Saturday, October 11, 2014

So I'm Writing This Novel: Setting and Background

On a somewhat not really related note, I’m officially 25! No, I don’t feel old, and for the first time since I turned sixteen, I do not regret the aging process. Why? Well, 24 sucked.


The way I write starts with images—visions of scenes—in which I want certain things to be said and done and look a certain way. And no, these aren’t hallucinations like most alcoholics. Ahem. Writers. They are just very crisp, if not fully fleshed out, “shows” that play before me like I’m standing in the room watching it happen.

After I pin down what I want, I fill in the blanks to get it there. (In order for this to be true, this must be true.) A character’s motivation often comes to me inherently—I think in argument, and I focus on convincing the characters to do what I want them to. It is rarely hard for me to understand the depths of a character’s mind outside of what I’m seeing “on screen.”

Setting, not so much. I learn things about the world as I watch them. I understand it from the clothes they wear to the objects they pick up, to the terminology they use. Before I see them talking about their parents, before I sit and “watch” the conversation unfold before me, I don’t know anything about their parents. Not unless I deliberately say to myself, “You need to answer this question!” in which case, I will make something up. But it needs to occur to me to do it.

There is usually a natural continuity in the rules of the world, even though in the first third of it I don’t really understand them. My subconscious has a base structure that, unless I start consciously wonking with it, ties the decisions together. The world tends to lack some broader explanations in the first draft, but the readers rarely have problems seeing it before them. It is vivid, if not having a clear pattern.

And because I don’t really figure out the setting during the writing process, I usually have to go through and find places that I was deliberately vague about details (I didn’t know the answer), and anchor the world, make it more clear and concise for me and the reader in the second or third. When the reader doesn’t understand the world that much—which they rarely do for the first half of the book in my first few drafts—they are incapable of trying to solve puzzles, to predict what might happen next. I truly believe this causes a great deal of boredom. I don’t mind having to go back through and clarifying things (versus just outlining and figuring them out before hand) because I find knowing one thing that I want to fix in the second draft allows me to focus on something instead of being overwhelmed. Other problems naturally come up as I fix the first instead of reading through and making random stabs in the dark.

HOWEVER, none of this is true for my current book. THE PLANE (working title), is lacking consistency in its world building, and I feel it. I can feel it as I write it. I am constantly stopping myself because I don’t have “obvious” answers to certain, almost inane questions. In most of my manuscripts, I might not know anything about their religion, but then, when the subject comes up, there always seems to be a natural answer.

I know a few things about THE PLANE’s world. It is an alternative reality, a non-Earth setting. It’s oceanic, most travel being done by ship or plane. People live in almost city-state islands, or on man-made stations, which have the appearance of oil rigs. They are technically governed by a blanket authority, the legion, but primarily left alone. Each island, so isolated from one another, tends to have its own distinctive culture and rules. Out in the far reaches of the world there is unexplored territory where allegedly great treasure has been abandoned. I want a certain level of magic, but it needs to be subtle, hasn’t been introduced yet, and I have a feeling I can’t wait much longer or people will be jarred.

And that’s all I know.

This isn’t usually a problem—again, I figure things out by how the scenes appear to me. But, the bigger issue is the one I brought up in my last post—the accidental plagiarism of the cartoon TailSpin.

I won’t relist my reasons why I chose to keep the concept after I realized I subconsciously took it, but a big part of it is I know that the story isn’t really going to be the same at all. Some of the plot points and scenes I’m planning on are already extremely divergent, and I’m not worried about my story ruining or being ruined by someone having seen/read both.

However, now that I’ve realized the similarities, I’ve become fixated on them. In the beginning of my career, I was one of those writers in which everything had to be original, that the moment I realized someone else had already done it, I’d scrap the idea. I’ve learned that if you do this every single time something is remotely similar, not only will you never be able to write what you want, but you’ll often not be able to write at all. It’s common for people like me to stick to generic, can’t-be-plagiarism-because-everyone-does-it storylines, out of fear that our unique concept will be someone else’s unique concept. Not necessarily consciously, of course. Which, considering how many stories that exist in the world, of course has been done before. However, this mindset still has residual effects on me, and it’s hard to shake.

My subconscious has tethered me to the cartoon show, and everything that appears even similar, I reject. TailSpin is set in a world that’s very similar to the 1930’s, with many story events that are atmospherically similar to adventure stories like Indiana Jones.

Being that I do not have any idea of the technology level of the world—in fact, I believe I’m going towards a sort of multi-decade, steam punk style with its own evolution—and that all the characters appear to me in 1930’s garb, I feel like I’m restricting myself to that timeline. This is only a problem because TailSpin’s best feature is the unique and developed setting, and if I stick with that choice, I would then actually feel like I am starting to steal ideas.

My subconscious is telling me 1930’s and my conscious self is saying NO.

So what seems to be resulting is inconsistent technology, terminology, and vague glossing over of character’s fashion (not that I was ever good about going into detail on that crap anyway.) None of this I’m okay with.

But I do believe that trying to force answers out of yourself is not the best way to come up with a satisfactory answer, so I ignored it, knowing full well I would have to go back and fix it. So I kept writing. It went fine. I knew that my beginning had pretty terrible world building, I knew that my last novel was/is a bitch on this part as well, and I knew I am going to be frustrated with it in the future. I knew I was going to have to deal with it eventually. But I thought I could stall longer.

What I did not expect was for the problem to keep arising in unexpected areas.

            The cavern filled with lights from his opponents’ beams, but it was not a lot. The pitch-black swallowed Soel as he belted forward. Every part of the cave seemed to be swooping down, but he kept to the ceiling. His plane’s injuries made the machine hiccup and jump. Soel still clung tight to the roof. He felt it scrape. He tried to speed up, to make distance between him and the outlaws, but his plane wasn’t having any of it.
            Just a few more seconds.
            He couldn’t see into the cabin, lights blinding him. It was going to fire. At this close range, it would obliterate him. Even he could not take a hit like that.
            Soel’s stomach clenched. His heart stiffened, almost paralyzed. His insides hurt as he pressed forward, his eyes aching as every fiber of him pleaded with God that this was the right choice. This plan had failed before. Now it would kill him.
            But the canon didn’t fire. For whatever reason… maybe it stalled, maybe the weapon was broken, maybe God liked Soel better than a bunch of murdering criminals—no matter the case, the wall came before they could shoot.

The concept of religion arrived.

In my last book, a somewhat dystopian novel involving cults and a brainwashed protagonist, religion became very important. A Christian-based structure made sense in that world, and I really allowed her to be very devout, and made a big part of the story her learning to question things—including people who insisted her religion was just evil.

Before that, however, I didn’t deal much with faith at all. I believe I could get away with it because many of my characters were isolated, away from civilization, and with their lack of religiousness, it didn’t need to come up. Plus, many simple decisions like how many gods there were, seemed obvious for the world.

After The Dying Breed, however, I really learned just how difficult it was to talk about religion. I struggled with trying to never make it look like propaganda on either side. I was not promoting religion or demoting religion; it was far more about authority, happiness, and not seeing things in black and white than it ever was about whether or not people should be faithful. Personally, I believe people have the right to be religious or not, depending on what makes them happy. And we need to leave each other alone about it. That’s as far as my “politics” in religion go.

So, while delving into religion was fun and interesting, I don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to worry about what I might accidently be promoting, and I don’t want people be distracted from the point and plot. (Whatever those may be.)

But I can’t pull my usual, I’m just not going to talk about it. Number one, I know that’s a cop out. Number two, most cultures are defined by religion. Even in America, the world’s melting pot, where many people are surprised when they find out their new friend actually goes to Christian church than not, we were at least founded, and definitely affected by Christian morals.

 If I want to find out more about my setting, it’s a decision I need to make.

That’s where TailSpin rears its ugly head again.

While the cartoon itself holds no religious overtones, the 1930’s definitely did. My original instinct was to have a Christian-based religion, with one God, church, and Christian viewpoints. But, again it is pulling me back into the two areas I don’t want to be: A 1930’s based world, and inherently bringing in a conversation about religion. If, however, I make up my own system of faith, less people will be less concerned with what his religion is and what I’m saying about it.

I saw Soel as being the religious sort ever since the question came up. Unlike most of my characters, it very much makes sense for him to need that sort of thing and attach to it. He is alone, impoverished, grew up on a low-class island—an upbringing that constantly affects his ability to get jobs. He needs to feel like there’s something better out there for him, that he has some love outside of the derision man gives him.

I considered multiple gods for an instant, maybe each island having its own protector. But with the mix of technology and the inconsistency of relatable “time,” I felt that it confused things, and also just didn’t feel right. A big part of me believes that their lives are such that no one would be capable to participate in a religion that required a lot of scheduled worship. The influence had to be psychological, but not ceremonial.

I just saw Soel as being too sensible, and a little too humorless, to participate in anything not directly necessary.

I wanted one god, I realized. But maybe it didn’t have to be a god at all, just a singular entity.

Because I’m not religious, I often refer to the “all powerful being,” in my psyche as Fate, Luck, or the Universe. Logically, I don’t really believe in destiny, but I’d like to. Only if it has a minimal influence, of course. Yet accepting humanity’s irrelevance and insignificance has never been tolerable to me, so I’d like to believe that things happen with intended results in mind.

When this occurred to me, I suddenly found myself with a whole slew of answers.

I liked the idea of the people believing heavily in Fate. It ties in with the character’s issue of being low in the hierarchy, and gives most motivation why they think it’s okay to be so bigoted. They were born where they were supposed to be. They are supposed to be treated this way. Soel’s self-loathing stems from his faith, and his belief that there are extraordinary people and ordinary people, and you are what you are since you are born; there’s no changing it. (A philosophy that I personally hate with every fiber of my being.) It allows me to discuss that mentality, and also explains a lot of his decisions—versus the decisions of Sanya, his supporting character.

I decided their worship came in the form of tokens, and certain actions with these tokens to ensure good luck. This references the common superstitions of sailors, and is fitting, I believe. It also enables me to show the rules of the world through action, and his religion by means of what he does with the thing. Plus, I wanted the magic level in the world to be just above “Is this magic, or just superstition?” and I think that the token’s effects can cause just the right amount of subtly.

This feels right.

I’ve learned long ago that setting is the difference between the book getting finished and getting dropped. If I don’t like the world, or even just don’t care about it, it is hard for me to live in it. It’s one of those things that tends to develop on its own, but sometimes, like in the Case of the Stolen Concept, I have to be very logical about it. But I think I’m on a good path. My next step is to clarify the rules of technology before I start solving my problems with it. But I think I can stall a little longer.