Tag Archives: world building

Technically Brilliant, Still #@%$*!

19 Mar

What is the point of creating a wonderful, detailed world if you can’t write a story in it? What’s even worse? Writing a story that bores your readers.

I’ve talked about the difference between storytellers and stylists before, but since I started a book recently, it’s been back on my mind. After stopping by a Little Free Library, the book that I found is Brightness Cove by David Brin. I’m sure part of my discontent is that this the beginning of a second trilogy in this universe, so I have no history with this series. So I’m coming into this book blind.

Right from the beginning, the world building was exquisite. Six different races living in harmony, a whole religion based on hiding from the rest of the universe. Brin writes well-developed characters that inhabit three (or four) different storylines, telling the whole planet’s story as it is revealed. It’s a brilliant creation!

But I’m halfway through the book and… I couldn’t give a damn. Part of the brilliance of the world building is its downfall. Six races are about three too many to keep track of in my head. Oh, and throw in alien animals with strange terms, and I have to think, “Is that the cat thing? Or is that a cow? Which is it?” When I start getting confused, I just tell myself to ignore it–after all, it’s not crucial to the plot. However, I was finding myself ignoring more and more of the detail that the book was becoming incomprehensible.

This book includes a map, which is good because it’s one of my pet peeves, but if you don’t mention where any of this action is happening until page 80, it’s useless to me. Which gets to the three (or four) different storylines–technically there’s four, but the fourth so rarely comes into play that I’m surprised when it shows up! It follows the three adult children of this papermaker we meet at the beginning, which helps, but then there’s this group of tentacle alien kids who are obsessed with English lit who are built an undersea ship so they could fulfill their dreams of being Jules Verne. (It actually makes sense in the story.) Oh, and there’s this other alien that’s supposed a leader, but only appears to let the reader know that “here’s what’s happening at the higher level.” Of course, I didn’t know it was an alien–or what type of alien–because the author didn’t bother explaining that race until page 150.

I think any one of these stories would be worthwhile to follow on its own. I like the young woman taking care of the wounded man who came from the stars. I like the scout who finds a girl who came from beyond their hiding spots. I could do without the monk or the alien kids, but maybe if I had time to concentrate on all the characters there, I might care more. There is just TOO MUCH going on here for me to care enough to keep reading the story.

This is the problem between stylists and storytellers. The stylist wants to write a story that will allow him to play with themes and sentence structure and different characters that will show the ennui of existence. Or whatever. The storyteller just wants to tell a good story. It might play with the same things, but that’s not her intent. She just uses those tools in service to the story; not the other way around. This is the reason Samuel Clemens wrote at the beginning of his novel:

NOTICE

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

He got tired of literary critics telling him about the themes and what he meant when he was writing Tom Sawyer. He was telling them–I didn’t think any of that! Just enjoy the story!

So I’m not sure I’ll finish this book. It’s great, brilliantly written, but not gripping–I barely care what happens to any of these characters. Have you run into this problem? Authors who care so much about using conceptual tricks to make art that he forgets to write a good story? Let me know in the comments below!

As you might have guessed, I fall under the storyteller category. It’s not great art, but try picking up one of my novels and let me know what you think! If the $1.99 threshold is too high for you, download some of my stories for free!

Your Ideal Neighborhood

4 Feb

So I’m been trying to get working on my next novel and just having no idea what my other characters (apart from the main one) should be. Then I discovered what I was missing–write the setting that you would WANT to be in.

My next story idea is called “Death in the Age of Seitan,” which is a sci-fi story in a vegan future where a cop has to investigate a deer “murder.” Okay – I loved the premise, so I decided to set in 24th Century Canada in a small town, but then… I didn’t know who to populate it with.

It’s been too long since I lived in my hometown, so it was hard to base it on people that I grew up with, and although I could base it on people I know now, I couldn’t grab any characters that I really wanted to write about. Then I turned to Google and found an interesting article by an author named Nan Reinhardt called Creating and Maintaining a Small Town Setting and Characters in a Series.

She had a lot of really good ideas when it came to her own books–in fact, basing her small town on Madison, Indiana (which is an awesome place on the Ohio River–about an hour west of Cincinnati–I thoroughly recommend it), but what I drew from it the most was “write about the neighborhood that you’d want to be in.”

Once I read that, it suddenly made a lot more sense. Who would I enjoy the main character talking to? What kind of businesses would this post-disaster world would my protagonist go to? Who’s behind the counter? What are they hiding? I was able to sketch out a few characters without worrying. Once I get a few more done, then I might be able to tackle the outline without cringing.

Have you got some good ideas about populating your worlds? What has worked for you in the past? Share with me in the comments below!

Making Aliens Believable

28 Oct

Starfish aliens, rubber-forehead aliens, or intelligent gerbils? Sci-fi writers are always faced with the problem of making aliens believable. Usually, this is passed off because the aliens are in the background. But what if your main character is an alien? How do you create an entire believable culture?

This was the challenge that my friend Edward Stasheff, known to my readers as frequent poster “Editor Ed,” when faced when he went to write his story. This was a collaboration with me and a group of other writers in the “Tech Infantry” play-by-email game that we played… gosh, ten years ago? Yeesh.

Anyway, we had a group of really good writers, and Ed thought, “I did a good job with this story – why don’t I publish it?” So he edited the heck out of it (because you have to explain the universe) and gave me co-author credit (because I did write some of it) and that became Predatory Practices.

So in that universe, the K’Nes were a floating cat-like species that was known for being incredible merchants but not the best fighters. Ed decided to take this race – which no one else had bothered to expand on – and really developed it well. He started with the merchant angle and extended it. What if all the cats were hyper-capitalists? Imagine government run as a business. In this case, he had a character that was part of a clan that was also a business. He also asked, “What happens to cats who aren’t good at business? Or who aren’t part of a clan?”

At the same time, he took his part of this massive space opera and really shifted it to become the cause of his character’s species. While he’s trying to save the universe, he’s also trying to woo his mate, and figure out who’s out to stop him – it made for some great subplots.

Plus there was the “floating” thing – he had to address the physiology we had established. Why do they float? What does that mean in terms of military tactics? How would that affect their architecture?

At the same time he was addressing these questions to make the K’Nes culture believable, Ed had to keep it connectable with the readers. The capitalism he talks about are terms that readers could understand. Although the wooing was done in terms of contractual obligations, it was still romance.

All in all, I think it turned out great and I really encourage everyone to read Predatory Practices. It is a great balance of sci-fi, humor, great world-building, wonderful characters, and a great romping adventure. Check it out!

What do you think are the main obstacles that you as the reader face to believing that an alternate world works? What are some of the things that would make you stop reading a book? Let me know in the comments below!

Why You Should Read Sci-Fi

29 Sep

If Christopher Booker is right, and there are only seven basic plots, then why do we keep reading them in the same genre? It’s time to branch out and take a chance… and the first place you should go is science fiction. Why? Because it has a great secret that no other genre has.

The universe is a character.

This can be terribly exciting. The way the author uses the universe tells you everything about the story he wants to tell. Let me use one of my own universes as an example – the Fatebane universe is one of a balkanized space. Every planet is its own government, loosely united in an Association, which means although you have basic human rights, how they’re enforced or applied in different contexts vary considerably. The title character’s job is to defend this Association – who wants to destroy it? Those who wish to consolidate power. So I’m telling a story about the balance between personal freedom vs. desire for stability.

Contemporary fiction is supposedly easier – you already know the universe. You don’t have to figure out what is happening in the world because you live there. And yet… that is a lie. The setting of your favorite “serious” fiction is simply another universe. Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan introduces you to the universe of Chinese older women who live in California; it also introduces you to their life stories, which are set during the Chinese Civil War. The difference between my universe and this one is that… oh, I’ve heard of that.

Mystery writers are constantly trying to build a quirky universe; gardeners who solve murders, Navajo (Dine) detective solving homicides on the rez… all of them are in the real world, but deliberately show you a part of the real world that you’re not familiar with. If you worked at a pizza joint and someone was helping the police with solving death by cheesy crust, you wouldn’t buy it. Because you’re infinitely familiar with the universe.

So what you really want is to discover a new universe.

Since the universe is a character in and of itself, sci-fi helps you do that with ease. To quote one of my favorite authors, John Steakley, the difference between fantasy and sci-fi is “a hobbit or two.” So if you prefer not to learn the tech, fantasy is the same idea without it. Again, how the author constructs the universe tells its own story. So why bother pretending you know the real world and dive deep into an imaginary one?

Let’s take my recent book, for example, Defending Our Sacred Honor. I put at the beginning of a civil war between Earth and its colonies. The problem is that the Terran Confederation Space Force is a science and exploration agency, not really designed for space warfare. So how does an increasingly dominant Earth in a world filled with humans who have overcome death fight this independence movement? Simple… sell commissions to the highest bidder.

I’ve already thrown out three things that might appeal to you. Wait a minute… humans who have overcome death? How did we get that? What kind of society does that create? Why do the colonies want to break away? And how on Earth do rich boys/girls do trying to fight a war that covers multiple solar systems?

Do you start to see the appeal of sci-fi now? Or at least my book? 😀 Of course, I could be off base. Am I preached to the converted? Or is there something about sci-fi that turns you off to reading it? Let me know in the comments section below!

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