Wednesday, August 18, 2010

World Building

I've been thinking a lot lately about world building, but not so much about the how-to  advice like:  first you draw a map of your world and then decide how your creatures procreate and you figure out their religion, etc, etc.

All that stuff is great and fun, (except maybe the map drawing, that's a little to LOTR for my taste), but what I've been thinking about is not only how do you introduce and show your world in your actual story, but how do you explain it. How do you answer the question: What's your book about?

I'm judging a contest right now and boy are some of these writers doing a bad job of it. Either they're explaining too much, or they're leaving out so many important details that it doesn't hang together at all. Describing a story succinctly is always a challenge, but it seems to be a particularly difficult one for writers in the fantasy, paranormal and urban fantasy realms. Because they think they have to describe their world to describe their story. They sometimes think the world is the story and its complexity drives their conflict...

I've read a couple of helpful online posts recently. One was a short "workshop" in the WriteOnCon conference for children's writers that was held last week. The author was suggesting the key to world building was to make sure you show the readers something they recognize (especially if the creatures in your world are creatures we've seen before) and then change certain elements, but make sure you have good reasons/explanations for the changes. Pretty simple but sound advice.

I mean, if you've only read Bram Stoker, you think that anyone bitten by a vampire but not killed will become one. But if you've read Anne Rice, you KNOW that it's more complicated than that and difficult for a vampire to make another vampire. And if you've read J.R. Ward... well you KNOW that everyone else has everything backwards. The vampires are the good guys.

But moving on to the real eye-opener for me...

I saw a post last week (that I can't find now, so I apologize to the writer) which claimed that one of the pitfalls of fiction writing, in general, is that many beginner writers confuse complexity with conflict.

And this not only lit a lightbulb for me, it made me think about recent conversations I've had with Molly and Sinead about the importance of keeping it simple.... (Sinead and I are both working on YA stories with urban fantasy, alternate history, and/or post apocalyptic type settings.)

The insight I got from this post I read was that you can make your world as complex as you like, as long as you know what your key story is and can explain that part simply. It helps if your story fits in well with your world -- hopefully the details of the world make the conflict in the story more believable, or the stakes higher. But I think that might be less important than making sure you have strong conflict regardless of the world... I think you should be able to explain your story without mentioning the world, or much of it...

I mean I wrote an (unsold at this point) manuscript about a male creature and a human woman saving the life of a little girl. And the conflict came from the fact that he couldn't tell the woman why the girl was in danger, or what he was, and the woman couldn't trust him, especially since he kept trying to leave her behind and take the kid, making her wonder whether he was the real danger. Yes, I had a big mythology surrounding it, but at it's core, the world and mythology was almost superfluous to the conflict of the story. (I actually have done a crappy job of describing the story here, because I didn't capture the internal conflicts well, but I think it makes my point.)

Unfortunately, all this thinking has made me realize that I don't have a great snappy one or two sentence description for my latest WIP yet... I do think I've got real conflict... (not just complexity) but I'm having a little trouble seeing through all the complexity to what bits of my story are the key elements, the key sources of real conflict...  All I'm seeing right now are the details of my world and all the decisions I need to make about it.

I do think I've got a core story in there... Just not 100% sure what it is, yet, or rather what makes it special/interesting/compelling.

Hope I'm not making a mistake by not figuring this sh*t out first....

Speaking of sh*t.... An aside re: Eileen's famous bestselling cousin and his dad who says sh*t... I saw a funny tweet from @williamshatner the other day. At least from whoever tweets as William Shatner. One never knows. A year or so ago, someone was tweeting as Christopher Walken. The tweets were really too funny and too perfect to really be him. And of course it wasn't. But boy was it funny.

But back to Shatner... His tweet was something like:  have just shot an episode of Bleep. Starting to think the bleep they're referring to is slang term and not so much about defecation.


Okay, sorry. I thought it was funny.

17 comments:

Bec said...

Wow. Thank you. I just worked out what my story's about. of course, not the one i'm editing at the moment.
In trying to summarise it, i'd been getting caught up in the world. The world is important but it's not REALLY my story.
Thank you.
=)

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think you are so so so right - it also makes me think of the Jayne Ann Krentz keynote at conference - that if you know your core story - you can tke it anywhere - put it in any world. The world is the conduit for whatever your wonderful and simple story is.

but I also don't think you have any idea what yor simple story is when you're perhaps at the first turning point - you're in the weeds, there's too much mud, you just can't see clearly. You might think you know, but all that really core stuff, ridiciculously doesn't come - for me - until you get a whole lot of distance between you and the beginning.

Great post - lots to think about!

Molly O'Keefe said...

It also makes me think of that book Souless - which I really liked too - part historical, part paranormal, a little steam punk - lots of different worlds. Previous to that book I had believed that writing something with that many worlds was perhaps a little too much for one book - there was too much to do - but the core story - coming of age/romance was really simple. So simple, in fact that she had all that room to show the worlds - too much room for Sinead's taste - but I think the mash up worked because the writer was very very good - she used first person, which keeps it immediate and honest in terms of showing not telling - and her story was simple!

Maureen McGowan said...

Glad the post made sense, Bec. I should stop writing blog posts in the middle of the night.

I was thinking about Jayne Ann Krentz, too, Molly.

And thanks for the reassurance. But I do think I should have a better idea at this point. Well, maybe not. I think what I'm missing is pinpointing that key difference or irony that makes my book different. But hopefully, with help, I'll figure it out.

Stephanie Doyle said...

I don't want to throw my 2 cents in Maureen... but let's face it I'm going to anyway - so totally just disregard post if you want to...

But why struggle with how it's different? That's practical Maureen talking.

I get it. You know it has to stand out, you know it needs to be cutting edge, but at the same time it has to "fit" someplace...

I think your post is trying to say... forget all that.

Concentrate on the only thing that really matters. What is you story about? What happens to these characters and why do we care?

I think the point you made about Vampires is awesome. But I don't think JR Ward said - I want to do vamps and here is how I'm going to make them different.

She just had an idea about vamps. And it "was" different.

Focus on the story you want to tell and forget all the other bull. If it's a good story it will stand on it's own and it will be unlike any other.

Am I being too naive?

Maureen McGowan said...

Ah, Steph. I knew I shouldn't write blog posts at 3 in the morning.

I didn't mean how it's different/compelling in a world building way... I meant what it is that will make my *real* story compelling...

Which piece of emotional baggage I've given my heroine is the important one... The one that ties in best to the external challenges she has to face. That kind of thing.

Maureen McGowan said...

Your comment is exactly what I meant in my midnight ramblings. :)

Eileen said...

The world building thing is so hard! Especially in paranormal. It's like a house remodel. Every step you take requires four more that you didn't foresee. Each decision requires a bunch more.

The core story thing is very important. I think also revealing bits of the world through your character's eyes is equally important. Then the setting/world building becomes part of revealing who your character is and what's important to them.

I think you should always write posts at 3 a.m., Maureen. This one has so much to think about it in it. I'm going to have to reread it.

Guess I'm also going to have to follow William Shatner's tweets, too. Love that comment!

Maureen McGowan said...

Oh, Eileen. That's an excellent point about using the world's details for characterization. Must be more purposeful about this stuff. Well, maybe once I start to revise.

I do think my opening for this book works in that regard -- shows world and reveals character... but I haven't thought about it much past that.

Eileen said...

I find it very hard to come up with what Julie Kenner calls the "TV Guide blurb" of my story when I'm in the middle of working on it. I can usually do it when I'm starting the story, which is good since it's handy to put it at the top of a synopsis, and again at the end, which is good since I need to have satisfied the main story goal.

In between, though, I think we're necessarily caught up in the tiny details and complexity of our world. We're so busy describing the trees and what they mean, that we can't tell anyone where the forest is.

At least, that's my experience. Right now, I'm not sure I couldn't tell you what my WIP is about, but I should be able to say in a couple of weeks.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Eileen - I think that's totally right. We start in the forest, after all and we know that.

Steph - I think to some extent right now, you have to have an idea where you're going to be shelved, or how your cover might look - is it a romance cover? is it a couple in an embrace? A woman alone with a bloody knife? A cartoon of a woman's feet in pink cowboy boots? We have to help the editors not only fall in love with it, but sell it at those meetings where all of us keep getting rejected... oh, to be fly on the wall at those meetings.

That said, you can't compromise on what you're doing, that's a sure fire way to not even get to the meeting. so, how to do it? No idea - but we have to have an idea of where we fit on the bookshelf. That's my new theory anyway - you will notice before conference I wrote a blog about how it doesn't matter and we just have to write a great book - so, who the hell knows.

Maureen McGowan said...

That makes me feel better, Eileen. It's just so jumbled up in my head right now and lacks focus.

My CP's are good at this stuff, too. More than once I've been agonizing about how to describe one of my manuscripts, only to have one of them say, "What do you mean? It's about this!" And it's usually an "of course, that's so obvious" moment for me.

Maureen McGowan said...

That's one thing I'm liking about the YA market, Molly... I know my books will fit in the teen section in stores. Because as of now, the childrens books are all shelved by age group, not genre.

But I still need to find an agent who's sold books similar to mine and trust that he/she can find the right editors/imprints who will put my style of YA fiction on the shelves.

There's much less genre fragmenting in YA... But you still need to know which books you're similar too... Hmmm... Maybe I'll blog about this next week.

Eileen said...

Here's my "knowing where you're going to be shelved" story . . .

When we were sending out the proposal for Don't Kill the Messenger, I attended a workshop panel about cross-genre writing. One of the panelists was Cindy Hwang from Berkley. She talked about books that walked the line between, say, urban fantasy and romance. She said that even if she really liked the story, she might ask the author to make some changes because at the moment, there was no bookshelf standing somewhere between romance and urban fantasy in the bookstores. She needed it to be one or the other.

So when her assistant (who became my editor at Berkley) called me and asked me to revise to make it one thing or the other, I actually understood why. The book sold and got me my first ever starred PW review.

Originally, I just wrote the story I wanted to tell. Luckily there was enough in it to interest them and it wasn't so hard to nudge it over to the romance side in the end.

Eileen said...

Maureen, the picture is always much clearer when you're outside the frame. That's why your CPs know what you're writing when you've forgotten.

Sinead M said...

Those clear writing moments are so rare... Like Maureen, I too am struggling to keep my core story clear in my head, and not get distracted by all the shiny possibilites... just some of them, the ones that enhance the core...

So easy to say, but in practice..

Eileen said...

Okay. I know this was yesterday's post, but I have to toss something in. I'm reading a book right now (and no, I'm not naming names) and it started out great. I mean GREAT. I was loving it. Now we've got a vampire in it. But he has a heartbeat and he breathes and he's warm to the touch. No explanation. It's irritating the crap out of me. If you're messing with the myth, acknowledge it and explain it.

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