Monday, July 7, 2014

Story Creation, or Hey, my brain isn't working, so I'm gonna play with another idea!

Ok, so I'm completely stalled on my latest project, Bronze Age Kylli. Like, brain is a lump of organic matter stalled. I'd be furious if I weren't so damn numb. All part of the process, I guess, but I want to be creative, damnit! I need to be. I don't want to drop everything and start yet another new thing. No, not interested. There's a lot of world, and I've developed some of the major historical storylines in broad strokes. I know that the history doesn't progress like Earth's, not with the dip into the dark ages, nor is it going to step back in technology or ideology the way that Europe, and even China, did. Or at least not for the same reasons.

One of the fun things I did when I planned this world is that I made mythic time central to the development of cultures, technology, and other such things. "The Seasons of the Gods are not the seasons of man." Suffice to say, there's a rhythm to the ups and downs of this world, Lura. And that rhythm drives Story.

What I'm thinking about is Steampunk Kylli. It's the same character I'm working on in Bronze Age Kylli, but aged three or four thousand years, more or less. I've always wanted to do this story, and *SPOILER ALERT* I know how she becomes mostly immortal. It's kind of that challenge about immortal characters, how to portray them not bored. Michelle Sagara/West tackles immortal boredom in pretty much all her series, as does the Eddings in their works, and so on and so forth. Everything I've read emphasizes retreat, retread, and otherwise that whole gray-out been-there-done-that-factories-full-of-t-shirts attitude. So I'm asking a different question. Why aren't gods bored? (Yes, some are. But They don't count for this question.) They see the same shit, different day. What makes them so different? And how can I incorporate that idea into a Story world?

So, how does a quickly rising technology, i.e. steam engines, the beginning of electricity, gas, coal, and other such era goodies, collide with The Seasons of the Gods, and how does Kylli's long, long experience with such rhythms set things to spinning? Set all of these things in the Season of War, and what goes boom?

I'm so glad I've done so much worldbuilding not just with this character, but the histories and mythic time, and the mapping, and all these other tidbits. I actually have more to work with, and I don't need to come up with everything from bare bones. By eliminating choices during worldbuilding, I've set myself up for a lot better storytelling potentials.

So, now I need to wander off and push some of this brain sludge out of the way, and start piecing together a story. I do have the high concept idea, The Shapeshifter Wars, which is basically Madagascar invades Australia. Or something goofy like that. Very meta. We'll see if it sticks. I suspect it won't. But I've got to start somewhere, hmmm?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Worldbuilding, or Why I Start with Story Questions

For me, a scary aspect of worldbuilding is the potential that the story world can hold. I mean, I'm making stuff up, acting as a kind of a god, divine being. That's an ego trip in of itself, but there's so much to put into that world too. What happens if, what happens where, what happens to whom, what do they look like, how do they do what they do, and why does it all happen? So many potential choices, so much potential to go wrong, pull the blankets over my head and hide.

As tempting as hiding might be, Stories don't shut up--they want to be told, and told nao, damnit. So worldbuilding needs to happen. Some people do minimal work; they know the place and vague hand-wave'ems, and move on with the story. Some storytellers make stuff up as they go along, and create a story bible out of necessity. I know others who go through elaborate mapping, but leave the small details up for grabs as they go. Some writers build brand new planets with wonky things stuck in them. Then there's people who go to the extreme of planning the physics of the place, and how that affects the whole universe they're creating.

All of these ways of worldbuilding are legitimate techniques. YMMV, of course. And my mileage definitely does vary. I start with Story for a very good reason--I've got a lot of choices already made, so I don't have unlimited potential.

Will there be travel? Yes, and I know I've gotta create a map that's larger. No, and I just need a map of the place this Story happens. Also, I'll need to deal with transportation if they're travelling.

What tech level? Story tells me if it's the Bronze Age, the Space Age, or the Far, Far Future, or a Romen-esque feel. Lots of information shakes out of that one decision--travel, food, drink, agriculture, building materials, morals, ethics, crime, communication, just to name a few.

Can I use an Earth-based place as a model for this Story world? Yes, and I've got all my plants, animals, water resources, fish, metal and material resources, agriculture, birds, and a whole bunch of things pre-planned. All I have to do is look things up and decide what I want and don't want to use. If the answer is no, I get to do research! Yay, Research!

What do I not want in this world? I love leaving expected things out. In my current Migraine-in-Progress, I'm leaving out *redacted* and *cough* because everyone expects those *sniffles* to be in every world, and I don't wanna. So many more types of *sniffles* out there to bring forward, and I can have FUN with my Easter eggs in a particular story.

Once I've got these four questions at least wrangled in a specific direction, I can move on to the more intricate parts of worldbuilding. But answering these four questions help me get the big picture of what I'm creating.

Then the real fun begins. *grin*

Friday, May 30, 2014

Worldbuilding, or Start with Story First

Over the 2014 Memorial Day Weekend, at ConQuest 47, I sat on a panel about worldbuilding, and the first question out of the moderator's mouth was, "Where do you start with worldbuilding?" Naturally, me being me, I jumped on that question with all feet and said, "Begin with Story." The other multi-published authors on the panel boggled at me, but I stand by my advice, and here's why--Without story, worldbuilding becomes an intellectual exercise instead of a rich part of the writing experience.

No matter where a story takes place, no matter the genre, no matter the theme, worldbuilding happens. Even writing a story about a gun fight requires knowing where the doors, windows, bars, water barrels, and other critical features are. Creating that set-up requires knowing that the story is going to be a gun fight. Also, the blocking (swiping a theater term) requires the writer to have at least some idea of how the scene or story plays out. And all the decisions and research that goes on--can a laser shoot through the plasti-steel? Can a .45 bullet go through six inches of oak? Who lives? With what wounds? (The nurse/writer friends I have just perked up, I know.)

On a larger scale, writers benefit from knowing if their story is going to be a travel story, an estimate of how far they want their characters to travel in that same time period, and how fast they want the characters to arrive. These story decisions drive worldbuilding in terms of transportation, technology levels, and character expectations. My Bronze Age era characters are pre-stirrup, pre-wheel, although they've got domesticated pack animals. They're not going anywhere fast in comparison to a group in the Iron Age, where roads are common, and iron wheels provide for wagons, chariots, and other such useful shipping techniques. People in the far future may be able to teleport about the planet via their technology, and use jump ships between planets and other solar systems. But each of these things feed a different kind of Story. Those Story requirements feed into the worldbuilding.

What comes out of the Story-focused worldbuilding? Details that might not show up otherwise. I've discovered alternates for snuff, some foods that I didn't think were standard in a region, annoying animals that could contribute all sorts of blocking actions when needed, and random other things that I put aside going "hmmm". But I'll also know if a region has thistles, what kind of thistles, and if I can have a convenient thistle patch for a character to push an enemy into. (Not all thistles are created equal. I know from bloody first hand experience.)

Another advantage I find in Story-based worldbuilding is that I don't wander off into a research-based haze and end up researching random things that don't tie back to my story. Then again, I'm eager to tell my Story, not eager to follow my nose into random areas. I want to get my research done, then get back to the fun stuff!

YMMV: Some people can make things up as they go. I know several people who write along and just drop details in when they need them. Other people can't know too much about their Story, and doing worldbuilding can make them feel their Story is already told. Some people get bogged down by details because they feel they have to include absolutely everything they've researched, so they don't do that level of research.

The real trick to Story based worldbuilding is to figure out what works for you, the writer. Experiment. If something isn't working, try a different technique. Try researching more. Or researching less. Or make maps. Do the blocking for the Story, then create and research for that. Or if doing the blocking hasn't been working, try writing without that extra prep.

Experiment, experiment, experiment. Don't just accept. Try things out, and see what helps.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How to Solve for Why, or where to look when an advice giver points a finger at the moon

Back in 1991, I was scrambling desperately to figure out the whole novel writing thing. My college professor was worse than useless for teaching me, or anyone, anything about storytelling other than the dreaded story rises up to a peak and then falls off shortly. So I was left looking for writing advice books on my chosen genre, fantasy.

Note the date, and try to remember back before the Internet provided a tsunami of advice like it does now. Before instant ordering of books with a click of a mouse. Before websites. Not before Usenet or bulletin boards, though. HTML just being developed (and not released into the world for another two years). I know some people can't remember that world, but I do. I wrote my first novel on a Mac SE in a college computer lab. Internet? I didn't even have email.

I had to find books, actual books in actual bookstores, and quite honestly, I didn't find many until I ran across Orson Scott Card's How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. (Yes, I know, the Card problem. Please remember it was 1991, and I was in college.) This book changed the way I looked at story, looked at worldbuilding, looked at point of view. Not only was it the first book I found that dealt with MY genre, but also dealt with process, with creating that didn't just wave a hand around and say vague things that made no sense.

Even more, he said WHY he came up with the MICE story foci. He explained WHY the POVs worked the way they did. In that how-to book, Card pointed at the moon, and I saw what he was pointing at. Not his finger.

I picked up Stephen King's On Writing soon after the book was published. While I didn't care for King's storytelling, I had (and have) a lot of respect for his legacy, his audience, his skills, and his dedication. But I couldn't make it past the first chapter before I wanted to wallthump the thing. (Bookstores frown on doing that, so I refrained.) What King talked about in On Writing made no sense to me. He was pointing at the moon, but I couldn't see anything but his finger, no matter how hard I tried to look beyond.

The list of advice books goes on: Maass, yes; Lamont, no; Bradbury, no; Obstfeld, yes, Friedman, barely, Sellers, yes, so on and so forth.

I got to the point with advice that I had to start solving for why. Why did this bit of advice work for me? Why didn't this one? Why does the advice giver believe in this information? Why did they accept this advice from someone else? Why did they pass it on?

As the Internet grew, as I moved in various circles throughout the the last two decades, I noticed trends, especially one very frightening one: how many people (but not everyone by any means) accepted advice at face value and tried to apply it, even if that bit of advice countered another piece of advice. Worse, I found myself doing that very thing, and, well, no. Bad Gera. No biscuit. Or cookie.

Then I found William Golding's wonderful essay "Thinking as a Hobby". "There is still a higher grade of thought which says, "What is truth?" and sets out to find it." I realized when I read that phrase, that I had already set out to find the truth without realizing what I was doing.

In my search for what is truth, I discovered I had a much more pressing question than just what. I needed to know WHY it was a truth. I needed to put that truth in relation to other truths. I needed to know what that truth described, and where in the hierarchies of truths did it belong.

Now, I'm still on this journey, but I think I've got enough to finally start talking about the varying, sometimes wildly contradictory truths, falsehoods, and in betweens that I've stumbled across, fell into, or sought out.

But one truth stands out above all else that I've discovered:

Your Mileage May Vary.

I can only point at the moon in my way. My way often involves lots of jabbing and various angles. If my way works for you, helps you find a path, resolve an issue, or see the moon, awesome!

If my way doesn't help you at all, awesome! Why awesome? Because now you know what doesn't work.

So, let's all go do some moon watching together, shall we?