Brave new world

Just to let you all know, the blog may take next week off. I’ll be vacationing, tra la, and I don’t know if I’ll get to it.

On August 29th, 2011, Charlotte wrote, ….I’ve got the plot set down pretty well in the novel I’m working on, but what I’m having trouble with is the world itself. It’s fantasy, and it’s set in a world other than this one, and I don’t want it to come off quite as modern as our world–e.g. skyscrapers, cars, etc. But there are some modern aspects that I do want to use–e.g. Polaroids but not digital cameras, flashlights but not streetlights, pianos and acoustic guitars but not keyboards and electrics, trains but not cars, etc. And there are also period aspects that aren’t necessary to get into, such as how people wash their clothes or go to the bathroom, which are never significant to the story, but I feel I have to put in anyway because I know I’m wondering how these things work, though I don’t remember ever wondering that when reading any other book.

Is it okay to have only some modern inventions, and even more in the background? Or do I need some major reason why there aren’t highways and a million electric appliances–like how in Harry Potter they explain that Muggle inventions tend to “go haywire” around heavy concentrations of magic, which is why there are no computers or electric lights at Hogwarts?

If it works, it’s fine. If the reader accepts whatever you’ve laid down, you’ve done well. But not so well if your reader starts scratching her head and loses interest in your story because she doesn’t understand why your zebras are plaid not striped but they’re still called zebras.

If you’re writing about a sort of modern world, like ours in some respects, different in others, readers will assume that details not mentioned (toilets, laundry, banks) work in the regular way. You don’t have to haul them into your plot just to show them in operation. Even if they’re different, if the differences don’t influence events, you can omit them. When they’re needed, say in the eleventh volume of your series, you can bring them in. If you’ve set the stage for a world in which mattresses turn sleepers over like pancakes at two am every night, the reader will go with the flow, or, in this case, the flip.

You mention Polaroids as a kind of camera you want to keep. The trouble I have with that is simply the name. Polaroid seems to belong solidly to planet earth, because of the link to Polaroid Corporation. I’d look for a generic term, like instant-image camera. In my fantasy novels I avoid references to our reality. Of course this is impossible to do entirely. Gnomes and ogres, for example, are our invention. Still, we’re not going to meet up with them at the supermarket. In another example, when I write dark-skinned characters I don’t call them African, and I don’t call light-skinned characters European. There is no Europe, no Africa. Dark-skinned characters don’t have to come from a warm climate or fair-skinned from a cold. In my world the effects of sun on skin color are up to me.

It can be helpful, as in your Harry Potter example, if you know why some features of modern life were invented in your world and others weren’t. Knowing can guide your future choices. But it’s okay if you don’t know. In our real world modern inventions come about because people think them up. Sometimes new technology makes the thinking possible, but sometimes someone just comes up with a fresh way to use old materials. I believe post-its are an example of this. Alas, there must be myriad potential devices that could help us that no one has dreamed up so far.

If you do know  the reason behind the state of technology and tell the reader, you may enhance her pleasure. Here’s a small detail from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series: The trolls in this universe are slow thinkers, actually stupid. The reason, we discover, is that room temperature isn’t their natural climate. The colder it is the smarter they get. At sub-zero they’re brilliant. I love having that explained.

The Discworld series is written in third-person. Most books begin with a short preface about the world, explaining that it rides on the back of a giant turtle. Once the reader sees that, she’s ready for anything. If this kind of approach suits what you’re doing, you can introduce your world in this sort of way even if the rest of the book is told in first person. It’s a quick way of bringing the reader in.

But you don’t have to do this. I never have.

Still, the reader will have a leg up if you introduce your world quickly. I discuss this in Writing Magic, so you may want to take a look. Your beginning sets up expectations for the whole book. Beginnings are hard because you have to do so much: start the conflict, introduce the major characters, begin to establish the world. You can bring on the fantasy after the first chapter, have your main character borrow Grandma’s pearls in the third and get transported to her sixteenth birthday party. Readers may enjoy the surprise but it’s nice if you can work in a tiny hint that such a switcheroo is possible. The reader will remember the earlier brief mention of culottes and be happy.

I often don’t know what my world is going to need until I’ve figured out my whole story, sometimes after hundreds of pages of looking for signs in a forest of plot possibilities. So soldier on!

As always, it can be helpful to show your story to someone. Based on the comments following last week’s post, some of you are nervous when fresh eyes read your writing. I am too! But it’s usually worth it. You can ask a friend or another writer to read the first couple of chapters while looking only at your world building or only at your technology. You can say you don’t want to hear a word about your plot or your characters, just this one thing, and you’re feeling a tiny bit fragile, so please be gentle.

Here are three prompts:

∙    I sometimes wonder how progress happened, especially early human progress. For instance, how did somebody realize that metal could be extracted from ore? How did farming start? Who invented shoelaces? I once read that in the Middle Ages buttons were purely decorative, sewn on clothing just to look pretty; they didn’t fasten anything. How did buttons migrate from decorative to useful? Imagine how something was invented without looking it up. Who was there? What was the dialogue? Was there an argument? Write the scene.

∙    Invent a new imaginary creature, not a fairy or an elf or an ogre. Describe it. Put it in a story.

∙    Consider Rumplestiltskin, who is described by Wikipedia as an “impish creature.” Where does he live? What’s the technology in his culture? How is it that he can spin straw into gold? Write a scene from his backstory.

Have fun and save what you write!

Pleased to Meet You, Fantasy World

Signing alert: I’ll be signing books, along with many other terrific kids book writers, this Saturday, May 1st, in Hudson, NY, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.  If you’re in the vicinity and can come, I would love to see you.  Here’s a link to the event:

On February 24, 2010 Silver the Wanderer wrote, Do you have any advice for writing about fantasy worlds (environment, culture, etc.) without creating a massive “information dump”?

I once googled “rules for writing fantasy” for a talk I was going to give.  The results were interesting, and I suggest you try it.  You’ll find a lot of ideas from a lot of viewpoints.  One person felt that a writer shouldn’t write about a world without knowing its entire history, culture, economy, judicial system –  more than I know about the real world I actually live in!  This person thought an information dump was unobjectionable, in fact essential.

I disagree, unless this is the sort of book you enjoy reading.  Then it may be the kind of book you should write.  Otherwise, if the economy doesn’t come into your story, the reader doesn’t have be told about it, and you don’t have to invent it.  In fact, if you include unnecessary information, you create pressure on the reader to remember everything and an expectation that it will all be important. What’s more, in creating this useless stuff, you’ll probably make it interesting to keep yourself from going crazy, and then the poor reader will be disappointed when the coinage, silver leaves harvested from a magical and environmentally threatened forest, never shows up again.

Start your fantasy in the ordinary way, with what’s important to the story: character, action, setting, dialogue.  In most cases you want to let the reader know right away that this is fantasy.  In Ella Enchanted, I began with a curse by “that fool of a fairy,” but I didn’t go into what a fairy looked like till page 25.  Initially the reader had to know only that there were fairies.

If there is going to be a plot development later in your story that involves a particular fantasy element, you do need to prepare the reader.  For example, if late in the tale your main character rides a flying horse, you don’t want the reader to see her leap on the horse’s back at the same moment he discovers that there are such horses.

This doesn’t mean you have to plan your whole story out ahead of time.  You yourself may not know about the flying horse until your heroine needs to make a fast getaway.  In that case, you can go back to earlier pages and add references to these creatures.

In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I needed to bring in the epic poem about the hero Drualt right away, because it was such an important plot thread, but the poem had nothing to do with what was going on in the first pages.  I didn’t want to confuse the reader and make him unsure which way to direct his interest, so I rewrote that beginning dozens of times before I got it right.  You may have to, too.

When you write contemporary realistic fiction, you and your audience have the benefit of shared experience.  Most readers can imagine a school, a city street, a park.  They won’t visualize exactly the school, street, or park in your mind’s eye, but close enough.  In your narrative, you can describe the important landmarks so the reader sees them as you do.

There’s less shared experience in fantasy, but there’s some.  If you’re writing a medieval or Renaissance fantasy, most readers have seen enough movies and TV and read enough books to picture a castle, a princess gown, swordplay.  You don’t have to say that a castle has towers and a moat, but if it lacks one or the other or both, the reader should probably be told.  Also, you need to show the reader the setting, so even if the towers are ordinary, you may want to point them out the first time they come into view.  They may add to the mood or have emotional meaning for your main character, represent home or the enemy, for example.

Ever (for readers age ten and up) is set in two quite different cultures in a fantasy of ancient Mesopotamia, which is less familiar to readers than the Middle Ages.  So I had to show more, but information about the world is still incorporated into the action.  How to do this?  In the second chapter, for example, the mortal girl Kezi is introduced.  A snake is oozing through the house’s courtyard, where Kezi is drawing in clay what will become a design for a rug.  If instead she were chopping vegetables and the house were struck by lightning, the reader wouldn’t have a clue about the historical nature of this fantasy universe.  So consider where you set your action and how you can drop in clues, which the reader will pick up quickly.

Your reader will assume that the rules of our natural world apply to your story unless told otherwise.  You don’t have to mention that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and the sky is blue.  But if the planet in your story has two suns, the reader must be told.  However, don’t give your planet two suns just for the heck of it.  You need a plot, character, or mood reason.  Simplicity is usually best, and take pity on the poor reader who has a lot to follow.  The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (middle school and up, I think, but middle schoolers should check with a parent or librarian) is beautifully set on quite a different planet from ours.  You may want to read the book to see a master at work.

Readers should be able to imagine your fantasy elements, see them, hear them, smell them, feel them.  If something is invisible or inaudible, then the other senses should be able to fill in.  This bit of advice, of course, reflects what I like.  I have little patience for silent, invisible force fields crashing into immovable, invisible, imperceptible objects – unless the writer is being funny and I get the joke.

I’m sure I’ve written this on the blog before: Don’t have one character tell another something they both already know just so the reader can find out about it.  For example, Princess Phillippa shouldn’t say to Prince Phillip, “Remember last month when the evil knight visited the castle and used his magic net to kidnap our father the king?”  Prince Phillip, unless he has amnesia, is unlikely to have forgotten the event, and he also knows that the king is his father.

If you have any suggestions for Silver the Wanderer about building fantasy worlds, please jump in.

Here are four prompts:

•    Write a scene in which you introduce a fortune teller and show the reader that his power is real.

•    Begin a story with dialogue among a statue, an elf, and a sorcerer.

•    Write a market scene, and show how commerce is conducted in this world (without going into the entire monetary system).  Make something threatening happen.

•    Start a story with the arrival of a character who is more than he seems.  Show the reader hints of the hidden aspects of this character, but don’t reveal everything.

If you like, keep going with the story.  Have fun, and save what you write!  And I hope to see some of you on Saturday!