Worldbuilding in SF – Advice taken from the great Terry Pratchett

Photo of Sir Terry Pratchett from Wired.com

My last post about the London Book Fair 2012, and attending the panel talk on Science Fiction in China, reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s talk I went to at the Barbican. It must have been in 1999, because DS-10 was still in the cable-knitted hoodie with feet attached that I made for her, and not quite walking yet, strapped to me in the stripy baby-sling. And of course she tried to participate in the seminar as much as our illustrious speaker, until she went to sleep, thankfully, and stopped trying to mug the poor man sitting next to us in the crombie coat and Doctor Who scarf.

Yes – Terry Pratchett’s talk attracted a huge crowd of SF/Fantasy fans, and wannabe authors of all ages, although I think I had smuggled in the smallest and most disruptive one. Sorry about that, Sir Terry 🙂

It must have been around the time that Science of the Discworld was emerging, because the discussion was on ‘world-building’ in science-fiction and fantasy. Now this term, popular nowadays, refers to the creating of your imaginary world in which your narrative, or story takes place. The world in which your characters dwell. You can’t just give a man in a dress a magic wand and talking horse, and expect the world around him to be immediately perceived by the reader as the next best thing to Mordor. It’s the genre where taking the reader on location with you is of primary importance.

In current everyday general fiction, you say a story is set in Paris, or in Hollywood, or in London, and folk pretty much know what you’re getting at. You don’t need to go off into lengthy descriptions of the scenery or the weather. Readers today have seen it all on TV, and the internet, and you don’t want it to sound like the travelogue of a backpacking journalist. Fixing the location in your reader’s mind saves you a lot of word-count and drives your story faster to the heart of the action (and hopefully the hearts of your characters).

Some authors do travel-writing in fiction well, because they have been there, or are seasoned travel journalists already (such as Belinda Jones). Their writing style is recognisable as such. Reading Belinda Jones novels, to me, is like going on holiday, when I’m stuck at home, in weather that (against all news items to the contrary) suggests an Ark will soon float past the bottom of the garden. I read them for the escapism, the descriptions of the beaches and hotels, and occasionally the fit entertainment…

Ahem. However, with SF and Fantasy, unless you’re writing a fairytale of Bognor Regis, generally you’re creating a world for your characters to inhabit, whether it’s on board a colony ship in a space opera, or an enchanted island in a children’s story. So you can’t just say it’s “like a Boeing 747 in space” or “Disneyworld Florida but the puppets are real” – well, you could, but your readers will feel cheated (especially if they’ve never been on board a plane, or visited Disneyworld). You’ve got to say more about the place your characters inhabit, than you might do if you’re used to writing kitchen-sink drama, or chick-lit about handbags and shoes.

Terry opened the discussion on mapping your created SF/fantasy domain with the unforgettable statement: “How does the shit get out, and the clean water get in?”

Your characters have got to drink, eat, and shift by-products, so the design of Ankh-Morpork, on the Discworld, starts with the river (and what a river – that’s a lot of by-products, which it would be, for a heaving great city). Would a city on top of a mountain work, or would only a small village last in those conditions? How would a city in the clouds function, in plumbing terms? Your readers will want to know these things, and if there aren’t any satisfactory answers, you and your readers are both missing out.

A community functions on the basis of sanitation services, and provisions of food and water. Say, for example, you have a nomadic tribe living on a desert moon, who raise herds of giant herbivorous quadruped working-animals the size of double-decker buses. What are these herds of great land-creatures eating? Sand? Air? Where is their poop going? How are they kept from wandering off at night and trampling their biped masters in their sleep? How is the animal husbandry and midwifery managed? Enquiring minds will want to know.

Terry took a question from one of the younger audience members – not DS-10 of course, whose conversation at the time was limited to ‘Digger’, ‘Tit-rings’ (which was how she pronounced ‘Tinky Winky’ from the Teletubbies) and ‘Towel’ (which was actually ‘Kyle’ from South Park). The question from the more expressive young audience member was: “What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a science fiction or fantasy author?”

Terry’s thoughts on this were strong.

“Don’t read too many books already published in your chosen genre. You don’t want to be writing imitations of what’s already out there. Read geography. Read history books. Read about science.”

…Research how worlds function, what shapes them, geologically and politically. How they progress through technology and learning, arts and culture.

It was this answer that stuck with me as I headed home, while DS-10 discovered the joy of playing lucky-dip in other people’s pockets on the London Underground, then completely charmed an elderly couple in the train seat opposite, on the long journey back to Hastings.

When I read SF/fantasy, I want that world to be somewhere real I can picture – whether it’s the likes of Greg Bear taking you on a new physiological journey in the familiar world (Blood Music) or humanity as we (sort of) know it living in an extraordinary one (The Discworld series). So definitely, don’t throw out the laws of physics and chemistry, or natural history, and think you’ll get somewhere starting from scratch. You’ll either make too much work for yourself and the readers, by re-inventing everything from the ground up (no stone or S’mak!abl! left unturned), or you’ll gloss over what could be fascinating detail by talking to the readers as if everyone in the real world already grows their own Fnargle and participates in the Great Wibbly Jai Ho before bedtime.

It’s also easy to make the same mistake with character names. An unusual name is not a qualification. Calling your lead character ‘Stumpy Jack’ or ‘Great Wizard Shazam’ is no excuse for skimping on personality traits. Considering that he’ll just be known as ‘Jack’ or ‘Shaz’ to his friends, you’ll need to find some things that those friends will have intimate knowledge of about him – not just that he has a stump, or is a Great Wizard. The same goes for Fantasy stories, where the character’s parents have forgotten to put the vowels on their birth certificate. If your reader is mentally tripping over the name Knrrph’vngyllr’kk every time it appears in the narrative, it slows down reading enjoyment, and just like the Great Stumpy Wizard examples above, it’s not a qualification either – you’ve still got to give the awesome Knrrph’vngyllr’kk a sparkling personality. I would say, as a rule of thumb, never give your charismatic hero a name that his love interest is unable to shout out ecstatically in bed without sounding as though she’s inhaled a pillow-feather.

So anyway, ever since, I’ve applied the academic research idea to writing all fiction. I sort of write about the real world, but at the same time sort of don’t – my worlds hover between extremes of reality and SF/fantasy, and SF/fantasy is where my own evolution into becoming a writer started, so it wouldn’t surprise me to find myself going full circle eventually. I’ve read so many textbooks it shows – one of my novels has been tagged ‘self-help’ already, no doubt from the amount of psychology I read up on, over about fifteen years of its development. I even added an ‘academic and popular references’ bibliography to my latest version of it on Kindle, because I felt the research deserved the credit for a lot of my character’s make-up (and my own progress, while doing the research – power of the object over the observer).

You can always learn new things, and get excited about learning new things. And at the end of the day, if you’re writing SF and Fantasy, that’s what you want your readers to experience, when reading your books. Give them your enthusiasm for what you learn, and what you want to show them of your own insights through learning. Because that’s where your originality lies – in your own inner journey.

L xxxx

http://terrypratchett.co.uk

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The London Book Fair 2012 – Has Anyone Spoken to the Author?

Hands shaking with excitement, I was too busy listening to take a decent picture! 🙂

This photo from ‘Has Anyone Spoken to the Author?’ panel discussion with Unbound Books, and authors Nick Harkaway, Robert Llewellyn, Ilana Fox and Salena Godden – definitely my highlight of the event, for entertainment value as well as insights onto the what’s going on in the hearts and minds of authors, in the current publishing climate. More on that later…

A bit late to the ‘write-up the LBF12’ blog party – I’ve been so busy since. I was at the London Book Fair on Tuesday 17th, this year with Sophie Neville, who had never been before.

You could barely get out of the train station, before people were handing you flyers about books. And these weren’t just indie authors – it seemed that even the big leagues were going out of their way to snag readers, with flyers and promotional copies.

This was cool, because Sophie also had a bagful of postcards she wanted to give out.

“You can tell I used to be a promotions girl, can’t you?” she joked, as we camped out by the HarperCollins stand (they had a comfy seat free), while she accosted passers-by with her British upper-class charm, and I schmoozed with folk wanting help and advice from me on formatting for Kindle. I told her this was the wrong way around, Sophie being the celebrity, and doing all the work. But she was enjoying herself too much not to do it.

I’d never have dragged her away, but The Daily Mail rang her to talk for 45 minutes about her book, Funnily Enough, and the boat Swallow, from Swallows and Amazons. (See the article on Richard Kay’s Daily Mail page here).

So while she was talking, still perched by the lovely HarperCollins, I met the even more lovely Clive Boutle, of Francis Boutle Publishing. Clive had just been speaking at a talk on translations. Francis Boutle publish English translations of works in endangered European languages, including Manx, Gaelic, Welsh, Catalan, and Occitan. While waiting for his next meeting, he got to chat with me, about what constitutes a great bar in Barcelona, and what constitutes a bad translation into English. The kind of thing you wouldn’t want turning up in another Funny Ha Ha, and Funny Peculiar. (It turned out we’d both read the Denys Parsons book of silly news headlines and signage – I remember hiding it in the cover of Lord of the Flies at school, and anything dull about grammar). While we were talking, I recalled the episode of Q.I, where they discussed the ancient parrot who was the only known speaker of a dead language from the depths of South America. (So if you want to preserve an endangered language and keep it going into the next century, teach an Amazonian Grey parrot to speak it!)

We also talked about the work of the translator – the costs, the role they play – and that a translator is not considered to be ‘the author’ of the original work being translated, in intellectual property terms. They are paid highly for their job role, and recognised as the translator, but are no more credited for the original piece than, for example, a translator of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books into French. Clive said that translation is usually the most expensive part of publishing a book in a new language.

In other words, anyone wondering what sort of job roles in publishing are in demand, and for a good wage now, you’d do worse than having excellent foreign language skills, and going into translation.

Earlier in the day, I’d left Sophie researching colour illustrated print-on-demand costs with FastPrint, and gone off on my own mission to research Science Fiction in China at one of the other seminars. I don’t think I’ll quite make it to the level of Mandarin Chinese translator (just recognising the prefixes and a few verbs nowadays, at native speaker speed – I must revise!) but they had simultaneous radio translation, which was more than impressively done, the real-time translators got a hearty round of applause from both the Chinese and English-speaking audience. Science Fiction in China featured authors who worked their way up through University student papers and magazines in the genre, sometimes publishing their own, before gaining market recognition and awards through specific publications. More Chinese science fiction is now being translated into English. Not by me yet, I have to add. Unless you only want to read about the easy acquisition of fizzy drinks, and the location of the Ladies’ Toilets in a bar.

Sophie’s chat with Richard Kay’s office at The Daily Mail finally concluded, and we went to grab a cup of tea. At one of the coffee outlets, we happened upon a nice young lady from Scholastic Books grabbing a coffee-break, here at LBF12 with their Hunger Games Trilogy phenomenon.

I used to read Scholastic’s earlier Point Horror imprint, and actually submitted my first book, Living Hell, to Point Horror in 1996, after finally getting it back from PanMacmillan, who’d had it for three years, and I’d submitted a sequel to them on request (long story short – the awesome Simon Spanton, who was overseeing it at the time, left PanMac and couldn’t fit both epics up his jumper, LOL). So that was very spooky. But I remembered Point Horror and Goosebumps, and discussed how Scholastic had really been at the forefront of the current YA paranormal market, with their earliest Stephen-King-style thrillers, and horror stories for teens. Stephen King meets Scooby Doo – great stuff, as I recall.

But as I said, the highlight for me was ‘Has Anyone Spoken to the Author?’

Sophie would have happily continued networking (next year I think I’m going to have to get her a marketing stand of her very own), but I dragged her along to this one, and it provided a hugely valuable insight. Published authors, including high-profile ones, now want more input into their work, and want to offer more interaction to the readers. Which was funny, because I’d just designed a Kindle ebook edition to do exactly that, with my interactive, reader-preference enabled Death & The City: Cut to the Chase Edition.

And as Robert Llewellyn said, you don’t want to send off your painstakingly re-read and edited manuscript off into the unknown of a major publishing house machine, trusting implicitly that all is well, and get back your first publisher proof copy – to find that they have helpfully inserted their standard typographical errors. Usually at the optimum Funny Ha Ha, Funny Peculiar settings.

I recall Sir Terry Pratchett saying something very similar once, at a talk he was giving at the Barbican in London many years ago, while DS-10 enjoyed her tiny self immensely and squealed delightedly in the baby-sling, loud enough for even Sir Terry himself to hear and crack a joke about. We didn’t get kicked out in the end, for which I’m eternally grateful (although we’d have been in more trouble, most likely, for DS-10 discovering the delight of reaching into other people’s pockets if they stood too close to her on my lap, while travelling that day on the London Underground). Sir Terry said at the end of his talk, on world-building in SF and fantasy fiction, that we could all look forward to his next book at the time “Once it has gone to the publisher to have all the spelling errors put in.” Not an unusual phenomenon, I’m starting to realise. It’s not just you, Robert – you’re in good company! 😉

The subject this year at ‘Has Anyone Spoken to the Author?’ also covered the keeping up with reader expectations and attention span, in the current handheld electronic reading device environment. How long can you keep a reader’s attention, before they want to go off and look at their own Twitter? Or blog? Or Facebook? What sort of interactive, bonus material provisions can you make for the readers?

I’d discussed this at the London Book Fair last year with Jason Kingsley of Rebellion (see earlier post ‘Let’s Cut to the Chase…’), and had included a screenplay as bonus material in one of the even earlier ebook editions of mine – Death & The City: Heavy Duty Edition. So it was interesting to hear that this is still a hot topic, which authors and publishers want to definitively crack.

Ilana Fox, in particular, wants to make her character’s lives more accessible to the readers, and I won’t give the game away, but she has big plans for her next book in that respect. It looks like being an exciting time in the coming years, for both readers and writers.

Salena Godden finished the talk with a stand-up of fantastic ‘slam poetry’ about ‘expectations’ – highs and lows… and lower… and lower… As writers, we all feel that at some point. Very funny, and so appropriate!

Great end to the day. I went to say congratulations afterwards to all of the panellists, and handed out my own cards, to which I’d added information about the Cut to the Chase edition. Before running away for a much-needed drink of water, with all of Sophie Neville’s spare change in my jeans pocket.

I had to, or I’d have had a Wayne’s World I’m-Not-Worthy moment. Such amazing, entertaining, and lovely people.

Sophie couldn’t be dragged away at the end, but stayed at LBF12 to do a bit more networking, and to visit her friend from the biggest Christian bookshop in London. It was a stroke of luck that she did pay a visit, because the girl took all of her print copies that she had on her, to sell there. A good day out, all told.

Looking forward to next year already 🙂

L xxxx