A Few MORE thoughts on Worldbuilding with Food, and Art

So, a few weeks ago, I posted some Thoughts on Worldbuilding. And in the natural course of things, another blogger linked to it here.

Now, while it’s always flattering to have people link to your blog, because it means that they found what you had to say worthwhile (or at least, worth screaming about), I fear that my colleague of teh Interwebz misunderstood the technique I was trying to highlight. Because he (or she) had this to say:

“Food is the easiest but only becomes a concern when the characters don’t have a steady reliable supply of it. Or if they are moving between multiple cultures. Art and music are best left for the slower parts of the story and again would only be noticed if the character is operating outside his usual culture.”

And the problem is that this is both right and wrong at the same time. It lacks imagination, and it lacks an understanding of the role of the storyteller.

Now, it’s correct to say that noticing food, art and music are best done in the “slower” parts of the story, but that in itself reveals a limited understanding of pacing. Certainly, you don’t want characters thinking of food, art and music during a gun battle or a chase. But a fast pace, or rising tension, do not have to encompass anything that is literally fast or athletically active. Consider, for example, the dinner-party scene in Frank Herbert’s Dune. The tension rises inexorably as the various factions present do verbal battle for supremacy, and through it all, the food lays out a vibrant background that illuminates the cultures of Arrakis and the Imperium. It has nothing to do with a lack of supply, and little to do with multiple cultures.

But there are always multiple cultures in the act of telling a story. At least, there are two: the real culture of the real reader, and the artificial culture of the work. And even in a contemporary novel of America, food and art and music can be used to signal what things are important to the characters. Is this a man who turns up his nose at scotch improperly oaked? Or a man who enjoys ketchup sandwiches? Does she listen to Rob Zombie, or Pink Floyd?  Or Vivaldi. Does he notice the Warhol print in Wal-mart and spend money on it? Or is he going to snort at that and smugly congratulate himself on his understanding of Pollock?

Now, in F/SF, you have a whole culture to map out. It’s a challenge when your characters are intimately familiar with that culture, and they’re certainly not going to say things like, “Welcome to our home, Bob and Linda! Do sit down and partake of these lovely snarf-burgers, the principal Arcturan delicacy!” But look at what S.M. Stirling does in his excellent book, the Peshawar Lancers. He has to set up an alternate 21st century in which the United States was destroyed, and most of Europe crippled, by a cometary impact. It’s over a century later, and the British Raj is the dominant power. How does he portray this in the opening scenes of the novel?

Well, for one, he has his principal heroine sit down in the lavishly appointed dining room of an airship. She notices all the dishes (because of course we notice what we are eating, whether we are in a different culture or not) and her mind wanders to the huge reproduction of a famous mural that dominates the dining room, portraying the Exodus from England as the government of Great Britain removes itself from the Thames, sailing to Delhi. She then thinks how monstrously inappropriate a scene that includes cannibalism is for a dining room and of the Kipling Cantos that inspired the artist to paint such a thing. And so, in a couple of pages, we are treated to a snapshot of the culture of the 21st-Century Raj combined with a good deal of backstory which the heroine has good reason to be thinking of. It flows with a brilliant ease and never feels artificial, and it all comes from a lady sitting down and dining alone inside her own culture.

As You Know, Bob, You’re In A Hard Science-Fiction Novel.

“I am? I’m in a hard science-fiction novel? How do you know that?”

“Well, Bob, look at it this way. What do you do?”

“I’m a scientist.”

“And what sort of scientist are you?”

“Well, I’m a nuclear physicist.”

“Right. And do you have any mad and overly-complicated schemes to take over the world?”

“Um. No?”

“How about make tons of money by dumping nuclear waste illegally all over women and children in some underdeveloped nation?”

“What? NO! Why would anyone DO that? Thorium reactors don’t even…”

“Please, Bob. We’ll let you have your exposition later. That’s how you know you’re in a Hard SF novel. In any other setting, a nuclear physicist would by definition be the villain. And who are all your co-workers here on this ship?”

“Well, there’s Dave the astronomer, and Karen the biogeneticist, and Shu-Ling the botanist, and Raymundo the geologist.”

“Okay, so two things to notice. First of all, everyone on this ship is a scientist, right?”

“Well… yeah.”

“So, no one is here just to pilot the ship?”

“Dave does that.”

“Or fix the ship?”

“Raymundo in an expert mech…”

“Or cook meals?”

“Karen is a professional chef at…”

“Okay, now you’re just embarrassing us all. Not only are the women all in the life sciences, one of them is actually your cook?”

“She’s a professional chef. That makes it not sexist.”

“Of course it does. And she, not to mention all of you, can have completely different full-time careers as well as being world-class, practically-Nobel laureates because scientists are just that smart, right?”

“Well… yeah? But I don’t do any of that stuff!”

“And what do you do for fun?”

“I play the violin.”

“And you did what with that back on Earth?”

“I was the concertmaster for the Boston Orchestra.”

“Of course you were. Why scientists should probably be running the planet Earth rather than running around in spaceships.”

“Well, we’re saving the planet from climate change and overpopulation and corporate greed actually, but I think your suggestion has merit…”

“I am just shocked to hear that. Bob, Karen had a question about nuclear physics she asked me to pass along: How much radiation should we expect to take traveling near the corona of that M-class star we’re approaching?”

“Well, that depends very much whether we’re talking about alpha, beta, or gamma radiation. As you know, alpha radiation consists of the nuclei of helium atoms, about which the electrons orbit…”

“Why are you answering the question of a double Ph.D as if she’s a high-school student? And using the Bohr model, which hasn’t been current for like fifty years?”

“Um, because… well, um…”

“Is it because your readers’ last contact with nuclear physics was in their junior year of high school? In Mr. Kramer’s class? That he went over once? For thirty minutes? While they were asleep?”


A Few Thoughts On Worldbuilding

Most of us, as we begin writing, and begin selling, gradually start to get a handle on what our strengths are as a writer, and what we enjoy writing most of all. One of my strengths, I have been told, is the development of setting, or what is commonly referred to as worldbuilding. Worldbuilding often involves establishing history, politics, culture and geography of your F/SF world, but I’m going to talk about some techniques I rarely see used, here, which, if done right, can lend a whole layer of depth to the world not often enough explored.

For much of this, I’d like to point out that I’m indebted to S.M. Stirling, whose works abound with such things. If you can only read one of his fabulous alternate histories, I suggest The Peshawar Lancers.

Food: Is anything more fundamental to culture than sharing a meal? That’s where deals get done, where people fall in love, where poisonings occur. And yet how often meals are skipped over, or if they are portrayed, are done so in minimal terms, with people eating bland dishes of no significance. The food of a culture tells you what are luxuries, and what are staples. What flavors are favored, and which are disliked.

Art: Religion often plays a part of a fully developed world, and yet how rare is it to see the religious art of a world fully developed, despite the fact that in our own world, religion has inspired a huge percentage of the high arts. Art communicates a great deal of the culture’s values, and can be used to tell its story. Stirling does a wonderful job with this when a protagonist of his, on the dirigible ride to Delhi, contemplates a reproduction of a famous painting that draws on Kipling’s Exodus Cantos while eating a meal in the dining cabin, using food and art simultaneously to draw the protagonist’s mind to her own history.

Music: This is perhaps the hardest of these three to portray, since it’s difficult to convey instrumental sound on the written page. But naming instruments can give you an idea of what is popular and what is not, and writing lyrics can give a feel for whether this is a culture that values arias or ballads or folk verse or chant.

Thus concludes our microlesson today on worldbuilding.

Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life (Part 2)

A continuation of yesterday’s post.

Write Every Day (L): I cannot overstate the importance of writing on your novel every day. It builds a momentum up that is easy to sustain, much like running down a shallow grade. Gravity helps you. But if you stop, you have to overcome your inertia again and it’s a lot harder.

Don’t Give Up When You Fail To Write Every Day (L): You will fail to write every day. At some point, something is going to come up that will (more accurately, “that you will allow to”) keep you from writing. There will be something with the kids, or your wife, or your job, where you will come home and say “I just can’t.”
And the worst thing in the world you can do is throw up your hands and say, “Well, I failed. I guess I don’t have what it takes” and pitch a fit about it. Get back to work the next day and go on. Make up for the lost day if you can. If you can’t, oh well, you lost a day. Keep going.

Do Not Agonize Over Shit You Will Fix Anyway In The Revision (L): This may be the most important piece of advice that I implemented, having learned it from Steven Barnes. And I resisted it for a long time. My reasoning was, “If I know what to fix now, I should fix it. I’m going to have to fix it anyway, and this way I won’t have to revise as much.”
Well, as I have said to my own students before, “That is very compelling and sensible reasoning, which is nevertheless wrong.” Okay, but why is it wrong?
It’s wrong for four main reasons:
1) The process of going back and revising kills your momentum. Part of what encourages you to keep going is seeing how much you’ve done. It’s a reward that your animal brain really gets off on. So the faster you go, the faster you go. If you kill that momentum, you slow down HARD. And unlike the tortoise, slow and steady really does not win this race, because…
2) What you’re really doing is replacing errors that you can see with ones you can’t. They’re going to creep in there anyway, and they’ll be harder to see when you DO go back and reread the manuscript. I always thought that it made more sense to fix the errors NOW than to go back later because if I didn’t, I’d be building later chapters on earlier crap, and it would all have to be fixed. There’s some truth to this* but what I didn’t realize is that it cuts both ways.  You can also come up with a solution near the end of the book that fixes things you screwed up earlier, only because you “fixed” it earlier, that new solution doesn’t work and you have to go back and fix your fix. Which is now HARDER because…
3) When you go back and revise, you will, if you’re any good, produce tighter, neater prose. That’s a good thing. But having to revise that is harder, because its so well done. So essentially, you end up throwing out TWO drafts and writing two more to replace finished prose with finished prose, rather than throwing out ONE draft and writing two more.
4) Finally, going back and revising isn’t fun, so you try to avoid it, and this means you have to fight the urge to agonize over everything. What is this character’s name? What is the name of this gadget? What is the name of this country? How exactly does the gadget work. I need to research to see if that’s plausible. And you’re stuck in a mire of Getting Everything Right The First Time. Right now my manuscript is filled with people named [NAME], and notes like [LET’S GO BACK AND MAKE JEREMY’S PARENTS HAVE A RUN-IN WITH HIS MOM] or [I’D KIND OF LIKE JAEL TO DO SOME SORT OF THEATRICAL TRICK HERE TO DEMONSTRATE FALLING IN LOW GRAVITY, BUT I DON’T WANT TO WORK OUT THE MATH RIGHT NOW.]

So that’s how I did it. Obviously ALL these techniques may not work for YOU, the reader (especially the outlining), but this is the advice I wish I could have read and understood twenty years ago. I hope it helps.

By the way, if you’re interested in more from Steven Barnes, who knows a LOT more about all this than I do, you can find the Lifewriting group here.

*There are some cases where you really want to go back and revise right then, but they’re really on the order of making a huge change to your basics. Like, “I want this character to be a 78 year old man rather than a 16 year old girl,” or “I think we should set this on Enceladus rather than on the Titanic.” Anything less than THAT, leave for revision.

Notes To The Author As A Young Man: How You Can Write A Novel In Three And A Half Months, And Still Have A Life.

There are many things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self about life, love, writing, and many more things. I’m going to start with this one, in the hope it may be useful to my readers. Just a year ago, I would have said that writing a novel this quickly would have been impossible for anyone but a professional, probably-childless, full-time writer. Here are the lessons I learned that made this possible. I would like to especially credit Steven Barnes and his Lifewriting philosophy for teaching me many of these things. There’s a lot more over on his Facebook group dedicated to this, some of which I have not yet put into practice, but it’s well worth checking out. I’ll designate the points I learned from him with an (L).

1) Have A Clearly Defined Motivation (L): In this case, my motivation was two-fold: 1) I had a contract promising me payment, and 2) I had another novel I really wanted to get to revising in June because a publisher asked me to. So I had to be done with this by May. Now, if I had read this a year ago, my reaction would have been something like,  Oh, all you have to do is get publishers to hand you contracts for shit you haven’t even written yet, or respond favorably to something you have? Well THAT sounds easy! Thanks for nothing, asshole!
And I would have been wrong to think that. Because what I would have been missing is that the motivation always comes from YOU. Yes, it’s AWESOME to have external motivation. But if I had decided, no bones about it, “I’m gonna self-publish this baby by the end of August” I could still have accomplished this. That decision is ENTIRELY in your control.

2) Control Your Word Count: This novel had a soft limit from the publisher of 55,000 words, and a hard limit of 60,000. This meant that I had to make absolutely sure that it didn’t balloon into an epic. At 53,000 words, it is the shortest novel I have ever written, the next shortest being about 120,000 words. Word Count MATTERS. If this had been a typical-length novel for me, I doubt it would have been finished in under six months. I can’t type that fast. Yet. So how do we control our word count? We…

3) Outline: Before I started this project, I created a thorough (about 3000 word) outline of the story, including four character sketches of the family at the center of the book. On completion of this outline, I was reasonably satisfied that I would not exceed word count. I could not allow myself any real subplots. Focus had to stay tight on the major plot from beginning to end. This meant that I could look back at the outline so that I never had the dreaded “What was going to come next” moment. Also, it was a great way to squelch rabbit trails that would inflate the word count.

4) Double Outline: Before beginning each chapter, I read the outline to make sure it would make sense, and then made further notes, including who would say what in what order. This outline would have looked like gibberish to anyone who wasn’t me. But it ensured that while I was actually writing, I got to focus on how the prose sounded, because I had already decided what to say, when.

5) Control Your Time (L): While I was writing the novel, some other things I normally do had to be put on the back burner. Short story writing, responses to calls for submissions, marketing, and, notably THIS BLOG all suffered. In fact, it’s the reason you haven’t been reading much here for the past two weeks, and the reason that this is NOT a William Shakespeare’s Dune post. Working on it. It even means that blog posts have to be shorter. This, one, for example, has now taken all the time that I can give it, so I’m going to leave part two of it for tomorrow.

Story Sale: Iron Out Of Vulcan

I am pleased to announce that my short story, “Iron Out Of Vulcan” has been picked up by the anthology Battling In All Her Finery, and would direct interested folks to its Kickstarter site.

“Iron Out Of Vulcan” tells the story of an Earth utterly defeated by incorporeal alien invaders. An Earth where the only survivors are the severely disabled…

More news to follow when the book is out. Until then, enjoy the anticipation with me! And enjoy this snippet:

I rode between two drum-fed National Guard .50 caliber machine guns mounted in a plexiglass ball-turret, mounted on the back of a microbus shell welded over the bed of the six-wheel Ford F550. Again, I peered through the iron crosshairs at the black speck in the distance.

Definitely a motorcycle.

We have a friend,” I called through to the cabin. “Watch for IEDs.”

Oh, sure; I’m on it,” Mina deadpanned. But she signed to Eric, which was good enough. Paul moved forward, too. It was a standard trick. Make your target watch you, and they might miss your roadside bombs. Best way to take us out, unless they had spike-strips.

Who is it, Scout?” asked Mina. “Not Them, I take it?”

She’d be swearing more,” Eric grunted.

I don’t know,” I said. Not Them. A gang out of Chicago or Dallas, maybe. The remnant of a Mexican drug cartel, perhaps. The bandidos had tried taking Criptown from us last summer. Cost us a lot of good Crips and ammo we couldn’t spare.

Some thought we shouldn’t call the place ‘Criptown.’ Worried it might scare potential recruits off because of the old gang name. As if any of them had got out of the cities before the nukes hit.

I looked back at the cycle. We could only hope that cycle-boy’s friends would decide Vulcans weren’t worth the carnage.

I looked at the empty road ahead. Somewhere out there, a radio had called for us. Was it a trap? Some Vulcans had disappeared. Maybe this cyclist’s friends had set us up. Or maybe someone else had. Or maybe – just maybe – the signal was genuine. It was a chance we would have to take, if we could find them.

We needed people desperate enough to live free.

William Shakespeare’s Dune, Act III, Scene ix.

It’s Scene IX!!

No word on when we get to scene Richese.

(The REAL Dune fans got that joke…)

Okay, so, I’m sorry I went silent there for awhile. I was honored to be selected as a guest mentor at the graduation breakfast by a student at my former school, a young man who is going to do great things, and who has earned his place at his second National Forensics Tournament. I can hardly wait to see how he does.

In this episode, Paul fights Jamis the Fremen, and earns the name Muad’Dib.

Act III, Scene ix.

We Now Commence The Reading Of The Rules!

In response to my post on how to break the rules of writing, a reader asked for my top ten rules of writing. Those are difficult to quantify, and I puzzled over how to do it, but I came to two conclusions: firstly, that anyone who needs these rules really needs them, and they need them to be basic, and secondly, that no one including me should take them too seriously, so here, in no particular order are the Basic Rules Of Science-fiction and Fantasy Writing.


No, sorry, that’s just in honor of Monty Python Status Day. In all seriousness, write any sort of characters you want, within the bounds of reason. My primary rule is that my heroes have to be the kinds  of people I like. Otherwise, I can’t stand to be around them long enough to tell their story. The only caution is that if it gets really odd, people are going to ask questions. So if you really want, say, all your characters to be Japanese and your story is set in Oliver Cromwell’s England, you do need some reason for that.

Rule 2: No Accidental Time Traveling

It should go without saying that time-traveling is just fine, but for the gods’ sake pay attention to it, and don’t let it happen without a time machine or time spell. Stories told in past tense need to stay in past tense unless you have a well-thought out scheme for transitioning them, as I described in the above-linked post. And if your story flashbacks or flashforwards, you need to make sure that the sequence of events makes sense, and you don’t have a character traveling from Boston to SF by jumbo jet in two hours.

Rule 3: No Poofters Head-hopping

I hesitate to add this, because it’s more a recent convention than a rule. James Clavell wrote excellent if long novels in true 3rd-person omniscient POV, and head-hopped like no tomorrow. But if you want to sell fiction these days, you can’t do it. And if you come up with an explicit scheme to do it anyway, it needs to be balanced. Each POV character should get roughly equal time.

Rule 4: No One Is To Misuse The Jargon In Any Way At All… Because EVERYONE Is Watching

Nothing makes me want to throw a book against the wall faster than someone who obviously doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Please understand your skiffy terms and what most people mean by them. And yet, one rather well-known writer who shall remain nameless managed to create a whole series in which he apparently thought that Fusion Drive meant Faster-Than-Light travel. Don’t do this.

Rule 5: No Poofters Idiots

The reader has to be able to sympathize with your protagonist to some degree, even if you’re writing an anti-hero. We can sympathize with Macbeth, for gods’ sakes. We can sympathize with Alex from A Clockwork Orange. And that means that you can’t make him or her an idiot. Yes, we all do dumb things, nor should your character be immune to that tendency. You can even have your characters get themselves into a major conflict by being an idiot, see Bujold’s A Civil Campaign again for Miles doing exactly this, to hilarious effect. But then they have to be competent at getting themselves out. They can’t be impeded by “major challenges” that a non-idiot could solve in five minutes by simply calling someone up and asking a question.

Rule 6: There is NO…!

Rule 6.

Rule 7: No Poofters Pocket Anti-Tank Guns

You cannot introduce a major or plot-altering power, for either hero or villain, late in the story. The reader feels cheated if you do. You have to explicitly and early allow your reader to know that this power exists. J.K. Rowling was masterful at this. For example, Professor McGonagall teaches Harry and friends about the Animagus Transfiguration in their 3rd year, long before any of them would be able to attempt such a thing. Why? Because it establishes then what the rules are for it. They’re highly restrictive. So when it turns out that Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew are secret Animagi, we as the readers neither find it incredibly coincidental that they happen to have that power, nor that they are not suspected of it until now.

Rule 8: I Don’t Want To Catch Anyone Living On A Planet Of Idiots:

Aaaaand this was something J.K. Rowling was incredibly bad at. Just to take one observation not completely at random, Hagrid declaims early on that every evil wizard was in Slytherin house. And this appears to be pretty nearly true (although at that time, he should have remembered that Sirius Black the Gryffindor was an exception).
So why is there still a Slytherin House? They could pretty much solve the problem by disbanding the house, unless there is some, never-really explained mystical reason they can’t, and in lieu of that, watching the hell out of it. Or, you know the fact that Time-Turners would be invaluable for a lot of things besides doing double-lectures. Such as, you know, going back to see who was opening the Chamber Of Secrets or something.
And that’s the thing. Even in magic, you can’t just establish that you can do something by magic and then pretend you can’t.

Rule 9: No Poofters Coincidences.

Like the Pocket Anti-tank Guns, the problem with coincidence is that it feels incredibly contrived. Bizarre coincidence (like a comet hitting the Earth) can START a conflict, because it’s a given. But it would be extremely unworkable to SOLVE, say, an alien invasion by having a random meteor wipe out the invader’s beachhead.

Rule 10: No Distractions

And I’ve just spent all the time I can on this list. I have books to write. So do you. Go write them.