid. Drais is a BAMF, pure and simple, and he carries a good portion of Legend’s End‘s story and conflict.

 However a character like Drais would completely overshadow everything in COTV. There’s a war brewing, and if our heroes in Florant have Drais on their side–why would anyone else need to fight? I mean, seriously. All other characters become sidebar sidekicks and, frankly, that’s no fun to write for anyone. A character like that makes the entire series unwriteable.

 So when creating characters for COTV, it’s not that they can’t be superlative in some way. They can. I love superlative characters, however it’s a single, smaller, thing they’re superlative in, not something overarching that spoils that general thing for everyone else.

For instance, Riccavier Fleureaux is counted as one of the best swordsmen in the Ducal Lands at the age of 21. Doesn’t mean you can’t beat him in a swordfight, but your odds of doing so aren’t great. However, give the man a pistol or a musket or even challenge him to a game of cards, and he’s kinda average. LLucin, the terex (think dragon-bird) who Claims Riccavier’s sister, has been studying magic his entire life and is one of the best scholars on general magic in Florant, however his practical experience is pretty much nil at this point. Guion Laurens is, hands-down, the luckiest SOB to have been born in a century. The man could fall in a sewer and not only come up smelling of roses, but bottle it to sell for a hefty profit (as my grandmother would say).

That doesn’t just go for characters. While most of us like to write serious, dramatic stories, there’s got to be room for completely over-the-top comedy too. The first issue has a story where Riccavier judges a cook-off between a visiting chef and his father’s favorite horse, for instance. There’s a barony in Florant where magic doesn’t work at all, the baronial colors are rainbow (with sequins!) and well, let’s just say that if anyone is losing their mind, they’re on the way to Arc–it’s the most insane place in the Ducal Lands. And yet, it totally fits that Arc is the way it is, it belongs and everyone can have fun with it (or just laugh from a safe distance).

Each of these things (and not all of those are mine, mind you–though I wish Arc was–I adore Arc) are superlative without casting such a huge shadow that no other writer can have fun with what they want to do. Shavonet can be a talented Flame cavalier (fire wizard), but that doesn’t impede on Sevien being the BAMF Stone cavalier, or Anjounette having a different talent in Flame spectrum. And they all have their own foibles and weaknesses that allow strong teams and friendships–and rivalries–to form.

It’s one of the problems I’ve always had with DC’s Justice League, y’know? If you’ve got Superman, why do you need any of the rest of them? Superman is just so blasted good at everything, why bother with Batman, Wonder Woman, or any of the rest of them? Give me a team like the X-men where they all have something they’re really great at, but none of them–not even Wolverine (and I do adore him) can stand alone better than he can with everyone around him.

That’s pretty much what we’re shooting for–that teamwork, both in the story and in the writing. Those of us involved in COTV all bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. Theoretically, we can all write to our strengths, and the strengths of our fellows will help shadow our vulnerabilities. In theory, it’s a win-win situation for us and readers. But like any situation, we all have to remember our manners and play nice with others.

This kind of writing isn’t natural for a lot of writers–this writing novel-sized big stories with “smaller than novel” characters. Or the flip side, those writers accustomed to “smaller than novel” characters (short story or fanfic writers) having to scale up the stories is equally difficult. But that’s part of the object of this project, though–finding that middle ground and having fun with it.’

We’re still trying to find the right rules to help us do it, since we’re just starting out. We’re still figuring out what will play fair for everyone. And that’s a little frightening for this rule-bound mind of mine. But these are my very good friends. I’ve known all of them for well over 15 years each and I want COTV to last for a very, very long time. We’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work. After all, it’s our game and our rules.

Black Moments

So I’m working on my present MIP (Manuscript/Monster/Mess/Migraine/Masterpiece In Progress–the acronym covers all my moods about a book during the writing of it) and hit this scene when I realize that the only thing that can happen next is that one of my heroes (I have 5–or 4, depending on how you count them) is about to have a “Black Moment”.

Now “Black Moment” is a term I picked up when I was writing Genre Romance. The Black Moment (not to be confused with any other kind of BM–though a person does usually feel better once it’s over) is that point in time when a character realizes that all their hopes, all their dreams, all their plans, all their actions has been for naught. That they are, in all ways that mattered, totally screwed. The tunnel they’ve been traveling has caved in around them so there’s not light ahead, there’s no going forward and there’s no going back. They are just royally f***ed.

And to write this small scene means that I have to write deep emotions. Of course, since it’s totally emotional, and such an emotional moment is critical to that character’s story and the book as a whole.

Lemme tell you, there is nothing harder for me to write that emotions, particularly deep emotions. I once told someone that I’d rather have my appendix pulled out through my ear than write this kind of scene. I don’t think I was joking.

See, I don’t deal well with my own emotions. My temperament is one of calm, easy-going, slightly jovial, but when something rocks that norm, I have few ways of dealing with it. Calm calm THUNDERSTORM calm calm calm TIDAL WAVE calm calm calm depressed calm calm calm — you get the idea. I’m kinda at the mercy of whatever emotion I’m experiencing for as long as it hangs on, then it’s gone. And, oft-times, I’m talking gone, as in I do remember that I was angry, frustrated, or whatever, but the sensations of having that emotion is lost to my memory. Rather like the pain of giving birth naturally–very intense while you’re going through it, but once it’s over, your mind can’t comprehend all the pain you were actually experiencing any more.

This is one of those things that I don’t know if I’m just weird about, if it has something to do with the way my Aspie brain is wired, or if it’s completely normal and I just never realized it. Not that it matters much; it’s the way I am wired, so it’s something that I have to find a way to deal with to do what I love to do.

So when it comes time to write something like emotion, it’s really hard. What makes emotion even more challenging is the fact that very few emotions are only really one emotions. There’s usually layers upon layers of emotions that make up what a person feels in any given moment.

For instance, for this particular “Black Moment”, my hero–Drais–realizes that he cannot fulfill a vow. It’s not just any vow, but one that’s magically tied into his very soul. He once vowed to help the Reborn King save the country any time he’s summoned. And this time is bad and Drais has finally gotten a good look at everything and–they can’t win. There is no way, militarily or even magically, that he can see that this country can be saved. It will be invaded and they cannot turn back the tide. They will lose for the first time in 100 generations.

My mind immediately leapt to the emotion of this realization: Depression. How can you realize that and not get depressed? But upon a great deal of thought and some good convo with writer friends, I realized that depression is the destination emotion, and there’s an entire journey before Drais can get there.

The beginning has the biggest challenge, ’cause that’s all a tangle of outrage (that cannot be true!) and something I’m calling ONYD (“Oh, no you didn’t!”) Ever have a situation where you’re at a job interview, or talking to people, and everything’s going great–and then something falls from your lips–something so tactless, inappropriate, so WRONG that you immediately realize that you just blew everything in a grand way? And you have that half-second of self-realization before everyone else reacts and pray no one’s gonna put that up on YouTube? (And if you haven’t, you’ve had a very blessed life and I envy you.) Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about with ONYD.

From there, anger will set in–though anger at what can vary–then resignation and, finally, depression.

And all of this has to be conveyed in a few short sentences, maybe a couple of paragraphs, because Drais is not an angsty character who will chew the scenery for a few chapters to make sure I’ve got every last nuance of his emotional make up onto the page.

So, yeah, it’s taken me close to two weeks to write this one little section of this scene because it’s hard to pull all the right words together, to get through my personal emotions as I’m trying to get back in touch with my own Spartan memories of such times, and then to make sure it all fits for the voice of the character who’s going through it on the page. And even though I got it written, I’m not sure I got it right, so I’m likely to have to go through it all again, and perhaps again and yet again. And maybe again, just to be certain.

There are times I sit and wonder “Why am I doing this–this whole writing thing–and why can’t I tell this story I love without going through this crap?” And I can give myself all kinds of answers, up to and including “Then just hang up the book and don’t finish it.” But, I know that’s not an option. I love this story. I love these characters–even more I like these characters. I’ve struggled with getting this book done for more than five years even though I’ve finished several other shorter things–even gotten one published–since I started. I have a commitment to this story and, by all I’ve ever held as sacred, I intend to do right by it and finish it. Which means I have to drag myself through such times and get the words down. It’s not so much that I owe it to the story, I owe it to myself. I’m at 97,000 words, so I’ve already gone through a lot with this book. I don’t want the feeling of failure if I walk away from it because I failed to recover from my own Black Moment.

  • The Bag of Holding

  • Pigeon Holes