World-Building and More

12 June 2002

I had this dream that Datlow (the editor at Scifi.Com's Scifiction, for those of you who don't keep track of editors) rejected a story I had not yet written and sent her. She addressed the envelope to me herself and gave me three pages worth of critique (hah!) and said she'd look at it again if I gave it a big ol' rewrite. So in my dream, I was attempting to reconstruct the story from what she'd said about it. Because, you know, rewrite requests from professional editors are nothing to sneeze at.

The sick thing is, I'm now trying to dredge the title from my brain at the very least. Just in case. You know. Couldn't hurt.

There were books I couldn't believe I missed mentioning yesterday -- Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising books and C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader were pretty high on the list. I can believe I forgot to mention Gaudy Night, because I don't have a copy myself, and I was just looking at my own bookshelves, not really thinking of books I love but don't own. Mom reminded me of a reason I like The Fionavar Tapestry despite its faults: it was the highlight of my Arthurian period, I think. I should say our Arthurian period, as Mom and I went through it together. There was a period of maybe three to five years when I (we!) would read anything about King Arthur. And oh my land, some of them were no good, but some (like the Fionavar Tapestry) held us. It all started when Becca Diebolt gave me The Once and Future King for my twelfth birthday, and my mom said, "Well, if you like that, you'll love...." And went to her shelves, and off we went.

It's been pretty cool to get a couple of lists of other people's beloved books. I'd like to hear more of them, if any of you would like to share. Less pressure than a recommendation list, I think: you're not claiming that I will love these books, or assuming that I haven't read them. You're just claiming that you love these books, which is still interesting, but something different entirely.

I'm afraid I'm going to drive poor Thomas away from keeping a journal. He keeps saying things to which I feel like responding, so I keep sending him e-mail. He cleaned out his e-mail box yesterday, and then I sent him not just a reply or two, but an entirely new e-mail. The poor man. I don't mean to be his psycho stalker....

(I don't mean to be anybody's psycho stalker. In case you were wondering. Well, except for...oh, never mind, you'll figure it out if it's you. Muwaha. Ahem.)

Anyway, Thomas was talking about world-building and wondering whether it was worth investing the time to get better at it. And I would say yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Here's why: all fiction involves world-building. The question is whether you're aware of doing it or not. And as I mentioned on an entirely different topic, I believe it's generally a good idea to be more aware of what you're up to, when you're writing, rather than less. Not necessarily on a moment-to-moment basis -- sometimes it's much better just to let the prose flow in the moment. But in editing modes, awareness is a good thing.

Anyway, we all do world-building, because we don't see the world in exactly the same way. When we write fiction, it's part of our job to build it so that the reader can say, all right, people like this could exist in these conditions, and they could react in this way. If we don't do that, the reader wrinkles his/her nose up and puts the book down, because it just doesn't "feel real" -- and that can happen in any created world, even if it's a created world whose geography and physics map pretty directly onto New York City or Los Angeles.

And the context is important. It's very important. You really need to know what assumptions your characters would make, in anything longer than a very short story. This is one of my pet peeves with high fantasy, something I wrote about waaaaay back in the beginning of Morphisms: people not considering the context of their society and characters. It's tempting to have some "everybody knows" lurking in the back of your head. Everybody knows that women and men are, on the average or as groups, equal. Everybody knows that police officers are just human beings doing the best they can with a flawed set of laws. Everybody knows that it's a good idea to teach children about classical music and art. Everybody knows that there's a single God who loves them. Everybody knows that there's a multiplicity of gods with varying traits and lots of interest in human life. Oops. Not everybody "knows that." Half of the time that we get away with those things, it's because our readership agrees with us and isn't thinking it through either. The other half, it's because the readers are dealing with the characters, not the author, and the characters have been successfully drawn as people who share those assumptions with their author. But in either case, it's better to have a very firm idea of what world the characters live in, because it'll be very different from many readers' world regardless of how similar it looks to the writer's own.

I've mentioned this before in other contexts, although I'm not sure if it's gone in this journal: I find Tom Clancy's world to be much further outside my experience than, say, Tolkien's. Or C.J. Cherryh's. Or most speculative authors in general. He did a decent job of world-building, I suppose, it was just so very strange to think of people like that. They fit into their oh-so-detailed surroundings quite well, and the assumptions they made about life mostly made sense in that context. But although I acknowledge the existence of intelligence agencies, they're just not real to me. Even though one of my college friends had a dad in the NSA and internships with intelligence agencies in the summer, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around that world. So even though it was "the real world," and even if he wasn't conscious of it, Clancy had to have done some world-building in the first place to get it all across -- and sometimes I think the more subtle the speculative differences are, the more important the world-building is. Because the closer to "reality" the world has been, the more jarring it will be if it feels like it's not self-consistent.

Ah well. In other news, Trent, that great big dork, didn't tell me he was going to Clarion again and keeping a journal there. I had to find out from Philip's page, and Trent doesn't even know Philip. I haven't read a lot of Trent's fiction, but I was amused that he evidently knows how to tell stories about himself that encapsulate my experience of Trent. Like this one in particular: "Brendan came up to me to say I needed to speak my mind. I asked him, puzzled and earnest, 'Am I too nice?' He had to say he was kidding." Um, yep. That's Trent. In a nutshell. I laughed and laughed.

It reminded me of me, actually, which is pretty rare with Trent. It reminded me of how I found out I was intense. We all have our areas of personal cluelessness, I think.

Sometimes I have the most extravagant wants. Right now, for example, I want a mocha. I want a mocha in a coffee place that has comfy seats and big tables where writergirls can sit all morning and work, away from the computer, and I want real whipped cream on the top, and I don't want to have to drive an hour to get there. I don't even want to have to get on the train. That's how extravagant I am here. I want it to be within walking distance, or no more than a 15 minute drive. That's what I want. Sigh.

Last night we had Antony over for dinner. Antony was one of Mark's CS classmates at Gustavus, and he lives out here now, in San Mateo. I made bars, and he appreciated being around people who knew what bars were. And so did we. At one point, he worked around to asking, "So do you guys find know...a little hard to adjust to living out here?" And we agreed that we did and talked about it a bit. But right now I think I'd be okay if I could get a mocha, in a comfy chair in front of a big table, with real whipped cream on top, close to here. That would help a lot.

Instead, I'll just get back to work on my novelettes and sing They Might Be Giants songs: "But they've overcome their shyness, now they're calling me 'Your Highness'...." Sing along if you know the words!

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