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

The Pandemic In Fiction

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

We know, inevitably, the Pandemic of 2020 (and sadly, 2021) is going to eventually work it’s way into fiction. Humans use fiction to make sense of things, humans use real events in fiction to ground them, and known things sell books.

But what will the Pandemic of 2020 do, specifically to American media and fiction? I asked myself that recently – and then found myself standing on a precipice of imagination, looking into the unknown.

The Pandemic of 2020 is, for America, an unmitigated disaster, with 200,000 people dead as of this writing. We’re humiliated in the eyes of the world, our politics in chaos, our social media clogged with conspiracy theories, and no end in sight. Right now the biggest source of Pandemic fiction is people lying about the situation or making up stories to grift money or excuse our failure.

How do we fictionalize this?

If we step back, the Pandemic of 2020 looks like a badly written novel. If you had composed this a decade ago, would anyone have believed it? America having the worst outcome in the world? The CDC losing face? 200,000 deaths? This would be a made for TV movie or hack novel at best.

I asked myself again, how do we fictionalize this?

So as I stared into this abyss of the unexpected, I’ve come to a few shaky conclusions. Perhaps this is in my own head as I try to cope with the insights as well as the Pandemic.

First, I don’t expect to see “Pandemic In Fiction” as a theme for awhile. We’re still in the middle of it, and crass and exploitative as some media is, I don’t see this becoming widespread. Also we’re sick of it, and there’s little market for it when you’re living it.

Second, I expect any fictionalization of the Pandemic of 2020 will be politicized or seen as politicized. You can tell the most honest researched story, and some hack pundit will decry it for hits and to push products. In time this may pass, but not for a few years.

Third, I expect to see many a fiction piece that are political fiction of the Pandemic of 2020. Some will indeed have agendas, pundit ranting aside, and you can expect plenty of apologia and non-apologia. It is my hope this is minimized in the face of harsh reality, because even if I agree, crass fictionalization of important things may not do any good.

Fourth, I expect fictionalization of the Pandemic will have no middle ground. It will be done in wild metaphor or fantastical parallels in world of magic and science fiction – or it will be tales based on real life. The uncomfortable middle ground where we mix hard fact and big dreams will be too ambiguous, too uncomfortable. We’ll want the abstract fantastical – or the painfully familiar – because that middle ground is where speculation runs and harsh truths emerge.

We’re ready for Godzilla and Alien Plague, or for two people at a coffee shop decrying the state of life. We’re not ready for fiction with enough fact that the speculation cuts us.

The near future of Pandemic Fiction is going to be not much different than we have now, a mess of politics and agendas, the fantastic and the on the nose, and people arguing over it. It is my hope in time we can confront our experiece and our history with the power of imagination, but for the short-term I fear a muddle is where we’re headed.

May we reduce the time we’re in that muddle so our writing may clearly illuminate the human experience, our lessons, our losses – and those responsible. Because we’re doing it half-assed now.

Steven Savage

The End Of The World As We Don’t Know It

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

My friend Serdar talked about about his disinterest in writing post-apocalyptic fiction at his blog. I wanted to add my own thoughts on this because most apocalyptic stuff and even post-apocalyptic stuff feels boring and inaccurate. As Serdar puts it, its best to take things as Mad Max like mythology, a sort of lesson or metaphor.

As for the rest of the apocalypses . . .

Most fictional post-apocalypse tales are boring, repetitive, and the same stuff. I’ve been watching enough bad-movies that took Mad Max and gave us so many battles in tight leather pants that it’s like 80’s hair bands went to war. There’s so many Zombie movies it’s a running joke that rarely explores the implications of having zombies. Most of our fictional apocalypses have been done so over and over again there’s nothing to learn or take from it – if there ever was much in the first place.

We’ve recycled our apocalypses and our post-apocalypses, so most of them are going through the motions. Most of the apocalypses are zombies, even if they lack zombies.

In addition, real post-apocalypses don’t fictionalize well.

First, some apocalypses are boring. We’re living through a low-level apocalypses now with COVID-19, and it’s not that interesting. Disasters are often not action-packed or dramatic tales, they’re the slow grind, the surviving-enough, the unending grayness of endings. Fiction doesn’t cover that.

Other apocalypses and post-apocalypses ignore or glorify the horror. We’ve had plenty of apocalyptic bombings and and disasters, we’ve had horrors and terrible mass deaths. So much fiction either grinds our face in the blood and turns it into a show, leaving us with that queasy sense of watching apocalypse pornography. Others try to ignore the horror, because it’s so horrible, building fiction around it until it’s drained of meaning.

Good apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction exists, but it takes a person that can write, that explores, that understands the subjects. It is rare, because it is difficult.

This is why my current fiction, the Avenoth series, is what I call post-post apocalypse. I’m not interested in the end of the world (in this case, a devastating war that killed 3/4 of the planet) or the immediate post-apocalypse. Instead it’s about a rebuilt world, so we see the impact of the apocalypse and post-apocalypse, but are far enough in the future to see the meaning of it all. I want a tale of healed scars and a new society with memory, where we understand the past by looking at the present.

Besides, some of these post-post apocalypses have powerful impact. When the world is grinding away or the blood is spilling, it’s hard to see what it means in the whole.

But afterwards? Afterwards is when you can look back on the works of the past, and despair properly.

Steven Savage