Accoutrements of the Real World

Have you ever been able to say exactly what you were trying to say, and later realized that it was exactly the wrong thing to say? I’ve had this experience a few times. It’s not entirely enjoyable. This has nothing to do with today’s post, which will be somewhat random. It’s just something that has come up a few times in the past couple of months and is thus on my mind, which tends to be equally random. The Fragged Empire kickstarter went into its final countdown today, it has less than three days left and at this point has reached almost double it’s initial goal, which is cool. I would love to see it actually reach double, but we’ll see if that happens. Oh, and if you haven’t been following the news, Donald Trump is now the only candidate left in the primary race for the Republican party, though Bernie Sanders has vowed to see his campaign through to the end.

All of these are rather small bits of trivia. The kind of thing that you find in the real world: little bits of news, hearsay, or facts that people care about, even if they aren’t always of significant importance to the overarching story of our lives. This is a sign that the world goes on without us. Even if you die tomorrow, people will continue to hurt each other by saying exactly what they think, Wade Dyer’s kickstarter campaign will successfully fund the next book in his role playing game, and Donald Trump will win the Republican Primary. So, how often does this kind of thing appear in your stories? One of the things that I love about a lot of recent video games is that they create an immersive world. That is, a world exists beyond what you see in the story. Kings die, regents are elected, businesses thrive or shut down, and reality television continues to make everyone’s lives miserable far into the future. None of these things matter to the story itself, but they do matter in creating a believable and immersive world that provides a foundation for the story.

Steven Erikson does this in many ways, but one of my favorites is by introducing his readers to the arts of his world. In his novels he regularly begins chapters with poems from famous writers or scholars from his fantasy world. Many of these you meet briefing at some point in the novels. So, I thought that I’d share a couple of these with you so you can have a sense of what I mean. For the record, all of these poems are present in Erikson’s novels, but were retrieved from the Malazan Wiki:

In The Kingdom of Meaning Well

The man who never smiles
Drags his nets through the deep
And we are gathered
To gape in the drowning air
Beneath the buffeting sound
Of his dreaded voice
Speaking of salvation
In the repast of justice done
And fed well on the laden table
Heaped with noble desires
He tells us all this to hone the edge
Of his eternal mercy
Slicing our bellies open
One by one.
―In the Kingdom of Meaning Well
Fisher kel Tath

Clothes Remain

Down past the wind-groomed grasses
In the sultry curl of the stream
There was a pool set aside
In calm interlude away from the rushes
Where not even the reeds waver
Nature takes no time to harbour our needs
For depthless contemplation
Every shelter is a shallow thing
The sly sand grips hard no manner
Of anchor or even footfall
Past the bend the currents run thin In wet chuckle where a faded tunic
Drapes the shoulders of a broken branch
These are the dangers I might see
Leaning forward if the effort did not prove
So taxing but that ragged collar
Covers no pale breast with tapping pulse
This shirt wears the river in birth foam
And languid streaming tatters
Soon I gave up the difficult rest
And floated down in search of boots
Filled with pebbles as every man needs
Somewhere to stand.
―Clothes Remain
Attributed to Fisher kel Tath

Coltaine

Coltaine rattles slow
across the burning land.
The wind howls through the bones
of his hate-ridden command.
Coltaine leads a chain of dogs
ever snapping at his hand.

Coltaine’s fist bleeds the journey home
along rivers of red-soaked sand.
His train howls through his bones
in spiteful reprimand.
Coltaine leads a chain of dogs
ever snapping at his hand.
“―Coltaine
A marching song of the Bonehunters

Expecting the Unexpected

So, Selanya has a beast of a schedule at the moment, and I’m sorry to say that you all will have to put up with another week of posts from me. Alayna and I finally made a decision about Ph.D. programs yesterday. It’s something that we put a lot of thought and prayer into, and the program we decided on is one that we’ve been thinking about for quite a while. We had plans about how to handle the program itself, paying for life, moving, etc… Those plans have been entirely upended. At the moment, it looks like we’ll be moving in early-mid August regardless of whether Alayna has found a job where we are moving to (my job travels, but it would be a struggle to support the family as a whole on my income). Most of the things that we thought we would be able to make work won’t work, and we’ve been put back to square one.

Amazingly, I actually have not just one, but two points to make about writing from this situation. First, in your own plotting, writing, and publishing, expect the unexpected. What you expect to happen probably won’t, and things you never could have imagined probably will happen. You might send the manuscript that you’re so proud of to a reviewer, only to get it back ripped to shreds. Alternatively, you might hand a manuscript that you’re not happy with to a friend, and a week or two later get an email from a publisher who wants it (not likely, but possible). Heck, there’ve been a few people who made better than a living wage off of the profit from one self-published novel selling on Kindle for $0.99 (again, it’s not likely, but it’s possible). The point is that you never know what is going to happen. The thing is, the saying ‘expect the unexpected’ doesn’t really make sense. How can I expect something that I can’t imagine? How can I plan when I have do idea what to plan for?

I think the answer is fairly simply: learn to be flexible. If you’re serious about writing then you’re going to get hit, probably repeatedly (emotionally speaking at least, though you might be assaulted by an angry fan… again, it’s happened). You’ll need to learn to roll with the punches. If you feel like you need to be in control of every step of the publishing process then it won’t go well for you (though you should absolutely be in control of your writing process).

The second point is this: you’re characters can’t be in control of their world any more than you’re in control of your world. Even the best laid plans will be upset by a stripped screw or a random bystander. You can use this when you’re plotting out your story. We tend to feel like stories should flow, and in many ways this is true. However, the world is a random place, and your story should reflect this randomness. It can’t be entirely random or you will lose your audience, and the randomness of the world needs to be shown in ways that 1) fit the story, and 2) advance the story. However, your story should still reflect the randomness of the world. If you’ve ever seen the Ocean’s movies, this is something that they do very well. The story flows clearly, and it is engaging and entertaining. However, the number of ‘well… I didn’t expect that’ moments in these movies are an integral part of their humor. They give the viewer a sense of meaningful randomness. These moments of randomness aren’t random simply for the sake of being random (which is a mistake that many young authors make), but instead are random in a way that effectively advances the story and entertains the audience. This is how you want to use these moments in life.

WRITE!! Because it’s Good for You

Well, I’ve got a post due today, and honestly I have way too many things on my mind at the moment. I’m not an easy person to get along with sometimes… especially if I’m in charge. I tend to have a… …drill sergeant leadership model. Kind of – “Get down and give me twenty, ya damn maggot!… …Oh, is that too hard for you little miss prissy? Are you weak and tired already?… Then give me another thirty! And smile while you do!” You can ask my students about this. Honestly, even the students that love me and become my facebook friends usually have some story about when I made them cry. At the moment, you could ask my fiancee as well. She’s kind of an amazing person for putting up with me at times. I have the bad habit of setting a pace that I can keep (or even sometimes setting a pace that I can’t keep), and then just expecting everyone else to keep up… and while I can forgive pretty much anything, I don’t have much tolerance for excuses. You can ask the student I had who lost eight family members to various diseases and accidents over the course of an eight week long class… …although, that is an admittedly odd coincidence.

What does this have to do with writing? Everything, actually. You should set high goals for yourself! I will advise this more when it comes to quality than quantity, but even then you should set high goals. Don’t get me wrong, your goals should be ‘realistic.’ I’m not suggesting that you set the goal ‘I’m going to write ten thousand words a day that even Edgar Allan Poe can’t improve on!’ That’s… well, honestly for the vast majority of us that’s just an idiotic goal. However, something like ‘I’m going to write 500 decent words a day, even if I have to work, take care of kids, etc, etc, etc’ is realistic for the vast majority of us. If you’re feeling ambitious you might even set a goal of a thousand or two thousand words a day (this really depends on what kind of writer you are). However, take two lessons from my own mistakes (lessons that I am constantly trying to work on): 1) don’t expect everyone else to be the same. Yes, if you’re writing a novel with someone, then the two of you need to get on the same page. However, in general, encourage excellence, but also let people be people. 2) Let yourself fail. You’re going to fail. It’s just true, you will. I’m not suggesting that you make a habit of it. If you’re failing constantly then you probably either need to set a different goal or try harder. There will be times when both of these are true. However, sometimes you will fail. That’s just life. Be okay with that. I try to remind my students of this constantly. If you are actually doing your best (and the ‘actually’ is incredibly important here) then you should be proud.

If the best you’ve got in you is an F, then be proud of that F and switch careers. Don’t expect to be good at everything, but don’t make excuses for being terrible at something either. Always, ALWAYS! put forth the best effort that you’ve got in you (and remember that sometimes you’re best right now isn’t necessarily you’re best overall – I had a student once whose daughter actually was dying. My student refused to drop the class because, at the time, it was the only coping mechanism that he/she had to deal with his/her situation. However, needless to say, he/she was at best distracted throughout the class – this student’s best efforts during the tragedy of his/her daughter’s death did not reflect his/her best during normal circumstances). At the same time, when the best effort that you have puts forth squat, be willing to own that. Very few of us are good at everything, that doesn’t make the things we’re bad at any less worth doing. In fact, sometimes the things we’re bad at are very much worth doing even though we’re bad at them. However, it does mean that you don’t put forth your best effort, produce squat, and then call it gold because it was the best you could do.

All of this to say: write! Write the best that you can: good, bad, or just plain confusing! However, when you write, don’t expect everyone else to love you’re writing. I learned this lesson the hard way (mostly because I did expect everyone to love my writing, and a lot of people didn’t). Sometimes, you can get better (I certainly have). That’s part of why we’re here. However, sometimes you can’t, even when you try. That’s okay… there are lots of good writers out there who can’t make a living at it. Keep writing, don’t expect people to love what you write. Don’t expect people to want to read it. However, write it anyway – its worth doing. One of the primary benefits of writing is simply that it helps us process things. Putting your ideas down on paper, good or bad, forces you to think them through, at least more than you have already. That’s a good thing.

Philosophical Story Challenge

ImageHey everyone, I hope you are all ready for the weekend! It’s time to kick off another Saturday with a Philosophical Story Challenge. Today I want to briefly describe a philosophical movement known as Anti-realism. Anti-realism is a very general term used mostly to describe any position which denies the existence of an objective reality. For example, a solipsist is an anti-realist that doesn’t believe other minds exist. Likewise, some anti-realists may deny the objective existence of matter. All that to say it is important to understand that there can be many types of anti-realists who disbelieve in different objective realities, which is what I want us to focus on this week in our stories. This week’s challenge is to write a story from an anti-realist perspective, but I am leaving what type of anti-realism up to your own choice. As I mentioned, there are a multitude of anti-realist positions from which to choose, and writing with them should not require too much effort in understanding. As usual, please keep your stories under 1,000 words, and have fun!

World Building Part 2: So Many Blanks

You're world can have as many or as few people groups as you want. But would a world full of W.A.S.P.s really be the best setting for your story?

Alright, if you read last week’s post then you should have the beginnings of a world by now: a list of people groups/cultures, a list of nations, or a map of the portion of your world that you want to focus on.  If you’ve been really busy, you might have more than one.  However, any one of these is not a stable foundation to begin building your world, you must have all of them.  Without people groups you have no idea who lives in your world, what they’re like, how advanced they are, etc.  Without nations you have no idea how the political structure of your world is organized.  Without maps you have no idea where anything actually fits in your world.  So, today we are going to talk a little bit about filling in your world, and what is involved in each of these categories.

So: people groups.  A people group is an individual, recognizably different race or culture.  No one has come up with an agreeable number of people groups in the world today, but estimates range from around 10,000 to around 27,000 distinct recognizable people groups inhabiting the planet.  You shouldn’t feel like your world needs this many.  Generally most fantasy/science fiction worlds will have between three and twelve different people groups.  You can find some that range outside of this (Star Wars for instance has many, many more than twelve people groups), but it is generally a safe bet.  Remember that a different people group does not necessitate and different race.  For instance, in the world of Avnul the Longminjong, Nemmi, and Yamakuni are all human people groups, and the Narut are nearly human.  Similarly, the Neshelim and Yeter are both Habacheram.  A people group could be differentiated by language, religion, culture, location, or any number of other things.  So, when you are creating your people groups, consider how and why they are different.  Also, a note on races, if your non-human race is essentially human, then ask yourself why they aren’t human.  If the elves in your world are just short humans with pointy ears, why are you calling them something different?  It is great to have different races and cultures, but there needs to be a recognizable and reasonable difference.  A non-human culture shouldn’t look and feel human, and if it does then you have to explain why it does (i.e. they are similar to 19th century India and have been under human rule for so long that they’ve started to forget their own cultural identity).

I love Star Wars, and so I am certainly biased, but they do a great job of applying a melting pot principle.

And: Nations.  Nations are going to vary depending on what kind of world you’re building.  If you want a modern, non-earth world, then your nations need to incorporate multiple people groups and they should look like melting pots.  Remember that a nation is simply lines on a map, everything inside them ruled by a central government.  By and large the people can come and go as they please (although if you want to have a xenophobic North Korea in your world that’s fine too).  However, if you are writing a prehistoric or early bronze age fantasy world, then it is completely reasonable to have nations developed around your people groups.  Most nations of the time were developed around a certain people group, and even in the late bronze age this was largely true.  While the rise and fall of empires like Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia saw a mixing of people groups, these nations were still generally dominated by a single people group who ruled others through conquest, and this is something that could easily be reflected in your world.  In a futuristic, sci-fi world you might want melting pot nations, or you might want to mix the two concepts.  For instance, in a young galaxy where inter-stellar travel is limited you very well might see the same kind of conquest that you did in the bronze age.  However, as travel becomes easier, people will mix more and more, and your ‘nations’ will become less and less ‘pure’.  When you are building nations there is a lot of room to play, but remember that your world needs to feel like a real place, even though it’s not.  This is something that should always be in the back of your mind: does this look like it could actually happen?

Take a look at this map. Do you see the problem? No? Check out the mountains around Mordor. How many mountain ranges do you know of that are shaped like a box?

Lastly: Maps.  A few lines surrounding big, blank spaces.  That’s probably what your maps look like right now.  However, it is important to make sure that those lines look real.  When making a map you generally want to start from the coastlines and then work your way inward (with cities you want to start with the same principle: start with the city wall or border and work your way inwards).  The reason for this is simple, in making a map you always want to start with your outward boundary (think puzzle borders) and then fill in the middle.  You also usually want to start with major landscape features (inland seas, lakes, major rivers – i.e. Nile or Amazon, mountain ranges, or massive jungles – i.e. central Africa), before moving on to cities.  When you are designing your world’s topography remember to keep it realistic.  Examine maps of our planet, you can also find photo maps of parts of Mars.  Look at the way coastlines are shaped, the way mountain ranges lie on the landscape, where rivers begin, etc.  Don’t just put things where you feel like putting them, put a lot of thought into your topography, and if something isn’t realistic, make sure that you have a specific and explainable reason for it.  Once you have your topography (and make sure that you have your topography solid before doing this) you want to start placing nations and people groups in the world.  Remember that topography and climate are major factors in shaping culture.  If you put a ‘tropical’ culture in the far north it will feel wrong (unless they are somehow unaffected by temperature), and if you put a mountain culture in the middle of a plain then it will also feel wrong.  This takes time and thought, so be careful and make sure that you do it well.

Good luck in your world building!