Category Archives: Alleged Real World

The Past, and Other Things You Can’t Really Trust

Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are many worlds, but only a single nature.

-Final Judgement, The Eye of Kog

You’d think after a decade of chronicling I’d be out of surprises around the actual process.

I’m old, first of all, and how many new tricks would I be inclined to show an interest in? Plus, epic fantasy in many ways isn’t about discovering anything new. We explore the classic truths about ourselves and the joy comes of recognizing old friends despite their outlandish disguises. Lots of reasons. But when I came to the desk with intent to write, I figured I was pretty much doing the same thing. A beloved, well known activity.

And I am. But…

This Time, Different- The Test of Fire

An earlier test of fire.

The current WiP is what I pretentiously call a demi-sequel. When I decided I wanted to chronicle the Lands of Hope, the first thing I drafted, the very first thing, was a ramshackle adventure that turned into The Plane of Dreams. But the thing I called it, the working title when I first wrote it in 2008, was “Prologue to The Test of Fire”. I was working from my instinct of course in those days, and from one other important thing.

Notes.

Tons of them. I have maps, and character descriptions (let’s just call them that), and detailed information about lots of locations where dark secrets of Despair were buried (often literally). I have data, if you will, on what the monsters are like, how magic spells and miracles work, how long travel takes depending on conveyance. I have of course the figurines that I’ve showed you in other columns. And I have primary source material (just go with me here), letters and journal entries and first-hand accounts to draw on about What Really Happened. Some of it not in my own handwriting, let’s just leave it there OK?

When I started to chronicle, in many ways I simply went to the bulls-eye, the place where these notes of mine were the thickest. That produced the tale I eventually rounded off and called The Plane of Dreams in 2011. I really enjoyed the job. There were just two things that I found a bit frustrating about the process.

One was where the tale actually began.

The other was where it ended.

Long story about the first. I’ll eventually write another novel to answer it. For now, this: I’m working on the book that comes after The Plane of Dreams, and I’m working from notes. Got it?

“I Only Know What Happens”

This is the battle-cry of my chronicling: for more than 35 years I’ve known the giant arc of the plot around the Lands of Hope. Notes, no notes, that part makes no difference: it’s always been there, like whatever those programs are that constantly use 4 or 5% of the CPU on your PC . I’ve gone to sleep idly wondering about this character, that event. Years of this, before I even thought about trying to write it out for others.

I think the word for this is ‘insane’. But happily so. This is simply part of my life. I couldn’t forget it with a gun to my head.

But that is all merely plot, so to speak, and of course it’s not terribly detailed. You can TELL your friend about your favorite movie, the one you’ve seen ten or twenty times, sure. But can you write out the screenplay, shot by shot? I blogged once about the three levels of writing: Plot, Character and Theme. I came into The Test of Fire with the plot practically tattooed onto my brain. But writing out the details, revealing character and perhaps even showing (discovering, honestly) the meaning of the tale… that’s where it gets interesting.

Thought I Knew These Guys…

Recently I finished writing the beginning (maybe the first third or so of the tale), and now I’m into the middle-meat of the novel. Here, my notes became very polished, much more detailed, from the main character’s PoV. In essence, a first draft. Or perhaps a kind of Reader’s Digest version of the novel itself.

Except the novel hadn’t yet been written. Is that actually a thing? Did anyone in history write up an abstract of the tale before the tale itself? Without meaning to follow up!

And just look at all the missing details! Mostly about character, of course. So far I’ve gone through about one page of the old draft (from more than 20 years ago, when I thought I was saying goodbye to the marvelous interactions I was having with the Lands). It’s spot-on for plot (one minor exception with an event coming a shade earlier in the non-existent timeline than previously believed). 

But what I’m adding is mainly about character. Who said what, more of that. The way the hero Qerlak feels, of course. Now it’s four and a half pages; it flows, it makes better sense, and I dare to think it will affect the reader.

The More Things (Sort of) Change?

Is it different now? I retreat to the words of Pooh-Bah in The Mikado:

“Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

Of course, Pooh-Bah had very nearly bungled the whole deal with his “corroborative detail”, so this is not entirely a joke.

I simply cannot reel in the words to describe how utterly strange it feels now, to be looking at an absolutely authentic account from two decades ago, and then changing it so dramatically. What was correct? Can both be right? How can I be working so steadily and smoothly, yet adding so much? I mean, remembering LESS over time is how memory usually works…

I do feel I know them better by now. And in the furthest reaches of my delusion–by the way, this IS a delusion, let us have no delusions about that–but sometimes I even start to believe I’m seeing something about the theme of the tale, of what it all means and which informs the action and the characters. That’s a comforting notion.

Look both ways

The main hero Qerlak is learning about the proper code of behavior for his life. As a younger son of the nobility, he never had to worry that he would one day be responsible for leading a foef. He joined an adventuring band, the Tributarians, and was known as the chivalrous one among commoners. He excelled, gained fame and enough fortune (almost) to buy a vacant knighthood (this happens during The Plane of Dreams). He THINKS he’s retiring. He thinks the noble’s code will be the beacon whereby he guides his life.

He’s wrong on both counts. Qerlak, and the other heroes in this story, must learn that there is another code, the adventurer’s code that they have committed to (perhaps unknowingly). And you might be able to guess how well those go together.

The Way Forward

No stopping both ways!

Choices to be made! Consequences to be suffered for those aforementioned choices. Impact to the unsuspecting reader following on from that, and more than likely, a new set of choices to be made. Therein, not to put too fine a point on it, lies a tale.

One that, it turns out, I’m not yet completely familiar with. THAT’s the strangeness, in a nutshell. I’m the Alleged Real World’s foremost authority on what happens during The Test of Fire, and even I’m unsure–a little bit–how this will all turn out. How utterly delightful.

And you thought only readers could enjoy my books.

 

 

Sneaky World-Building Part 3: The When

If you’ve accepted the possibility that some of what you are telling the reader about your world is hurting your cause, honestly congratulations. We love what we’ve learned, and love can never lead you wrong. You considered that some of what you know might have to sit the bench. But there’s a lot left to tell, whoops, show them in your tale.

When?

Give a Little Bit

I know what I said! Listen to what I am saying NOW!

You would have to be very old to get this joke. But it’s the phrase by Supertramp that ends with “… of your love to me”. And I say this with full knowledge of what I told you last time. I told you the Patience Horizon is finite. I warned you it’s shrinking. And all that is absolutely true. You cannot wait forever to tell them about your world. The beta-readers who always carp “can’t this bit come later?” are profoundly misled.

But you can’t tell them all at once. Remember the Two-Sentence Rule, that one I just made up. Seek instead to show as close to the minimum you can in any given place. And that means, among other things having to prioritize what bit of info goes in first.

Another thing, a piece of advice which will come back in several closely related forms in this series. World-building is an activity where it is DEFINITELY better to show than tell. What that means here is, when you are prioritizing on the exact order in which you dribble out the background, the flashbacks, the other-worldly common knowledge, it is always better to “act it out”, to give characters statements and deeds that make sense for them and just so happen to impart the crucial information the reader needs.

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

Yes, I’m a Reese’s guy. So sue me. But unless you’re allergic to the nuts, this could be a revelation for you too. Holding back, dribbling out hints and tantalizing clues a bit at a time, fits perfectly with showing what makes sense for your characters and the plot. It creates in the latter case a better flow, which is more engaging and interesting to the reader. And the former, to give a little bit, also creates a sense that there is a strong hand on the tiller here. This author knows what she’s doing, I can trust her.

Interest and trust are the primary ingredients of the Suspension of Disbelief. THAT is what will make the reader turn to her logical side– the part squawking about how dragons could never fly and light-sabers break all the rules of science we haven’t even discovered yet– and say to that logical side:

“Hush. Just stand down. I’m reading a story here.”

In Exemplum Gratia: The Mirror of Her Dreams

This two-book set (diology? bigraphia?) by Stephen R. Donaldson ranks as the very best heroic fantasy tale ever written in my view. Terisa’s wealthy father gives her every financial, physical need but completely ignores her. She wallpapers her apartment with mirrors in a desperate effort to counter the haunting suggestion that she does not, in fact exist. Suddenly one day she looks in a mirror and sees instead a handsome fellow, who abruptly comes partway through the glass and holds his hand out to her, saying “Please, you must come back with me. Only you can save the world.”

{Spoilers Ensue}

Terisa takes his hand and finds herself in Mordant, a world where all magic is done with mirrors. So obviously readers are going to need to know much more about this. But Donaldson’s mastery of the subject is ironclad. There are immediately several obstacles, embedded in the plot and characters, that make it impossible for him to “tell you about it” in any kind of lecture-format:

  • The nature of this magic, called Imagery, is an intensely guarded secret. Terisa has actually been brought into the world’s only school of magic, yet no one wants to tell her (or anyone) how it works.
  • Geraden, her guide, turns out to be the only person in Mordant who sincerely believes that Terisa is, in fact, a savior. He is the school dunce and has never done anything right. Most people in Mordant believe that things seen in mirrors are just that, images, without soul or rights.
  • Both these things feed into Terisa’s poor self-image: she doesn’t believe she’s special either. Donaldson even slips in the fact that literally everyone admits she’s stunningly beautiful, something which despite seeing herself all the time Terisa never considered.

All this while mysterious enemies are attacking the kingdom, and the king himself is clearly a box of Froot Loops, no good to anyone.

{Spoilers Conclude}

As a reader I was practically shouting with eagerness to know more, and paid extra attention to every development, every new character partly in hopes of picking up a clue. SRD put SO MUCH into this tale- it’s romance, it’s adventure, heroic fantasy at its finest. Read it or fight me.

Writing Exercise: the When

In the previous lesson you wrote out a list of several things you know readers must find out about your world. Pull out that list again; take a few seconds and ask yourself- is this list, the way I wrote it, in chronological order? Can you rate the urgency, in other words, with which the reader must be informed? See if you can number your list.

It would be interesting to know that the way the thoughts occurred to your mind last week either were, or were not, in this urgency order. And if you’ve drafted part of your tale already, you can of course check to see if your list matches what you wrote. Finding a difference won’t tell you whether the draft or the list is in error. Just something to think about.

Keep this list, we are not done!

Be a Tour-Guide, not a Teacher

Patience Horizon setting at lightning speed…

You can’t know how much it hurt me to write that header. But I meant what I said earlier- the reader is here to experience your world. Not to learn about it.

Stay out of the classroom-image: knowledgeable, respected teacher (go with me here, it’s my fantasy) holding forth in brilliant prose with the occasional pause to advance a slide or mark the board. Students in neat rows, taking notes and gasping with revelation.

Yeah, no.

Hold as your image the loud, funny American tourist. Remember, they paid their money to take this trip. Picture them, going “wow” at all the sights, completely ignoring the tour guide after a short phrase or two- say, two sentences?- and blundering off the course to look at what really interests them this instant.

American Alpha-Tourist Sheriff Pepper of James Bond fame

“I want some coffee. No listen, pal- Eyyye Waaannt suummm KAWww-feee.”

“What’s that? Sacred ground? Ooops, I had no idea.”

“Will you look at that Ethel! Let’s follow them- oh, tour, schmoor, over there is where the action is!”

You know these people: they believe their money entitles them to a great experience, and if they get bored or confused they blame the guide who brought them.

Ungrateful and illogical. Like Readers!

But you can handle them.

“Here we have the famous Haunted Goddess, rumored to exact a horrible revenge on anyone who touches her without permission. There’s a gruesome tale to tell about this, perhaps at lunch after you’ve seen the rest– DON’T have the sausage!– but right now I must show you the fountain garden. And we’re walking, we’re walking…”

You so got this. Put the world-building data in an order, release a little at a time. Sizzle before the steak, and they’ll be screaming for more.

Sure, sure, but exactly HOW you ask? And I’m so glad you did. You will be too– Next week!

Love to hear your comments, let me know how it’s going.