Busy couple of days, so not much blogging time. Much of it has been eaten up by trying to whip into shape the fourth iteration of the outline for Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. It's turned into a grinding wheel, and my job through this iteration is to stop that grind from perpetuating itself.
Here's how I lost a boot inside this whole quagmire, and how I hope not to lose any more footwear in it in the future. It will require at least two parts, so brew some coffee.
When working with any fantasy/SF-type setting, one of the big problems you run into early on is, what are the rules? Setting the ground rules early on communicates to the audience what the arena for the story is like, and what the flavor of the action that takes place in it will consist of. Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination established early on how the teleportation ability known as the "jaunte" works, and the book's first stroke of genius was in not confining this ability to a select few, but giving it to everyone, and seeing how society reshaped itself in the aftermath (a great early example of the normative power of a technology, neither inherently good nor bad but also not neutral). My own Flight of the Vajra had to set rules about its technology ("protomics" — essentially, programmable matter), lest people twig to it being a way to allow the author to cheat.
The hard part about setting rules is how easy it is to let the rules become an end in themselves. AONO has some crucially important rules for its setting, but of the kind that lend themselves to turning a little too easily into nit-picking rules-lawyering. I wanted to write a novel, not create a roleplaying game campaign (no ding on RPGs there, just a matter of priorities), so I had to make sure:
This last part is the real kicker. When you deliberately break the rules you've set up in a story, as a way to drive things forwards, you still have to do that in a way that respects other, yet larger rules. One of those overarching principles is human behavior: even in the thick of absurd situations you still need everyone involved to be recognizably human. The way I once put it, a long time ago, is that we far more easily believe that a man can fly and catch bullets with his fists than we would believe a man would happily sell his children into slavery. (If there was a good reason for it, then that right there would be your story; but if you don't know where the story actually is in your story ... )
Back to my book. The reason I nearly lost a boot in it was because I was getting bogged down in the #1 and #3 of the above list. #2 wasn't so hard — but it's always easiest to frame something in words once you have that something established to begin with. When the rules wouldn't nail themselves down — er, when I didn't nail them down — it was impossible to figure out how they could be elaborated on and then transcended.
But that wasn't even the real underlying problem. It was that for the longest time, I've had what could be charitably described as a psychological block of sorts about worldbuilding. Which leads me to...
When I started taking my writing all the more seriously as a creative outlet — this was around 2006 or so — I had to put a couple of other things aside to focus on it. One of those things was table-top roleplaying games, something I'd enjoyed for the longest time. But the amount of energy and time I put into that hobby — mainly the energy — was being diverted away in greater measure to my writing. Each time an intriguing character or a nifty setting came to mind, I'd jot it down and toy with the idea of arranging some kind of play involving them, but then the same old line would always float back up: Why not just write it?
From the outside, it does smack of an either/or, a false dichotomy. I could write it and play it, but again, the problem was a matter of cognitive load and where to allocate my time. If I spent six hours on a Saturday in a tabletop session, that's six hours I don't have to write a book — and given that I have far less spare time than I ever did, I'm far more conscious of those kinds of tradeoffs.
One of the side effects of shunting more interest back into writing vs. RPGs was that a lot of the mental energy that I associated most directly with RPGs — mainly, worldbuilding — started to seem like a distraction from the main event of the story itself. In the end, I told myself, it's not how this magic system or that FTL drive works that's going to make or break the story; it's the people and what happens to them.
What knocked this nonsense out of my head, or at least counterbalanced it, was an interview I read with an author of some of the most thunderously awful fantasy fiction ever to be put onto bookshelves by a major publisher. (No names. I run a polite shop here.) It was a jolt, and not in a good way, to see my same argument about worldbuilding, repeated almost word-for-word, in that interview. Sobered me right up, it did. His snootiness about worldbuilding nerdery could be disguised as a love of story, but no amount of lipstick could prettify that pig of an opinion.
My takeaway was this: Being obsessively rules-lawyery about the details of one's setting is as damaging to a work that needs a rich setting as pretending such details don't really matter or are only going to be interesting to maladaptive geeks. You have to care enough about the details to ensure they hold together, but not get disputatiously defensive about them or get into silly wang-waving matches about who has the more imaginative (or worse, "credible" or "coherent") magic system or what have you.
To use a phrase I've used before, you have to take it just seriously enough to know when to not take it seriously at all, and where to take it seriously. It matters when you're first trying to invite your audience into your world and get them to walk around. It matters when you're getting that audience to trust that when you do in fact break those rules, it's not because you think they're idiots.
Next time, I'll talk about the toolset I used to help pull all this together.
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