Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Like A Party In Your Brain: World-Building

Today the scary ogre of a topic that is on my mind is world-building.

For those of you who don't know the lingo, world-building is essentially creating an authentic and convincing environment for your characters. If you're a writer, you have to build a world no matter what you're writing, even if it's set in modern-day wherevertown. You have to decide where your story takes place and what that setting is like and what impact it has on your characters. But for obvious reasons, world-building gets a lot more complicated when you don't set your book in modern day wherevertown, which is why I think a lot of contemporary writers hesitate to try speculative fiction (IE: dystopian, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.), and why a lot of speculative writers spend time bashing their heads against solid objects at one point or another.

I'm going to say something that will make you want to flick me in the eye, probably: even though I've been writing speculative fiction since I was an angsty pre-teen with bracelets made of safety pins, I've never thought about this before. I never evaluated whether I was good at world-building or not, or how to go about it, I just did the best I could and with DIVERGENT it seemed to turn out just fine, although there was (and still is) room for improvement.

So this is my attempt to figure out how it works, or at least, how it worked for me.

It starts...with a concept. A notion. A thought. Whatever it is about your attempted world that made you want to set your story there, or that inspired your story, and so on. For the purposes of this example: what if there was a world populated entirely by marshmallow people?

What are the implications of that concept/notion/thought? How does that concept affect the rest of the world? For example: the marshmallow people would probably live in fear of rain, because it would melt them into little piles of marshmallow goo. Likewise, they wouldn't take showers and they wouldn't drink water or go swimming.

Wait-- if they don't drink water, what exactly do they live on? What fuels a marshmallow person's survival? Clearly the answer is sugar. So the marshmallow people eat sugar, but how do they grow it? Do they have miles and miles of sugarcane fields? If so, the marshmallow-people farmers must be the daredevils of the marshmallow people world, because they constantly run the risk of getting caught in the rain, and in fact, derive their well-being from the consistency of rainfall.

In fact, those living within marshmallow people cities probably envelop themselves in as much rain protection as possible, possibly a large plastic dome, but the marshmallow farmers have to live outside the dome, and...

Okay, I'm going to stop, because that's probably getting annoying.

My point is this: whatever idea you have, there is a problem inherent in it that needs to be addressed and extrapolated from in order to create your world. Or, if your idea is itself a problem, you have a different set of questions to ask yourself. That's kind of how it works for me, with dystopian worlds. What's "the dystopian problem"? (IE: people forced to enter televised death match, people constantly monitored by Big Brother, people who aren't allowed to experience human emotion, et cetera) From what kind of people/society did that problem arise? What was the inciting incident that led to the formation of a dystopian society? And so on.

When you write yourself into a corner, and you probably will, let the world you've already created tell you how to write yourself back out of it again. As you build the world, you start to make rules for yourself, and those rules will dictate how the rest of the world is built. One of my professors used to say that you should let the story tell you how it should progress.

My advice is essentially: think about it. A lot. Think about things that never come into play in the plot of your book. Think about currency, morality, religion, food, holidays, government, units of measurement, customs, rituals, values, expectations, funerals, weddings, fashion, architecture, leisure activities. But most of all, whatever details you come up with, think about how they affect the world you've built. Or you can approach it in reverse-- think about the world you've come up with. There are hundreds of factors that contributed to creating that particular place in its particular situation. What are they?

I mean, if you're writing it, you probably enjoy thinking about it anyway. So this is fun. Yes, that's right. World-building = fun. Like a party in your brain.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Day In the Land of Divergent

Prior to my fountain-jumping extravaganza last week, I went on an architectural boat tour of Chicago, the one Senior Week activity I actually attended. The problem with living near a place for your entire life is that you rarely look at it, particularly with the fresh eyes that you need as a writer, and that's a problem I intended to correct. Color me a tourist.

DIVERGENT is set in Chicago, for those of you who don't know. More accurately, it's set in a futuristic, warped version of Chicago, because we are dealing with a dystopian book, yes? You would think that I didn't have to do a lot of research because I live so close to the city, but you would be wrong. I looked up SO MANY MAPS. And SO MANY PICTURES. And SO. MANY. BUILDING HEIGHTS. And of course, I went on this boat tour.

Shall we have a look? (No, I don't know why I ask questions in blog posts as if I expect to hear an answer.)



This would be the north side skyline. That tall black tower is the Hancock Building, one of my favorites. You can't see it from that far away, but the base of the building is much wider than the top, so it kind of slopes upward-- very cool.



And most of the south side skyline. You can kind of see the Sears Tower in the mist on the far left side of that picture. The tall, foggy building in the center is Trump Tower, and the green-roofed building on the right is the end of Navy Pier.



Speaking of Navy Pier, that's the Ferris Wheel. I rode it once when I was young, but I think now I would pee my pants if I tried to go in it because it's so high up. Just so you know, my main character does not share my fear.



Trump Tower. I sort of like this building, even though part of me is wary of it because it's new.



The reflection of the Trump Tower in this other building that I forgot the name of.



Merchandise Mart! I am pretty sure our tour guide told us that in terms of square footage, this is the largest building in the country. Or one of the largest. Basically, it's freaking huge.



Ahh, the Sears Tower. Technically it's called the Willis Tower now, but no one I know calls it that. Not even the tour guide called it that. SEARS TOWER FOREVER.



This is my friend Mary Katherine in front of the lion statue in front of the Art Institute of Chicago. You may not have heard, but the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup this year, and we're all very excited about it. Hence the huge Blackhawks helmet on the lion's head.



And of course, me and my fountain-jumping accomplices in front of the GIANT FACE, also known as one of the two pillar-fountains in Millenium Park. (I feel like I should probably explain my shirt, while I'm at it. I went to Carleton College my freshman year, and then transferred to Northwestern. My friend Alice, who went to Saint Olaf, the college across town from Carleton, got me the "CARLETON SUCKS" tee shirt because she thought it was funny. I agreed. But I do not actually think that Carleton sucks. It's a great place. Just wasn't for me.)

So there you have it. A short tour through Chicago, and by proxy, through some of the scenes in DIVERGENT. You'll see which ones in Summer 2011. YESSSS.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

MONTH ONE: Fear of Public Humiliation

There's one thing I didn't tell you guys about BEA.

While I was sitting at the table with all the awesome Harper people, I made a promise to myself. (And to them, really, because I did tell them my idea. Yesss.)

The last time I made this kind of promise, I ended up jumping into a bathtub of mini marshmallows. Just so you know.

This time, the promise was: I will perform one ridiculous act every month until the book comes out.

Why, you ask? Several reasons:

1. It's fun.

2. I have to occupy myself somehow, or I will go crazy with excitement.

3. I am not a bold or adventurous person. I never have been. I get nervous talking to strangers on the phone or ordering at restaurants I'm unfamiliar with. I refuse to ride rollercoasters or carnival rides. I have trouble killing spiders. Basically, I am nothing like the main character of DIVERGENT. She has to undergo several ordeals throughout the book that force her to face her fears, and her fears make my fears look insubstantial. Miniscule. Puny.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I'd like to be a little more like her, in that respect. I'd like to tackle some of the little things that freak me out. They may not seem like much to some of you, but keep in mind that you are dealing with a very cautious and sensible and introverted person, here. I don't do wacky. (I know this sounds strange, coming from someone who jumped into a bathtub full of marshmallows, but that was WAY out of character for me.)

My hope is also that I can incorporate as much of Chicago as I can, because DIVERGENT is set there and I'd like to show you it.

And now, we come to this month, also known as Month #1.

There are these fountains in Millenium Park (one of the top tourist destinations in Chicago, involving a gelatinous-looking metal bean the size of a house, some great vegetation, some eateries, etc.) that are basically 50-foot pillars of LED screens depicting human faces. Every so often those faces spew a stream of water from their mouths.

I've always wanted to jump into a fountain.

But I'm afraid of doing anything that might draw attention to myself.

Hence this stunt.

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