Nine Worlds: A Whole New World

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Economics, geography, infrastructure – it’s the background stuff that, like concrete breeze blocks, comes off as the dull, uninteresting graft of world creation. But what makes it come alive and make sense for the reader? What makes people care, and what makes a fictional culture viable?

Edward Cox, Al Robertson, Stephanie Saulter, Chris Wooding, Genevieve Cogman, James Barclay

I’ve talked about world building before. It’s one of my favourite parts of storytelling. This panel covered a fair amount of familiar ground. I’ll recount most of it but I won’t go into in depth discussion because I’ll just end up repeating myself. Also, for the most part the panellists didn’t offer tips so much as a list of questions the writer needs to ask themselves.

2011-MAR-Worldbuilding-vladstudio-300x228Getting started

Will your world be similar to something the reader is already familiar with – either based on an existing culture, or an AU version of history? Or will it be something completely new?

When setting up a culture, all the details should interconnect. It needs to be internally consistent. Remember that every detail will have ramifications on the rest. For example, the language in Germany and Japan fosters a culture of listening, because their grammar structure means sentences don’t make sense until the end.

Scarcity of resources is very important, and the work-arounds of your cultures to this scarcity is what makes the world different. Scarce resources impacts trade, economy, social structure and status, international relations, and so on. As one panellist said:

Writing fantasy worlds is about logistics.

Also, and this is a point Dr. Nick made in our panel later, don’t muck about with physics. If you’re going to break natural laws, break one, make it explicit, explain it, think about the ramifications, and then leave it alone.

The world as a character

Creating worlds is not that different from creating characters, and they are intrinsically linked as the characters should be a product of their environment. Similarly, both should have some kind of growth arc, especially if the plot focuses on momentous events.

One of the panellists suggested that your plot is an inevitable consequence of your world and character building. The world influences the character, the character reacts to the world, and that’s your plot. I’m not wholly on board with this idea, as it smacks a little of the plot progression also being inevitable and therefore predictable. It also raised questions in my mind about character agency and free will.

Place names is a good way to give character/flavour/insight to the local culture. It tells a lot about what people consider to be important or notable, without having to actually spell it out. One of the most valuable skills in epic fantasy, according to the panel, is learning how to transmit information without explaining it. It’s all about implication and evocation.

Think about clever, different and powerful ways to impact information, in a way readers don’t realise they’re being told about history or economics. Preferably a way that also advances the plot. For example, Stephanie Saulter had to explain that there was an economic slump in her culture, leading to a shortage of jobs, so she set a scene in a job centre where people were literally fighting over work.

To map or not to map?

The panel diverted into quite a long discussion about the value of providing maps for the reader. Several of them were quite strongly against publishing maps, on the basis that it locks the writer down into inflexibility. As Saulter (I think) said:

The author reserves the right to have a better idea.

One panellist suggested that, if a map is provided, people can just look at it. If there’s no map, the reader has to visualise the journey and that means they are immediately more intimately engaged with the fictional landscape.

On the other hand, maps can help avoid unnecessary exposition. When the characters need to get from Point A to Point B, they don’t need to have a clunky discussion about where Point B is or how to get there. The reader can just look at the map.

If you’re using a real place as your setting, make sure you use a map as a writing resource. If you get details wrong, knowledgeable readers will notice and immediately switch off.

And, one final point on the subject of providing maps for your readers: remember that maps can be in-character inaccurate! If you can have an unreliable narrator (of which, more on that in a few weeks), there’s no reason why you can’t have unreliable resources.

Next week: the development and role of SF&F.

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If you do have a map, pay for a proper artist. The world isn’t really made of hexagons.

 

Nine Worlds: A Newbie’s Review

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BMw-j2D4Last weekend I went to the Nine Worlds 2016 convention in London – a gathering run by geeks, for geeks, celebrating all things geek. Over the course of the next several weeks (possibly months, seriously, I took so many notes) I’ll be writing up the various sessions I attended. Before that happens, though, I have to do a certain amount of translating my own handwriting and I ran out of time this week. So instead, with apologies for the slight cheat, here’s an abridged version of the overall review that I was invited to submit to the British Fantasy Society journal.

I don’t go to many conventions. In fact, Nine Worlds 2016 was the second ever and is a different beast to the World Fantasy Con, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was also – I’ll be honest here – quietly freaking out because I’d volunteered in a fit of madness to speak on a panel for the first time. But more on that later.

I wandered along on Thursday evening to pick up my ticket, rather than stand in a time-sapping queue the following morning (Top tip #1: this is a Good Plan). The Novotel Hammersmith is in a convenient spot, transport-wise, but extensive scaffolding combined with a natural propensity to get lost ended up with me going in through the loading bay.

The badges had optional add-ons of pronoun stickers and coloured films indicating whether the wearer was interested in talking to strangers. I’ve never come across this before, and it set the tone of the Con for me. This was an event where the expression of, and respect for, self-identity was at the forefront – a tone which carried through into the programming, where there was a heavy focus on gender and identity issues in genre.

The programme was massive: nine tracks on everything from VR programming to kaiju-colouring for kids. There was also an agenda of social activities (including pirate knitting, which sounds wonderfully whimsical). There was stuff on films, TV, books, comics, fanfic, gaming, and creating props and costume.

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Nine Worlds also welcomes  Architeuthidae

And, wow, the costumes. About 25% of the attendees were in costume and some of the skill on display was truly impressive. Everyone got five blue tokens with their badge which were, quite literally, tokens of appreciation to give out to people wearing stuff you liked. I’d given mine all out by 11am on Saturday. There was high-quality cosplay, roving packs of Ghostbusters, some gorgeous misc Steampunk, very short Stormtroopers (I’m guessing seven years old?), and a man with a giant squid on his back. I don’t know who you were, sir, nor what the squid was about, but I enjoyed the absurdity.

There are two main approaches to Cons, it seems: academic and social. Obviously you end up doing a bit of both, but for me the main focus was panels. If people like James Barclay, Jen Williams and Lisa Tuttle are willing to give me tips on how to improve my writing, you can be sure I’ll sit and take copious notes.

What I didn’t realise beforehand was that tracks at Nine Worlds fall on a spectrum ranging from full-on academic papers to geeks frothing about cool stuff with each other. This means there’s something for absolutely everybody, but it also means you need to work out which sessions cater to the way you want to engage. The Living Words and Academia & Humanities tracks were for people hoping to learn new things. Alternatively, Crafting & Creating and Fanworks were for those there to share their love of the weird and wonderful.

My agenda went out the window pretty quickly once I cottoned on. The first session I attended – a panel about world-building techniques – was an interesting revision of stuff I already knew but it didn’t have any revelatory moments. The second session, on the other hand, was a presentation on the history, development and cultural impact of Chinese SF&F which was fascinating and completely new information to me. The third was a series of short papers by academics on the use of foreign language in genre fiction, and I came away from that with a fresh understanding of the assumptions and associations readers can draw from, for example, Latin as opposed to Welsh. Don’t worry, this is all good stuff I’ll be sharing with you guys over the next couple of months.

I became more relaxed about my self-appointed schedule, which was a smart move. It gave me the leisure to continue fascinating conversations about literary constructs and megatextuality with people I’d just met, or had known at a distance for years but never actually sat down and talked to.

Top Tip #2: people at conventions like this are generally awesome. Yes, the idea of talking to a stranger can be terrifying to an introvert, but everyone’s there because they love the same things. I knew a total of two people, going in, and by Saturday morning there was a loose coalition of around eight of us that eddied around a couple of sofas in the bar. It gave us a home base to operate from – somewhere to go between sessions, people who would keep an eye out for me if needed, and a guarantee of good conversation which I could just slide into. In the hour before I was due to talk on a panel, there was also somewhere to sit and collect my thoughts, even bounce some of them off sympathetic listeners, and generally keep my calm at acceptable levels.

Funny story about the panel session: I’d volunteered to be involved in speaking in some capacity a while back (I’m currently on a ‘kick through the walls of my comfort zone’ drive) and, knowing that Dr. Nick was also going to the Con, I’d extracted a promise from him that he’d sit in the audience as emotional support. What I didn’t know was that he’d also volunteered. The day the organisers emailed me to say which panel they’d put me on, I got a text from him saying ‘I can’t be in the audience at your session.’ Quite by coincidence, the organisers had put us on the same panel. Which was great for me, since emotional support was therefore sitting on my immediate left, but a tad boring for him at times because he’s heard all my stories at least twice before.

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Dr. Nick was speaking. Of COURSE we talked about zeppelins.

The panel was in one of the ‘geeking out about cool stuff’ streams and, frankly, I didn’t expect much of an audience. Who cares about how to use real-life knowledge of naval architecture, ancient history, cyber security or historical costume in running roleplay games? Quite a few people, as it turned out. I was very nervous but the moderator, Ash, had given us a list of questions in advance and started us off on some of the easier ones so I found my footing relatively fast. The conversation was largely anecdotal, rather than containing any ‘how to’ suggestions, but we got enough questions to run out of time and several people came to chat afterwards. I think I even managed to convert someone to Live Action Role Play, which I’ll take as a win.

So there you have it: what I did on my Nine Worlds holiday. I’ve come away with new friends, new ideas, an invitation to submit to an anthology and the British Fantasy Society journal, and a reading list two pages long. In fact, that reading list might earn its very own blog post, as the final one in my ‘here’s what I learned at Nine Worlds’ series.

Next week: what James Barclay said about world-building.🙂

Rolling For Metaphors: Lessons from Taylor Mali

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Taylor Mali, American poet and English teacher, has come up with this fun little exercise. I’m on a bit of a poetry bent at the moment, so this appealed to me. He goes into a little too much detail in his video (thanks, Mr. Mali, I know how to fold cardboard into a cube with sellotape), but it’s worth watching. Let me know what metaphors you guys come up with!

12 Tall Tales: Storytelling In Objects

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Two weeks ago I went to the preview show of the Craft Council’s 12 Tall Tales exhibit, which uses the work of twelve artists to tell stories through the objects they made. The point of the exhibition, however, wasn’t to tell stories by depicting them, but through rather more abstract means. There’s a lot of great stuff at the exhibit and I’d encourage you to go if you can, but I wanted to share a few of my favourites.

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The guide to the exhibit – I don’t agree with some of their labelling though!

Fortune Telling

The exhibit was a row of metal cylinders with spinning dials of light dots at the top. The idea was that, in this Age of Information, predicting anything is just a matter of data analysis. Want to know when you’re going to get a heart attack? Analyse your diet, fitness regime, personal and family health records, etc., and the machine can give you an answer. All it takes is access to the data.

It made me think of Arthur C Clarke’s quote about suitably advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. Imagine a crystal ball with a USB socket. Plug in the data, ask the question, and the fortune teller will give you an answer. It’s not magic, it’s science. And, the way technology’s going, it’s not even science fiction.

Contaminated Craft

Four black earthenware bowls for storing food, made roughly and unpolished. Nothing special to look at. But the clay was taken from a Japanese rice farm in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant exclusion zone, and is mildly radioactive. The bowls are

…as purposeless as the land is to the farmers of Fukushima… The vessels express a narrative that goes far beyond their form of function, acting as material witnesses to the nuclear disaster.  ~ Exhibit sign

That’s a hell of a story, for a dish.

Just A Hint

This was a bit more abstract. There were ceramic casts of various bits of household objects, like an AC vent, or an Xbox.

In the same way that the chisel or loom is no longer visible in a piece of furniture or tapestry, the principle tool of creation – the story – is suggested but no more. ~ Exhibit sign

You’re sort of bringing archeology into art, here. The existence of the object is proof of the existence of the history and the next trick is to work out what that history was. Looking around your room right now, then, pick up to six objects. What story do they hint at?

Can You Handle Another Story?

This exhibit was sadly not operational, as we were at a preview, but the idea was compelling. There were a number of objects, mostly ancient archeological finds, a flat brass square with faint lines on it, and an audio guide. You listened to the audio guide which began telling you about the objects and ended by weaving them together as characters in a new story.

There’s a number of ways this could be done. All the objects could become anthropomorphic; they could become crucial to a plot, a la Chekov’s Gun; their individual stories could become interlinked throughout history; or, and this is the one that I find most intriguing, it could be that bringing the objects together is a catalyst that sets off a series of events. Two cursed objects, whose curses combine, for example. Or a faulty gas lamp starts a fire which burns down a building, which reveals a forgotten painting with a secret message encoded into it, which… you get the point. But the idea of telling a story without really needing living characters to push the plot along is an intriguing one. Anyone know of any examples?

Roll A D12

And finally… the way the exhibits were displayed involved a D12 (or 12-sided die) on the exhibit, and matching that number to the explanations on the wall. You could also use the diagram below to roll a D12 and design your own object:

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My object is an absurd necklace made of gold that represents life in fifty years. Now, I can write a story for that but I’m rubbish at designing objects. So, suggestions on a postcard please!

Alternatively, go roll your own…😉

GUEST:Breaking The Glass Slipper

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I am very pleased to introduce my friend, and co-collaborater on the Moonlight is Third anthology, Charlotte Bond – author, podcaster and fellow geek. Charlotte is the one who first drew my attention to Chris Winkle’s article on the heroine’s journey, which I talked about last week, so I asked her back to share her views on the subject.


 

There are lots of books and articles out there about how to plot and write a good novel. They’re always worth reading because, even if you don’t subscribe to the same method as that particular author, it’s always interesting to see how other people work. In this vein, I was directed to an article entitled “Using the Heroine’s Journey”. Being a co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper (a podcast dedicated to discussing women in genre), I thought it was an interesting article for friends and fans to read so I re-posted it on my own Facebook page. I got a generally consistent response from my writer friends along the lines of: “Yeah, it’s okay, but I don’t agree.”

So what’s this theory or, more precisely, “mythic structure”, all about? What was good about it, and where did it fall down? Let’s start with a summary.

220px-Heroesjourney.svgThere is a plot device out there known as ‘The Hero’s Journey’. A description of it can be found here. Basically, it is a template for a storyline which is found in novels, myths and poetry everywhere. It follows a single male protagonist as he goes out to conquer the world. It’s a pretty good, solid structure and, if you’re looking to write your first novel, then considering this plot outline a good place to start.

However, it was put forward in a book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell published in 1949. I think it’s fair to say that writing and attitudes have moved on a fair way since then. In fact, Maureen Murdock felt so strongly that this was the case that she decided to come up with a corresponding mythic structure entitled ‘The Heroine’s Journey’. The article by http://www.mythcreants.com examines this mythic structure and gives some fairly helpful working examples along the way.

The biggest positive of this particular mythic structure is the emphasis it puts on conflict. I attended a romance writing course and the plot structure we were given was pretty much the same as the hero’s journey, with the added emphasis that there must be conflict not only to drive the plot forward but to make the characters interesting to read. The fun of a romance novel is seeing two people at odds in character and personality gradually overcoming their differences to realise that they’re perfect for each other. Pride and Prejudice is a prime and well-known example of this. I’ve beta-read plenty of first draft stories (including my own!) where an absence of conflict has made it a general, lack-lustre affair. Adding or increasing this element can improve a weak story no end.

However, the mythic structure of the heroine’s journey places far more emphasis on internal conflict rather than external conflict. In the hero’s journey, the protagonist is basically influenced by outside events which convince him to go a quest to find something in particular; in the heroine’s journey, the focus is on more of an internal journey, leading her on a quest for identity rather than a magical object. The hero might be battling the physical forces of good and evil, but the heroine is battling the duality of her own self as well the contradictions present within those around her. So, like the article says, the heroine’s journey is a good template for a story which focuses on a character’s quest to find herself (or himself as the case may be).

Where does this structure fall down? For me, and for my friends it would seem, the huge downside was the general assumption that one journey is feminine and the other is masculine. Why can’t women go on a quest to find a magic sword while men go on a quest to find themselves? Admittedly, it says right at the very beginning of the article:

I will refer to the central character as the heroine… [h]owever, it applies to male characters just as well…

But that doesn’t really help much. After all, if it can be applied to men as well, why is it specifically referred to as ‘the heroine’s’ journey?

The risk with using a template like this to plot your story is that all your women will be the same, as will your men. You won’t be pushing the boundaries. For example, the story given in the article is one that I’d certainly like to pick up and read – but how different and equally fascinating would it be if the protagonist was male? Or, since we are a modern age, if it was a homosexual character? Such characters are great choices for examining duality, internal conflicts and themes of prejudice. Yes, the article says it is a structure that could be used for a man – but from the very title, even before we get to the detail of it, we’re already encouraged to think of it as a female’s journey. That’s not helpful.

You might assume from that the heroine’s journey would be empowering, but weirdly the first thing the protagonist does within this mythic structure is ‘reject’ her feminine side. Admittedly at the end she incorporates the masculine side into herself to become a better, more rounded person, but that’s just the end, which means that she spends pretty much all of the story trying to get away from her feminine side before she realises how useful it is. This can be an engaging story in some circumstances, but it shouldn’t be seen as the defining heroine’s story.

In summary, it’s the title of this mythic structure that is all wrong. ‘The Heroine’s Journey’ is as misnamed as the original ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Both of them are useful plotting tools, but in this modern age, no writer should come to a story with preconceived notions about how characters should act based on gender. If you’re going to use either of these structures, then try thinking of them as the ‘external quest’ structure and the ‘internal quest’ structure; decide what it is your character is looking for and then plot accordingly, with their gender being a mere side detail.

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You can find out more about Charlotte and her work at her website.

I Did It My Way: The Heroine’s Journey

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The idea of the hero’s journey – Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth – is quite a well-known one, and can be seen in almost all modern action stories. It’s a really good foundation to work from, although you should never feel compelled to use it as a step-by-step guide on how to structure your story. But one of the ways it really shows its age is the basic assumption of the heroic figure.

Campbell was a fascinating scholar but he was also, as we all are, a product of his environment: a white American man in the early-mid 20th century. He did a huge amount of research into other cultures (particularly Asian mythologies) and was widely read, but there were certain underlying ideas that he never really explored. Gender was one of them.

The figure of the heroine in western storytelling has evolved along a very different route to that of the hero. For a long time she was a damsel in distress, or a prize to be won. She didn’t head off on quests, or go through an arc of revelation and transformation. She certainly didn’t pick up a weapon and do battle. The concept of the heroic monomyth is pretty flexible but, when it comes to heroines, you have to work a bit harder to make it fit.

I’ve touched on this in the past. Christopher Vogler, a modern screenwriter and student of Campbell, says that the hero’s journey is a straight line about overcoming odds, achieving goals, and growing as a person; whereas the heroine’s journey is more about circumnavigating challenges, understanding who she is and therefore how she fits in society. It’s a fairly subtle difference, but an important one.

Maureen Murdock has gone into the subject in a lot more depth. She talks about ‘finding balance as the heroine struggles between sides of a duality’, where one side of that balance is the feminine and the other is the masculine:

The feminine is the side of the duality that your heroine identified with as a small child. However, society undervalues the feminine. The story begins as the heroine chooses to reject it.

The masculine is the side of the duality that your heroine adopts as she comes of age. Society prizes the masculine, but in many tales it has been poisoned, misinterpreted, or taken to such extremes that it has become harmful. The heroine sets out on her journey by embracing it.

Like Campbell, Murdock created a cycle for the journey which focuses heavily on exploring this dual nature:

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This blog post goes into more detail about each of the steps but, broadly speaking, they match up with the heroic journey pretty well. The difference is on the emphasis – external struggle vs internal struggle.

To be honest, I don’t really subscribe to all this. Making the assumption that heroes can’t undergo the same identity crises seems somewhat belittling, not to mention hypocritical. Men can struggle internally, just as women can pick up a sword and whack something over the head. The heroes that have to find balance with their duality are deeper, more interesting people than those who don’t. Yes, heroes and heroines have traveled different evolutionary paths but I think we’ve now reached an age of storytelling where we can stop talking about heroes and heroines, and start talking about people.

What in the World? Researching Settings

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Apologies for my recent absence. I don’t really have an excuse. Life just gets short on spoons occasionally. (For those who aren’t aware of Spoon Theory, I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It isn’t only applicable to those with illnesses.)

Anyway, I’m making an effort to get back in the saddle. This is largely prompted by the upcoming Nine Worlds Convention – a three-day celebration of all things geek. My experience of conventions is comparatively limited but I had an absolute ball at the World Fantasy Convention back in 2013 so I’m hugely looking forward to this. Not least because I’ve got myself involved in speaking on a panel discussion about the use of research in world-building.

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Obviously there’s a HUGE amount to say on this subject and I’ve said much of it already on this blog. Important points include:

  • Building on existing cultures to give your audience an easy and textured hook into your setting
  • Picking something small (such as currency) and extrapolating from there
  • Stealing random ideas from history, because it’s frequently weirder than fiction
  • Avoiding jarring your audience out of immersion by Not Getting Things Wrong

The context of this particular discussion, however, revolves specifically around building worlds that the audience will interact with, be it in computer games, LARP, or collaborative storytelling. I’ve been asked to get involved due to London Under, and the research that was done there to bring local history into the game.

One of my aims with the London Under setting was to blur the line between reality and fantasy as much as possible, in order to bring my audience deeper into the world. To that end, I tied in the history of the immediate area as well as news stories. Many of the fantastical plots stemmed from a real-life event. The building of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, for example, became a major point of gang territorial warfare; the Dutch Elm Disease of the late 1960s was revealed to be a piece of biological terrorism committed by one sect of dryads against another. I wanted people to walk down a street, or read a newspaper, weeks later and know something about it – partly true, partly fantastical, and occasionally difficult to tell where the line was.

There’s an obvious problem with this, which is the issue of timeliness. Using current news stories means that the setting and plot has a very high risk of dating quickly. Anything based on, for example, Thatcherism feels old fashioned now and that sense of the old-fashioned will carry over in the audience’s mind into your world setting. On the other hand, if done well, it gives your world an extra dimension of historical reality – one you don’t need to explain in detail because the audience will fill in the gaps for you. And that unconscious gap-filling means they are more emotionally invested in your setting. They understand something about it, have brought it closer to their own world, and it’s more real to them as a result.

To be honest, I’ve no idea what the panel discussion will end up covering on the day. Do come along and find out! My dear friend Dr. Nick will, in a weird quirk of coincidence, also be taking part (doctorate in naval architecture =  really good at designing spaceships and dirigibles), as will Jeanette Ng and Russell Smith. Let me know if you think there are any other points or questions that ought to be raised. And please come say hi – it would be lovely to see you there.🙂