On World-Building, Conferences, and Other Bits of Bookishy Goodness

This weekend is the Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference at the Loft (located at Open Book, pictured above), and I have been having a wonderful time. Not only was the workshop that I presented right away at the beginning, leaving me to attend sessions feeling both footloose and fancy-free, but I had the opportunity to bear witness – once again- to the mind-blowing levels of literary talent that resides in my dear State. I had lunch with John Coy, Steve Brezenoff, Erin Soderberg, Bryan Bliss, Jeff Geiger and Charlotte Sullivan. I went to an AMAZING workshop on sex in YA literature by Carrie Mesrobian and Andrew Karre. And later, hung out at the bar with the aforementioned, along with Swati Avasthi, Heather Bouwman, William Alexander, Stephen ShaskanTricia Shaskan and Heather Zenzen. So much talent, ladies and gentlemen. So very, very much.

(As for our out-of-town guests, while you may not be Minnesotans per se, I feel that we can work on you to rectify this situation. YOU GUYS! Move to Minneapolis this instant! How can you not want such awesome, book-writing neighbors?)

Anyway, I taught a workshop called World-Building for Fantasy Authors… And Everyone Else. Here is the description:

It doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re writing—contemporary or historical, realism or fantastic, speculative or introspective, science-fictive or science-facty—there is one thing that is always true: Place matters. Our characters have bodies and those bodies occupy space. Our characters are in time, and the time frame in which their life is contextualized affects not
only their world view, but what is possible. The world, the landscape, the climate, the culture, the laws of physics, the resources, economics, politics, and religion are all are integrated into our characters. And we must know them. We will explore the mechanics of place and discuss how to integrate our characters with their surroundings without committing the sin of info-dumping or tedious expositions.

Frankly, I’m not sure if I actually taught any of those things. What I do know is that I said a lot of words, and that people laughed and asked questions. I have no idea what I said. It was as though a waterfall of language started pouring out of my mouth and I was powerless to stop it. I may have told them how to build a thermo-nuclear device for all I know.

There is a slim possibility that I might have – completely by accident, mind you – said a couple of Smart Things, as evidenced by the fact that I was asked to repeat things so that people could write it down. Unfortunately, each time I had this moment of ice-water panic because I honestly had no idea. Like at all. My response was, “Erm, erm, blabber-blabber-blabber,” while my mind said sheet! (though, maybe some other words too that I won’t write here) I figure it was likely a monkeys-typing-Shakespeare situation. It happens, I’m told.

Hopefully, I didn’t completely blow it.

(Who am I kidding. I surely did.)

Anyway, I had a bunch of folks come up to me after, hoping to snag a copy of the handouts. Unfortunately, I had just enough run off and only had a couple extra, which I gave out right away. I promised folks that I’d put them on the blog, so here they are.

First, the rules:

Rules for Worldbuilding

 

 1.    In order to think outside of the box, it is useful to actually have a box.

World building is hard. And fussy. Get a box. For sure you will need it.

 2.    Be a collector.

Remember that bit about the box? Forget your fancy internets. There is still something about the tactile artifacts grooving together on your shelf. Note cards, diagrams, maps, cut-outs from magazines, a cool picture that your kid made that made you think that he might be downloading your brain, fortune cookies, objects found in the gutter. Whatever. Put it in the box.

 3.    Research matters

While our out-of-the-way and terribly out-of-fashion planet has only sported human civilizations for a miniscule portion of its long life, many of those civilizations have been pretty rad. They make excellent starting-points. From the Mongolian Empire to seething London to the Maori’s astonishing traverse across the Pacific ocean, human cultures find incredibly inventive ways of organizing themselves, creating art, fostering innovation, building, destroying, hating their neighbors, and finding new and exciting ways of killing each other. We are superstars at all of those things. By understanding how civilizations build and run and replicate themselves, we can begin to build worlds of our own.

 4.    Remember when you learned about journalism in third grade and you had to ask Who, What, Where, When, Why, How, and then write an article about your teacher’s new brand of chalk, or whatever? Well, do that.

This is Quick-And-Dirty Worldbuilding 101. Often, we are blundering into the worlds of our creation, utterly blind. And that’s all right. Every once in a while, it’s a good idea to pull yourself out of the draft and take a look around. Make a sheet of the basic questions. Be a reporter. Find answers as best you can. Put them in the box.

 5.    Be a Smug, Insufferable Know-it-All

You have my permission.

No matter what kind of writing you’re doing – historical fiction, fantasy fiction, contemporary, sci-fi, or a little bit of each – the writer will always know more than what is shared on the page. Our job as writers is to hold the flashlight for our readers – illuminate the path, illuminate enough details to go on, and allow them to create the world on their own. A massive infodump is the result of a writer who does not trust his or her reader. Trust them. They’ll keep up.

 6.    If You’re Going To Bother Being a Know-it-All, it’s Important to Actually Know It All.

Local history. Local lore. Personal tragedies. Family sagas. Weather. Architecture. Energy. Power dynamics. Religion. The history of said religion. Social norms. Cultural taboos. Structure of governance. Laws of physics. Agriculture. Flora. Fauna. Holidays. Family relationships and structures. Food. Medicine. Law. Punishments. Water purification. Waste disposal. Landscape. Soundscape. Smellscape. And so on. Do you know these things? You should probably know these things.

 7.    Remember the Senses.

Again, you learned about them in third grade. Your writing is best when it is centered in the body. The more your reader can experience the physicality of the scene, the more compassion they’ll have for your characters. So thinking about the experience of corset-wearing or the sensation of weightlessness, or the taste of roasted peacock, brined in the collected tears of the Blessed Sisters of Perpetual Virginity, or the smell of the breath of the manticore, right before it rips out your throat. These are helpful storytelling tools.

 8.    Give yourself a break already and write the damn story.

Look. You’re not going to know All The Things. And even when you do, some of those things will change. In the end, you’re job is to tell the story of an individual trying to make sense of their lives, make sense of their world, and to put whatever disrupted elements that are wreaking havoc with their lives back into some semblance of balance. Expect changes. Expect revelations. Keep moving.

 9.    Integration, integration, integration

 Place matters. Character matters. Story matters. And what’s more, all three are inextricably linked.

It is not the clever description of a world that draws in a reader – rather, it is the interaction between the individual and that world. By understanding our characters, we gain insight into the peculiarities of the world in which they live. By understanding the world, we gain insight into the point of view of the characters that we have grown to care about over the course of the narrative. By linking the reader’s understanding of the world to the character’s understanding, we illuminate our characters at their most essential, their most basic, and their most true: this mind, this spirit, this longing, this heart.

We are shaped by our surroundings, just as we, in turn, shape our world. 

You ready? Let’s go build a world.

Next. Resources. I gave out a list of resources, that I instantly started adding to the moment that my yap started flapping. I added Guns, Germs and Steel, for example. And The Tattooed Lady.

Anyway, here’s the list that I gave:

Helpful books for World-builders

Here, in no particular order, are some books that you should have. And use. A lot. 

The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood.

Yes, it’s a novel. Yes, it’s a sprawling epic of the slow decline of a powerful industrialist family in Canada, and, like some things about feminism and sex and marriage politics and what have you. BUT it is also a sly exploration of the broad thinking and subtle questioning of a pulp-fiction fantasist in the midst of the painstaking process of building a world – weaving in elements of history, legend, supposition, conjecture, myth, and that great, wild hope that there is, in truth, something more.  If you haven’t read it yet, then, dear god, I insist you do so at once. If you have, then knock your TBR stack to the ground and read it again. And you’re welcome

 

London, A Biography, by Peter Ackroyd.

This book will change how you understand cities forever. The story of London over the past 2,000 years, spun in yarn after yarn after yarn. Part history, part gossip, part architecture, part politics, part social critique, part lore, part personal stories, part tall tales. A city is built from timbers and iron and stone – but it is also built out of stories. It is equal parts design, politics, betrayal, ingenuity, lust, vision and luck. It is all of those things at once.

Collapse: How Civilizations Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond.

Instead of analyzing how Civilizations conceive of themselves, grow and thrive, Mr. Diamond has, through exhaustive research, tracked how they crack, shatter, and crumble to dust. Much be learned about how someone lived by looking at how they died. Similarly, by exploring how cultures fall apart, we can better understand the cracks in our own cultural foundation – and how we are all, most likely, doomed.

 

Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. LeGuin.

What? You don’t have this book. My god. Go to the used book store and purchase one AT ONCE. A must-have for the fantasist, and a should-have for everyone else.

How to Build a Flying Saucer and Other Proposals in Speculative Engineering, by T. B. Pawlicki.

Fringe science at its best! Not only is there an exhaustive essay on the engineering details of the design and construction of the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge and the like (lest your characters take a notion to do some time travelling), but it is full of other fun tidbits for the geeky worldbuilder. Navigating time streams. Planetary intrusions. Transmuting elements. Standing waves as energy sources. And so forth.

I have no idea if any of this is useful. I hope it is. What I do know is that there is nothing better than being in a roomful of people talking about books and thinking about books and recommending books to one another. There is no better feeling that surrounding oneself with people who are learning, and working, and committing themselves every damn day of their lives to improving what they do and growing as writers. Every day, we move a little bit closer to that one true thing – that moment in Story that lets us hope more, love more, want more be more. 

Here’s hoping we all find it.

 

Happy Writing, everyone!

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10 thoughts on “On World-Building, Conferences, and Other Bits of Bookishy Goodness

  1. Sounds like a fun event. Wish I could have been there. The world building list is wonderful (I think #5 IS the reason I write), and the Resources list has just engorged my already large wish list on Amazon, which is high praise from this bookworm. I’m picky about what I throw in my head.

    Perhaps you might consider another book. Its titled “Carnage and Culture” by Victor Davis Hanson, and was written in part, as an opposing view to Diamond’s wonderful “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, although the way I read them, they are more like bookends to the same topic. The writing is a bit scholarly, as its a treatise on our (American) culture and how it can trace its roots back to Greece and Rome, through the art of war and warfare, and is rather unapologetic about how and why our particular culture is so effective at warfare. So yeah, lots of warfare. I love the book because its a good look into our meta culture, digging into the hows and whys of what we collectively think. I make a living by seeing patterns in things, and simply can not write without them. This book offered me a way to see some patterns that I was blind to before, exactly like Diamond’s “Guns, Germs…”

    • Oh, you’re sweet. Thank you! It was a pretty fun conference, all things considered – and even better, now that I’ve apparently won the awesome award. That’s my favorite kind!

      🙂

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