Tuesday, January 3, 2012

On the Beginnings of World-Building

Some of those who know me and follow me on Facebook and what not may recall a creative effort of mine from a while back.  In 2010, I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  While I was off to a good start with the project, I hit a massive wall while working on the second chapter.  The opening chapter received some praise from friends and family, and I had a blast writing it, but I didn't have the time to plan out the subsequent chapters properly.

The idea for the project stemmed from my own interests in sci-fi/fantasy literature, Dungeons & Dragons, and the United States' education system.  The initial plan for the project was to build a futuristic U.S. which has been reorganized in terms of government and education to reflect a deterministic society.  Students would be monitored closely from the beginning of their schooling to track any notable aptitudes or short-comings.  Based on these observations, the students would then be sorted out into specialized academies, which would lead them into a number of different professions.  For the sake of realism, magic in the conventional fantasy sense doesn't exist, but is something that is being pursued through scientific and technological manipulation.

There are a number of ways in which this idea fell apart for me.  First of all, the intro chapter, if I remember correctly, did very little to establish this.  As it focuses on the roguish character, and not on his Academy experience, this structuring is lost.  I think it does a good job of setting up the main conflict of the story, and the sort of role this character would play.  However, I want to flesh out that school experience more.  I want to show how that influence impacts this character, and the others that I want to introduce. 

Second, despite my past experience in teacher education, I did not spend enough time analyzing American education in my prewriting to build the structures I needed.  The ideas were clear in my mind, as the end results of these schools and curricula would be productive members of society with skill sets similar to the playable classes associated with table-top role-playing systems.  But in my rush the get started, I left some holes between points A and B in my process; I think this is largely why I hit a wall in chapter two in the first place. 

Third, and likely finally, I put too much emphasis on this taking place in a notably American setting- at least in my own thought process.  The setting is readily established in the sample chapter, particularly in reference to the Petraeus Military Academy, which was intended to be a renamed and restructured West Point.  There are a number of problems with this approach.  I don't know anything about West Point aside from the fact that it's a military academy.  While that gives me some vague ideas to run on, it doesn't give me the fine details I need for such an important setting.  As someone who is only tied to the military through family and has never expressed a hint of interest in enlisting, I have no clue what someone goes through at a military academy.  While there are any number of books and films I can look up to help me with this, and friends and family with a wide variety of military experience I could ask about such things, I didn't have the time to really pursue such research avenues.  In reality, that's my own damn fault for trying to write a 50,000 word novel in a month while taking about 15 credits worth of undergraduate classes.

Furthermore, my intention of having a specifically American setting was more of a hindrance than a grounding factor.  Looking back on it, it makes my initial designs seem too pointed and presumptuous.  Who am I to suggest that West Point would be renamed for Petraeus seventy years from now?  While any number of things can change between now and the 2080s, who am I to just use haphazard street names and environmental descriptions without having any knowledge of the area I'm writing about?  Anyone that actually lives near the West Point Academy or knows anything about that area would take such things as a sign of lazy writing.  And how exactly would the American education system become so warped and deterministic as to become the entity I wished to depict?

I don't have the time or resources to go off and explore the areas I had in mind for my novel.  Then again, I didn't even have all of the locations set in my mind in the first place.  So what is an aspiring writer to do in these cases?  I've been reading more fantasy literature over the past year, trying to get a firm grasp on what I should be doing differently.  The understanding that I now have gleaned from Patrick Rothfuss' Four Corners of Civilization, to George R. R. Martin's Westeros, and the notably post-apocalyptic North America that is Suzanne Collin's Panem, is that I need to focus on the world itself before I can go in-depth with these characters and this story.  I need to have a firm grasp of the geography, the history, the politics.  I need to be a world-builder first, and a fiction writer second...well, the former kind of plays into the latter, but you know what I mean.  As I've heard a number of people point out recently, writers like J. R. R. Tolkien (and presumably those I listed above) wrote their stories to showcase the worlds they developed.  The worlds of such stories are practically characters in and of themselves.  I certainly have a lot of work cut out for me as I revamp this project from the ground up, but I think it'll be worth it.

And I know I can't compare anything I'm doing to what Tolkien, Martin, Collins, and Rothfuss have done.  That isn't the point all.

Recommended Reading: George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the Game of Thrones series); Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear; Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games