More on World Building

makoto shinkai yn
Still from the anime Your Name, which you should definitely watch.

Yes, yes, I know.  I love talking about world building.  It’s one of my favorite parts of the whole process.  And one of the reasons I love it is because it’s always ongoing.  Rarely do writers come up with a complete history of the characters and the world they live in.  And conversely, quite often writers are thrown for a loop when an unplanned but much needed figment of a character’s personality shines through.

Recently while doing some work on the Secret Next Project, one of my main characters suddenly decided to change from snarky and a bit wild, to moody, highly intelligent and deeply caring.  Part of this was due to a later outtake where I had him working with another main character (specifically a moment where they had to trust each other completely) and instead of trying to shoehorn him into my original idea of him, I ran with the new idea instead.  Their connection with each other suddenly became an extremely important plot point, especially as it mirrors their fathers’ history.

I love it when a major plot line pops out of nowhere like that.  It’s that moment where the larger story as a whole suddenly starts falling into place.  [Mind you, my reaction to this is usually not an emphatic “YES!” but more of a smile, a nod, and a thoughtful yes, that should do nicely.  Then I’ll spend the rest of the evening secretly squeeing on the inside.]

One rule I’ve given myself for Secret Next Project is to not dismiss ideas out of hand.  If I come up with an unexpected leftfield idea, I’ll think it through and see if it’ll fit within the context of the larger picture.  So far it’s worked quite nicely, as the story has taken at least four unexpected turns and has evolved into something much deeper and more complex than I expected.  More to the point, it surprised me that it happened so quickly; I’ve only worked on this for less than a month and already I’ve got almost a full storyline idea.  That never happens that quickly for me.

This also means that it’s clearer and more complete quite early on in the game; another thing that almost never happens for me.  The same thing happened for Meet the Lidwells, to be honest; I already had a pretty solid idea of the entire story by the time I actually started writing it.  I’m not feeling my way in the dark nearly as often as I did with the trilogy.  With the Secret Next Project, I’m yet to work out the complete plot, but I’ve got nearly all the important beats I have to hit already.

To be honest, world building really is a game of balances.  Elaborating versus using what you already have; choosing which fate works best for the character; creating enough to make it realistic but not getting bogged down with details.

There’s more to come, of course, but learning how to balance it all is the best part.  That’s what makes the story, and the storytelling process, interesting.

 

 

 

A product of my generation

1984
courtesy of 1984, Michael Radford 1984 version

Somehow I found myself listening to 1984 the last few days.  It may have been sparked by hearing my favorite song by The Fixx, “Deeper and Deeper” (the end credits song to the movie Streets of Fire from that year) on an 80s Sirius XM channel.  This in turn influenced yesterday’s Walk in Silence, with the various songs that I was listening to at the time.  And as is my wont, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole and am listening to various songs and albums from oh so long ago.

I was thirteen at the time, seeing the back end of junior high and entering high school as a freshman, hoping that life would be a bit more exciting and less drama-filled.  [Seriously, what is it about middle school and everything in life sucking?]  I’d just started focusing seriously on writing, to the point where I probably spent more time on the Infamous War Novel project than I did on my homework.  It just seemed a hell of a lot more exciting to me.

Thinking about it now, I’m fascinated by the parallels between then and now.  A resurgence of ultra-conservatism, American exceptionalism, international terrorism, sexism, ism ism ism.  I’m even a bit weirded out that we could fit Russia into this equation again.

With the current administration doing whatever it thinks it’s doing, I’ve been sort of preparing myself mentally to get through it.  I could easily fall down the other rabbit hole — the one where I fall prey to the doom and gloom and feel like shit until it’s over and done with — or I can learn from the past and know that there will indeed be a light at the end of this tunnel soon enough.  [Granted, this tunnel is a detour that we really truly did NOT need to take and it’s a big pain in the ass for all involved.]

Personal point being — to get through the troubles and frustrations of today, I’m thankful to have a decent memory of the past.  It helps me to stay one step ahead of the beast.

In the context of writing: this is part of why world-building is so important to me, and it’s also why I’ve been working on future projects with the 750 over the last few years.  When I was first starting out way back in the 80s, figuring out how it all works, I just sort of made up the scenes as I went along, with a somewhat vague overall plot line being nudged ever so slowly forward.  The end result was patchy and inconsistent at best.  Writing these practice words for a project I haven’t even started yet gives me just enough of a world and a plot to base it all in.  It helps me to stay one step ahead of that beast.

It’s tricky, and you really need to know yourself and your own thought processes, but it’s worth it in the end.  It’ll keep you sane, that’s for sure.

 

 

 

 

Cellphone’s Dead

My cellphone battery went on the fritz the other day, so for the first time in I’m not sure how long, I haven’t had my cell with me when going out somewhere.  No looking up my book shopping list that I have saved to Dropbox, no checking Twitter while we wait for our food at restaurants, no checking in to Swarm, no reading what few news sites I still actually read with any regularity.  I’ve had to make do with analog diversions such as the local paper or whatever’s playing on the big screen above the tables.  Or, y’know, talking to people.

I was able to enjoy yesterday’s errands without distraction or needing to get somewhere or find something specific.  I spent an hour or so at Green Apple Books (I had a few items to pick up that we’d ordered), did a bit of shopping close by, and stopped at Café La Flore for lunch.  My only entertainment while eating was a writing magazine I’d picked up.

I’ll be honest, I already knew that I’m online way too much.  Working from home, I have my work laptop at one end of my desk, and at the other end of it is my home PC, where I’ll distract myself with some online radio station, my Twitter feed, my email, YouTube, or whatever else might be going on.  I’ve already made a conscious effort to lessen my dependency on social media and newsfeeds, especially when I sense that I’m about to be irritated or annoyed at something currently trending.  Again, it’s the white noise — it tires me out, and I don’t feel like adding to it anymore.  So I’ll close whatever tabs I have open, save the radio station (or my music player), and do something offline.  I’ve also made it a point to use my work breaks for longhand writing, which forces me to cut screen time as well.

Yesterday’s errand-running up Clement Street was definitely a nice diversion, especially since it forced me to think of other ways to distract myself other than via my cellphone.  And more to the point, it was a reminder that being online really is a bit of an addiction, at least for me.   The good thing is that I’m aware of it, that it cuts into my personal time and my writing time, and that I’ve been doing things to combat it.  I make time for things, because I know that in reality, most of the things I want to do don’t take that long at all.  A bit of guitar noodling?  Working on my art?  Writing in my journal?  Writing a poem?  Surely I can afford to take an hour or so out of my day to dedicate to those projects.  Lately, I’ve been noticing just how true that is, once distraction has been taken away.

And without a cellphone (which, let’s be honest, I use mainly to go online, and not to call anyone), I’m finding myself with more time on my hands, connecting to the world in a different way.  It’s slower and there’s less novelty to it, but that’s just fine.  I get to enjoy the Zen-like quality of people-watching and letting my thoughts percolate for a bit.  I get to listen to the world a little more closely.  Overhearing interesting snippets of conversations and pondering what the context may be.  Noticing habits, personal tics, cultural quirks.  Thinking about why people do what they do.  Letting it all enter my memory without having to take pictures of it.  Everything that goes into character development and world building.

Am I going to keep this up, once I finally get my replacement battery?  Who knows.  But for now I’m just going to continue with this acoustic living for a bit longer.  I’ve really come to enjoy it.

On Worldbuilding: Fluid History

John: “Hey there, Jeremy, what do you know about holes?”

Jeremy HIllary Boob, PhD: “There are simply no holes in my education.”

–Yellow Submarine

If you’ve ever watched any kind of documentary or series, there’s always some element of “we’re not entirely sure what happened at this point in time, but we can make an educated guess by looking at the following clues” or some such.  The further back we go in time, the harder it is to pinpoint the date of an event; eventually the most we can say is “sometime during the [x] Era.”   Those are extreme examples, though.  Sometimes our view of history changes within a few decades, when we look at the events of a specific time with the eyes of a different generation, maybe even a different culture.

I started thinking about this sometime ago when I started writing the new Mendaihu Universe story.  One of the subplots deals with the events that took place in the original Bridgetown Trilogy, though this new story takes place about seventy years later. Without going into too much detail, our histories of our heroes in that trilogy have become somewhat embellished, even after so short a time.  Denni Johnson, the teenager who had ascended as the earthbound deity the One of All Sacred, is now viewed as a saint, complete with a marble statue that thousands flock to and pray at.  Her sister Caren and Caren’s ARU partner Alec Poe, who never ascended as far as Denni did, are seen as more than human; Caren is believed to be an angelic protector, and Poe is seen as a Mighty Warrior.

And yet, all three were merely human.  Gifted with psionic abilities, just like anyone else in the Mendaihu Universe who have gone through an awakening ritual, but still — they were just as human as the rest of us.

Part of the focus on this new story is how certain people and events in history get changed over the years.  We may have documents, we may have databases and videos, but it still boils down to how the person or event is seen by the viewer.  We put amazing people on pedestals, even if their personalities were less than stellar, because regardless of their infallibility, they changed the world in some way.  The same could be said of horrible people as well; their vileness goes down in history as a grim reminder (even if, on a personal level, they weren’t one hundred percent vile).  We rarely look at these things objectively; we always have some emotional attachment to them, however big or small.

The evolution of historical accuracy fluctuates a lot more than we’d like it to, quite often because of this emotional attachment.  In this new story, the views of the new devout (those who follow the steps of the One of All Sacred — that is, Denni — and hope to find clarity in their lives) have become reasonably established.  However, schisms have already broken out; there are those who see Denni as a savior, and others who see her as an ascended but flawed human.  There are the Elders, the spiritual leaders who have been around for centuries, who are also splitting: those who have embraced the evolution of belief, and those who want to retain the status quo.

It’s a bit of a mess, but that’s the fascinating part of history as it happens.  No one really knows what the hell is going to happen next until it does.

 

On Worldbuilding: Down the Rabbit Hole Willingly

It’s often said that the downside to worldbuilding is that sometimes we writers get caught up in it, to the detriment of the actual writing.  I’ll freely admit that creating a fictitious world is a never-ending source of fun.  The Mendaihu Universe has grown and evolved over the course of two decades, and even as the Bridgetown trilogy enters Submission Phase this year, I’m still coming up with new avenues, new details for it.  Just yesterday I started playing around with another MU story set on Mannaka, an outpost world mentioned on the periphery in the BTown trilogy.  For the love of my own sanity, why am I doing this?

Short and most obvious reason?  More stories!  Ever since the aborted True Faith novel, I’ve always planned on setting a number of books in the same universe.  Not always in the same fixed spot in the timeline, of course…the timeline for yesterday’s brainstorming is up to question, but it would be a few millennia either before or after the BTown events.  This was partially inspired by Anne McCaffrey’s Pern universe–I liked the idea of writing multiple stories in my own created universe.  Each story would stand on its own, but there would always be a reminder somewhere (either up front or in the periphery) of the spiritual evolution story that’s central to the Mendaihu Universe.

And I spent a lot of time between 1994 and 1997, the years before I started The Phoenix Effect, just playing around with the universe, coming up with various story ideas and plot points in the timeline.  I remember a lot of slow afternoons in the ticket booth at the theater (and later at the radio station) where I’d lay the ground rules for my universe, such as major world events, evolutionary steps, and so on.  Just enough to give me anchors for future projects.

I can understand when worldbuilding can be a writer’s downfall, of course; spending too much time on the minutiae and not enough on the prose, focusing too much on the history and not enough on the present.  Or worse, giving into the joy of worldbuilding so completely that doing the actual writing becomes less than exciting.  It becomes like Charles Foster Kane, focusing on building the empire and home, changing it and morphing it as time and whim permits, but never quite finishing it.

The trick is to balance it out…I can have a lush background history, but I have to do something with it.  I can create a sprawling city-province like Bridgetown, but I have to have something happen there in particular.  I can create various characters to act out my story, but I have to have them do something inherently them in the process.   And after all of that, while I’m writing the story, I have a background I can work with–I can put these characters through a historical event that will affect them in one way or another, which will in turn cause them to evolve somehow.

I learned this when I realized I could no longer get away with ‘making it up as I go along’.  I learned it with The Phoenix Effect, when I realized that there were way too many divergent plot points and “I’ll revise it later” moments caused by immediate worldbuilding, all of which caused the story to be full of holes and inconsistencies.  When I restarted with A Division of Souls I forced myself to focus on the created history I had, and if new points of reference came up I would make a concerted effort to ensure they made sense in the overall story.  [A great example of this is in Chapter 2, when Assistant Director Dylan Farraway states “…this certainly isn’t a Second Coming…” to which Alec Poe responds with an offhanded “Ninth, sir.”  It was a complete throwaway line at the time I wrote it, but as I continued writing, the Ninth Coming of the One of All Sacred became the most important plot point of the entire trilogy.]

Working with your worldbuilding is definitely a tricky business.  You have to make copious notes.  You have to have a very sharp memory of what you’ve written.  You have to make sure you don’t get lost in it.  But once you’ve found a way to successfully manage it and make your way through it, it’s quite possibly the most enjoyable part of the writing process.