Shock The Creator

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

There are two areas of practice where I say, “if something doesn’t shock you, you’re not doing it right.”  One is spiritual practice, and the other is worldbuilding.  Today, I’ll focus on the latter, if only to save you from me discussing psychology and minutae of Taoist breathing exercises.

Every author brings themselves to their worldbuilding because there’s no one else to bring.  Even if authors think they’re expanding on ideas created by someone else (such as the way Richard Florida influenced me), that’s not true.  Writing about someone else’s ideas means you’re writing about your idea of their idea.  The author (you) is inseparable from worldbuilding.

The problem with bringing ourselves into worldbuilding is we may quash our imaginations.  We come with our preconceptions about people, politics, history, and our inspirations.  When our creativity takes us “off script,” it’s too easy to force our way back onto the expected path.

I think we do this because when you worldbuild, you ask questions – I should know, I write worldbuilding books that are just questions.  The problem with asking questions is you’re going to get answers, and you won’t always like them.  Worldbuilding means thinking about big issues that can lead to uncomfortable conclusions about ourselves, our creations, and the real world.

I’d say when that happens, good because worldbuilding should shock you.  When thinking about politics, gods, science, or whatever your mind will go places.  You should be surprised by some of your conclusions because you’re thinking very big picture – in a way the biggest picture.  That shock is a sign you’ve challenged yourself, which might be good.

I’m not saying every disturbing thing that comes to mind is a good idea in your worldbuilding.  Not everything shocking is true, despite what many Internet Reply People think.  But those ideas came from inside of you while you work on a very intimate process – something is going on there you want to explore.  The fact it surprised you may well mean there was real inspiration there.

For myself, I can point right at my Avenoth novels, which are very political in their own way.  This post-post-apocalyptic fantasy series contains some of my politics and feelings about society.  It would take a lot to detail here, but suffice to say the core idea is “any survivable society is scaled, interconnected, and has people consciously keeping it running.”

But there was an unpleasant dark side that shocked me – and that I kept.  This society survived a massive world war that killed three-quarters of the population.  It is a society that also had “warrior lodges” and “monster hunters” that were designed to parody fantasy tropes.  Finally, the great devastating war ended with a massive, murderous military action committed by a loose alliance that was tired of fifty years of death.

This peaceful society came out of bloody history and built peace.  But it had to cope with violence.

Thus violence was recognized and ritualized.  Warrior Lodges became mixtures of mercenaries and sports teams (it’s easy to arrest someone when you’re on a trading card).  Some professions were trained and allowed to use violence and weapons if needed, such as the relic-hunting pair of Marigold and Scintilla.  Government agencies subsumed monster hunting orders, embodied by the warhorse character Briar.  It was a society that didn’t avoid violence so much as channel it.

I found this disturbing at first because my creation normalized violence.  Watching people beat each other up with fancy weapons to place bets?  Weird orders that recruited traumatized people into their ranks is considered normal?  Disturbing, yet these elements rang true, and I kept them – and probably learned more about myself and societies.

These elements were not just good worldbuilding, they added to the story.  Marigold and Scintilla were disgusted with the old orders because someone had tried to recruit them.  Students of the pair sported badges on their robes denoting their favorite Warrior Lodges.  Complex regulations about weapon use came to the fore so Scintilla and Briar could ignore them.

I was shocked.  My worldbuilding was better for it.

So next time you’re busy creating a new world, watch for those moments you surprise yourself unpleasantly.  A bolt from the blue may have struck you, and once you stop reeling, odds are you’ve found something worth keeping.

Steven Savage

Why I Wrote It – News, Media, and Worldbuilding

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr. Find out more at my newsletter.)

Why would I do an entire book on news and worldbuilding? Because I was (and am) pissed off at people misunderstanding the importance of news in fiction and life. We’re not talking about my most noble of goals, but it led to a good book.

When I wrote this book in 2019 people were waking up to the impact of disinformation, news-as-propaganda, and internet bullshit. Many people wished this had happened much earlier because plenty of people sounded the alarm, but at least there was an alarm. I was one of the people wishing this had happened a hell of a lot earlier because, look, it is evident that people are tragically deceived between networks like Fox and internet propaganda.

Of course, when I think about real-life issues, I start asking how these issues are portrayed in fiction because it’s what I do.

I realized quickly that fictional settings rarely deal with the questions of how news works. Sure we sometimes get great things like Sir Pratchett’s The Truth, or maybe a reporter character, but I couldn’t recall anything that stood out beyond that. It was time to do two things:

One, keep doing my political activism.

Two, write a damn book on worldbuilding and news.

If that seems petty, it was – I was annoyed and wanted catharsis. However, there were two benevolent motivations:

  • Fiction is a tool to help us understand the world, to think, and imagine. If people who were worldbuilding thought about news, their stories would in turn, make the audience think. Plus, we might get more cool stories out of it.
  • Those reading this book would also think about news and media in general and become more thoughtful. Worldbuilding is very educational, very thought-provoking, and I view it as a form of personal growth.

It was time to write a book on news and worldbuilding – which was also easy.

Remember when I said this age of disinformation got to me? I’ve been a news junkie since I was in my early 20s; I was the guy buying the newspaper in college and turning on 24/7 news on my radio at work. My career in IT has been dependent on information, reporting, and data. You can see why I was annoyed – and that I had a great foundation to write another worldbuilding book.

Yes, some of it felt good to get out.

The result is a pretty good worldbuilding book. It’s got some great questions, some thought-provoking bits, and comes from both the heart and experience. Definitely, one I’d put as high up in my collection because it dealt with something that wasn’t typical to worldbuilding coaching.

It’s also a reminder that a mix of irritation and personal experience is a surprisingly solid start for a book.

Steven Savage

The World And The Story

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Special thanks to Serdar for inspiring me to write more on my experience’s guts with one of his latest columns.

“Oh no, not another learning experience,” reads many a t-shirt, coffee cup, sticker, and almost assuredly a few tattoos. Writing means one is always learning, and I view every book as a learning experience. My current book, A School of Many Futures, has been exceptionally informative.

My latest finding? I saw how worldbuilding and story could work together – and conflict.

For those unfamiliar with my return to fiction, ASOMF, as I call it, is a sequel to my techno-fantasy novel A Bridge To The Quiet Planet. The first novel was fun – “a romp,” as one person put it – but also my first fiction piece in awhile. I want to keep growing – and ASOMF taught me a valuable lesson about how worlds and stories interact.

ASOMF takes place in a very “built” world – that’s how I operate. It has politics and economics, sorcery and gods, technology and culture. I like worldbuilding, and believe it makes good stories and better authors. But I also know one can go overboard with showing off worldbuilding.

A list of facts and places is not a story in most cases – but that detail matters as it brings the world to life.

ASOMF also involved me diving deeper into making stories compelling – better structure, better flow, and so on. The previous book had pacing issues, and I wanted to keep it snappy and compelling (Knives Out was a major influence). But my story was also hip-deep in detail, giving it meaning, and I didn’t want to follow some common plot structure and lose the heart.

Just because you follow good writing rules doesn’t mean the story is meaningful – but good fiction writing helps people come into your world.

There’s my challenge – and yours in a worldbuilding-heavy story. What fits the world may be hard to put into a compelling story. What fits good storytelling may not reveal the heart of the world.

I realized that the two of them should work together, and neither dominates the other. A few things I can share:

One.  What made a good pace for fiction did not help explore the setting deeper. I added an entire chapter that enriched the story – and got exciting with a few useful storytelling techniques.

Two.  Some parts of the story weren’t compelling. My worldbuilding gave me options to tweak the story to make it more interesting. Changing one minor character’s motivation to another equally likely reason made the story much better – and you only see this character three times.

Three.  Writing-wise, a part of an arc lacked a particular “identity” – there was a lack of emotional resonance. A review of my characters’ viewpoints helped me find a view that made the arc compelling and brought everything into perspective.

Four. A general structure I aimed for was each chapter should have an arc to keep people interested. That meant thinking and rethinking when chapters ended and what was revealed. I had to ask what mattered to start a chapter, what mattered to end it, and what meant something to people.

Good writing and good worldbuilding should support each other. It may mean not showing something in your world as it does nothing. It may be going deeper into your world. But don’t view them as in conflict.

Steven Savage