My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, March 19, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing Part-5

Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3, Part 4

Minecraft Has Nothing On Us

"If you have technology as sophisticated as androids, you probably don't need to hook them into USB ports for updates. Wireless will be pretty established by the time we have that tech level." I say.

Willbehuge glares at me. "Dude, it's my world."

"Okay, but you might want to explain that if it's an aspect of your world," I say. "It wouldn't make much sense if it's just 'the future.' Maybe wireless viruses are prevalent or android technology has progressed a lot faster than wifi technology for some reason, but there should probably be a reason that your indistinguishable-from-human android doesn't have the technology that my iPad has today."

"Your iPad wirelessly updates?? Dude, that's dope!"


World building! Dramatic huh? Sort of sounds like nothing short of launching a Genesis torpedo at your word processor could possibly do it justice. It’s certainly more involved than, “A thoughtful T graph is a good prewriting exercise for a compare and contrast paper.” Building worlds follows much of the same process as not being a stranger—you just have to not be a stranger in your own creation.

And as much as this seems like it should be pretty common sense, believe me when I tell you it is not. All the more so because this is not among the skill sets that are taught in most academic writing programs. There is very little time spent on anything but narrative voice and character, and most passes through setting are single chapters in the craft text book covered in a week of class.

By contrast there are entire classes devoted to narrative voice and to characterization. (At least at SFSU—given the pedagogy’s continuity with what is considered “high art” I seriously doubt many writing programs contain a world building class, though I admit I haven’t done enough research into some of the speculative fiction friendly MFA programs that exist.) Because most writing programs have made up their mind about what is “good” fiction, and which of fiction’s elements are worthy of their consideration, examination, study, and dedicated emulation, they eschew teaching a viable writing skill within fiction. Even though most writing program instructors will throw a (grudging) bone to U. LeGuin.P.K. Dick, or K. Vonnegut as literary writers, they will spend exactly no time teaching the skills that those authors had mastered so well.

Almost seems like they’re just paying lip service doesn’t it? (Remind me some day to tell you about the instructor who I discovered was just dropping names of authors he hadn't actually read, and claimed LeGuin didn't write political allegory.) You're not the only one who thinks so.

This is sort of the third part of prewriting, but it bears its own scrutiny within fiction writing, a world where an author can change anything and everything to suit their needs. Especially when we’re dealing with speculative fiction and the power of a writer to create places, races, and things that have never existed and events that have never happened.

But if you’re sitting there, reading the last two parts of this about looking around at the world as a writer and research and thinking to yourself: “I’ll just write sci-fi.”

Oops—you have auto-failed. Better restart from a previously saved position because you can't possibly win from this one.

Let me make this clear, if you think world building is a way to avoid research, ur doin’ it wrong. If you think it’s a way to avoid having to have experience the world as a writer, ur doin’ it wrong. If you think the endless bounds of your unbridled imagination are so compelling that people are going to want to stop by for a while even though you don’t have characters they relate to or events that resonate with them, ur not only doin’ it wrong, but you’re being a n00b by thinking ur NOT doin it wrong.

Building a world from scratch in which you have to keep track of details can be just as hard, even harder if you plan to stay in your world for an extended length of time, than doing research. You not only have to create the world, but you have to retain the integrity of the world. You may be in a universe with totally different rules, but you have to abide by those rules once established. JK Rowling (one of our generations most creative and successful world builders) may have had an awful lot of hand waving magic that just allowed things to happen at Hogwarts, but she worked within the rules she had established, and she made sure that the integrity of the world remained intact. No one got to pull off more than uncontrolled wild effects without a wand in their hand. Rowling spent YEARS deciding what the limits of magic were. She’s quoted as saying the following: "The most important thing to decide when you're creating a fantasy world," she said in 2000, "is what the characters CAN'T do." The minute you disrespect your own rules, you’re in trouble.

If you ever, even for a moment, think your readers are stupid, or they aren't following along VERY carefully, quit now. Just quit right now. Stick to non-fiction. That scene in Galaxy Quest where the kids ask the incredibly technical question is so funny because it actually happens. All. The. Time. And while you might be forgiven your inability to realize that in book two you made a passing reference to an event that should have happened after the flashback in book six but the item wasn't there or some such thing, if you do something epically stupid like having your prequels involve characters who have actively stated that they don’t remember each other in your originals, you’re going to be the subject of no small amount of ridicule. *coughobiwancough* I once read very thoughtful article online about how Rowling was remiss to have Voldemort be completely unaware of some of his ideological contemporaries given when he grew up. (England during the rise of the Third Reich.) I’ve seen a high fantasy author taken to task because their depiction of archery was comically uninformed. Your readers are paying attention…and if they’re generally paying a lot more attention than you are, you’re going to look a little bit foolish.

Now you may get lucky and be George Lucas foolish and he gets to say tripe like “I totally had Han shoot first even back in ’77; you just couldn't see it...yeah, that's the ticket” and we’re still going to go on Star Tours and buy lightsabers and ensure that he can retire with three blistering hot escorts on permanent retainer, but most of us are just going to be told our writing is kind of unconsidered and not very well thought through.

Prewriting is a frappe of techniques. Almost every bit of fiction requires some world building and some research. Even the most painstakingly accurate historical fiction involves some creative license or it would simply be a non-fiction history. You must delve into those experiences you’ve had as a writer to recombine and reconfigure what you know into moments you don’t, but world building never EVER absolves you of that. Even the most well built science-fiction worlds may require a writer to investigate current understanding of physics to explain propulsion or building technologies. The most fantastic settings may demand a writer understand a social nuance that they want to weave in as allegory. And a character, whether marching off to slay a dragon or flying a space fighter into battle must be, familiar enough that a reader can relate to them.

If you try to build worlds that aren’t somewhat researched you get worlds that don't make a lot of sense. While we forgive sound in space for our space fantasies, it bugs the hell out of us if you're writing something that gives a crap about physics. If you just fill built worlds with cardboard characters, you get a result about boring as you might expect. You’ll write the book equivalent of The Phantom Menace—without having George Lucas’s reputation and a generation of established fans to lean on. (We all wish he’d taken his own advice that a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing, but at least if he isn’t paying attention to himself, you can apply this wisdom to your writing.) You’re not dodging the bullet of research or of living life as a writer by world building because a story has to be rooted in what a reader can understand and comprehend, and that requires the WRITER to understand and comprehend. You’re only adding a delicious, wonderful, level of complexity to what should already be a rich and compelling story. You’re taking your reader on a voyage where nothing is the same as what they left behind, but also where everything has an eerie familiarity to it and resonates within them.

Ultimately the Genesis torpedo is not a terrible analogy because it did not create something from nothing, but rather it rearranged the existing molecules at the atomic structure into a planet capable of sustaining life. If used where life already existed, it would “destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.” That’s what you do when you build worlds because you can’t REALLY create anything. You have to build a new world out of what is already there, and that means you can’t duck the other aspects of prewriting.


  1. So I'm just getting around to reading this at 6 a.m. and I don't have my glasses on (Why? Blond.) And up until you mention JK Rowling I'm thinking to myself, "Wow, fiction writing certainly is more involved than I ever imagined because Chis is talking about WORD building."

    I'm gonna go get my glasses now and try again.

    1. Yeah, I don't know if I am willing to take the process back quite that far.

    2. Hey, some people do create constructed languages as part of their world building...

    3. Ironically, that's a great example! I'll have to use that next week. If you want to invent a language, it'll take more than just random strange words if you want to be taken seriously. People do lots of research into linguistics and maintain the integrity of an entire syntax and lexicon to keep it realistic.