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Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar: Narrative vs. History

Putting the “Story” Back in “History”

(A continuation of my Monthly Worldbuilding Seminar series.  For the month of June, I’m looking at the effects of narrative on worldbuilding and its use in writing good stories and characters.)

What do we really know about the past?  What other people tell us.  Go read Ken Liu’s You’ll Always Have the Burden With You.  I’ll wait.  Not only is it a fun story, it’s a perfect example of the fallibility of the historical record.  Human beings are wired for narrative.  It’s in our genes.  It helps us make sense of a world that’s merely a random sequence of events within a given system.  Narratives are our best attempt at making those obscure rules transparent.  In the story, the narrative of a Gilgameshic epic serves the purposes of the head archaeologist.  People like the story, the expeditions get funded.  An alien tax code is boring (not really, but for your average human, it holds little interest), while an epic fantasy with religious overtones is fascinating.  It’s an open question in the story whether the truth really matters.  The main character criticizes an interpretation of the findings that within the expedition team has since been discredited, and yet when the same thing happens with the interpretation of the most fascinating artifact, he refuses to believe it.  or at least bows to the argument of the expedition leader.  It’s unclear if any of the characters notices the irony, although I can only assume Liu intended it to be available to the reader.

This concept is reflected in actual history.  Greek and Roman “historians” have often been suspected of telling fibs to further their agenda.  Did Carthaginians really sacrifice infants, or was that merely a convenient fiction during the conflict between them and the Romans?  Were there really temple prostitutes, or was it merely a way to discredit otherwise comparably civilized opponents?  Does belly-dancing really descend from the sacred dances of the temple priestesses in the Levant?  Or does it just make lessons more marketable to New Age and Feminist customers?

Beyond mere misinterpretation based on imposing our own value systems on alien cultures or just plain old aliens, there’s a purposeful misunderstanding, of which no culture is innocent, that can corrupt true history and misguide us in our understandings of others.

Rather than the truth, history is just the most successful narratives that have survived long enough that no one can refute them.

These narratives can even be so successful that they overshadow living truths of other cultures, or the narratives put forth by the modern descendants of past cultures.  All it requires is a lack of competing narratives.  Whether this is because those narratives are lost to history or are being purposefully suppressed, or because they aren’t available in a given language, or just because they haven’t penetrated popular consciousness, it makes little difference in the end.  Sometimes we can manage to unseat false or misguided narratives.  Sometimes even when the truth is known, it’s just not sexy enough for people to care.

What does this have to do with fiction?  You can take advantage both of narratives and how we apply them to history and apply them to your world-building, to your plots, to your characters, to your themes.  Being able to conceive of multiple plausible narratives for one situation, and being able to point a reader down those roads can be a valuable skill for a writer.  Mystery writers use it to place red herrings, to keep their characters from looking stupid in the multi-suspect structure of many procedurals.  Medical procedurals such as House MD make use of this concept such that a tiny little fact can change what appears to be the most reasonable narrative, or more specifically, the most believable diagnosis given a certain set of symptoms.

The three easiest targets for a narrative are those who are honestly ignorant of a topic, those who are more ignorant than they think they are, and those who are invested in the likely outcome of a given narrative.  Our understanding of economics is rife with competing narratives and confounding factors.  We know many small pieces of the puzzle, but the whole picture eludes us, and that makes for plenty of seemingly reasonable possibilities.

And as a result, what is the general populations view of economics full of?  Conflict.  Various people are invested in various economic narratives for various reasons.  They may or may not believe these narratives to be true, but they act as if they are true, or pretend to act like they are true because of the benefits of doing so.  Trickle-down economics benefits those at the top of the heap; the truth of the theory is irrelevant in that sense.  Plenty of competing theories are guilty of the same.

And that applies to any area of human study or endeavor.  In politics, we may be more familiar with the concept of propaganda, which is a subset of narrative, generally associated with political bodies.

No society is truthful with itself.  Whether they deliberately mislead themselves, are tricked by someone, or are just blind to the perceptions of others.  Neither are humans.  Self-image is also a form of narrative, whether it’s someone’s actual opinion of themselves, or the “reality” they try to project into the minds of others.  Any non-zero number of humans engages in spin at one time or another.

The next time you’re working on a story, whether it involves a single character in the moment, or the history of an entire nation, consider: How would this person or group spin themselves to outsiders?  To insiders?  To themselves?  How do they want to feel about themselves, how do they want others to feel about them, and what do they gain from the various possible interpretations of the facts?

Finally, ask yourself, what are the burdens of maintaining these narratives?  How do they affect your characters’ or society’s relationships with others?  Where do the various narratives your characters or societies feel the need to assume conflict?  How do they balance those conflicts, if they can?  How do the imbalances force their hand?  And how does self-image conflict with self?  Is it better to assimilate to the useful image?  Is it worth the pain and stress not to?  Why these self-images?  Guilt? Ambition? Or desire?

Look forward to next week for some specific analysis of the effects of narrative on history as regards the Japanese in World War II.

 
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Posted by on June 1, 2015 in worldbuilding

 

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Monthly World-building Seminar: Introduction

As I’ve worked on this blog and on my writing, I’ve come to the conclusion that my special skill is world-building. It’s not only one of the hallmarks of what I see as my style of writing, but an interest I can and have explored even outside of writing.  There are many writing and literature blogs on the internet, and I’ve long struggled to find my niche.  At this moment, I think my best option is to specialize in world-building, a topic covered in breadth by many others, but rarely covered in the depths I intend to plumb.

I’ll choose a topic every month, with wide enough application to support a lengthy series of posts approximating the following format:

  1. The first post with be a broad introduction to the topic with an idea of what inspired me to pick it.
  2. The second post will be a general exploration of how it applies to the real world.
  3. The third post will be a general exploration of how it might be applied to fictional stories.
  4. The fourth post will be an explanation of how it applies to the triad of fiction: character, plot, and setting.
  5. The fifth post will be a successful real-world example of the concept, covered in-depth.
  6. The sixth post will be a second real-world example, of a failed application.
  7. The seventh will be an example of the application of the concept in fiction, preferably of a short-form work.
  8. The eighth will be an example of the concept in a long-form work.
  9. The ninth post will be an example of a failed application in fiction.
  10. The tenth and final post will be a conclusion of the seminar, possibly some writing prompts, and some questions to keep in mind when writing future stories. And the next topic!

I’ll have at least a partial list of individual topics in the intro post, some reading assignments(though they won’t be necessary to understand and enjoy the seminars, I’d say they add a lot of nuance), and some exploration of my inspiration.

The intro will always be on the first day of the month, and the conclusion on the last day.  The posts in between will on average be two posts a week on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Feel free to comment, suggest  topics, and in general let me know if I’ve done anything wrong, or right.

The first official topic, starting in June, will be History and Narratives: Putting the “Story” Back in “History”.

The first unofficial topic published on a shortened schedule in May, Technology and Inequality: Understanding Your Setting

 

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Getting Your Priorities Straight

I’ve had a great time working on this blog.  It’s been loads of fun, I’ve learned a lot about myself, and I’ve met some great people.  I really appreciate everyone who’s read and commented here.

That may sound like a goodbye speech, but what it really means is that I’ll be posting less on here than I used to.  Probably once or twice a month at the most.

This is for several reasons:

  1. I made a commitment to my friends review blog, where I’ll be reviewing various speculative fictions books in many genres.  I’ve posted several reviews there already, and I encourage you to go check them out.  If you like Young Adult books, my two co-reviewers each review about the same number of those a month as I do spec fic books, so definitely check that out.  Most recently, I reviewed Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds with my co-reviewer Marisa Greene.  In about a week, you’ll be able to read my reviews of Richard K. Morgan’s The Dark Defiles, the third and final novel in his Steel Remains series.  Here’s the blog: http://notesfromthedarknet.wordpress.com/
  2. I’ve decided to spend more time actually writing books.  High/Epic fantasy has been becoming more popular in the YA field, and many of my projects fit that category, including my current WIP.  After that, you might get to see some reali, live chimney-punk! 😉
  3. I’ve found less and less to write about on here as time goes by.  Part of this is that I’ve said a lot of what I have to say on some subjects, such as world-building.  And part of it is that more general topics, such as genre and writing mechanics have already hit their third cycles on some of the blogs that started out around the same time I did.  Many of those blogs have even stopped posting at all.  I’ve been less active commenting on other blogs for that reason, which means a large decrease in traffic here, as well.

The Chimney is still my home on the web, and will be for the foreseeable future.  I’m not closing it down, and I hope I never do.  This change has already been occurring over the past year or so, it’s just not been official until now.  Once my schedule settles down, and I get into the groove of writing prose, I’ll probably be back to posting here more regularly, especially since writing actual manuscripts really gets my creative and research juices flowing.

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging

 

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Why A Pause? Story Pacing

Jon Wallace write an article on Gollancz’s website on the subject of HG Well’s War of the Worlds and British invasion literature.  But the topic isn’t what’s relevant here.  What’s relevant is a note he made on why modern invasion literature often fails to live up to Wells’s example:

In Wells’s story, the Martians land and then sit there for awhile in their craters, leaving us to wonder why they’re here and what they want.  Whereas in recent Hollywood flicks, “they’re attacking, duh, why else?”

The key here being the suspense created by having alien space-ships crashing into the country-side and then… doing nothing.  That little pause in the major action can really drag a reader in.  You sorta feel like you’re watching along with the characters.

That suspense creates a desire in the reader to keep reading; it pings human curiosity.

And yet, the reader doesn’t just think: “Get on with the invasion already!”  Because they can’t assume that’s what’s going to happen.

 

And that leads me to the topic of this post: Pacing.

Pacing is that thing you do so the reader doesn’t spend the whole book wondering when shit is finally going to happen.  It’s a common complaint about books that there’s nothing happening, or that it takes too long to get to the good stuff.  But of course things are happening.  A character angsting is a thing that happens.  A character driving to the 7-11 is a thing that happens.  It’s not that nothing is happening.  It’s just not what the reader expects to be happening at that moment.

For me, that is a failure of pacing.  Because the story isn’t keeping up with the reader’s expectations.  But the great thing about pacing is that you can control those expectations to some extent.  Wells chooses to slow the thing down right after a world-changing event.  And it works, because when something crazy happens, it’s not unexpected for there to be some suspense before the consequences are realized.

There are a lot of books on writing out there that purport to tell you the perfect structure for a novel/screenplay/story and save you from thinking about the way your individual story could best be paced.  It’s just simpler that way.  And Hollywood has been eating this up for years with Save the Cat!   But the truth is, every story has its own unique pacing, and the best a pre-set structure can give you is an approximation to be fiddled with until it’s exactly right.

That’s not to say that looking for a pre-made structure is wrong.  But there is some value in acquiring the tools to build your own structure, instead.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2013 in Writing

 

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How Getting Published Has Become Like Getting Laid: Writing/Publishing is Emulating the PUA Culture of Modern Dating

While reading a thread over on AbsoluteWrite about the old adage: “You should pitch your book as a standalone-with-series-potential” I finally made the connection to a trend a lot of dating blogs talk about: trying to game the system.  Pick-Up Artists spend a great deal of time marketing–and I assume selling, or they would get a new gig–tips and tricks and even full-fledged systems for getting laid.

There’s all sorts of different people peddling different ideas, but the major idea of PUA is that women are gate-keepers (usually for sex), and that there are sure-fire ways to trick/convince them to unlock those gates.  If you aren’t getting laid, you just need to get more game, and the PUA masters can sell it to you for ten easy payments of $9.99.  These systems occasionally include good information hidden in the dross, but their main suggestion is that you need to lie, cheat, and trick women into liking you, and there are scientific reasons why and for how to do it.  In fact, you can even convince someone who doesn’t want anything to do with you that what they actually want is nothing else but you.  Hopefully you agree that that’s total bullshit, and dis-respectful at best, possible rapey at worst.

And after reading some of the response to that thread on AW, I’ve come to realize that a lot of publishing advice tends in this same direction, although it tries much harder to present itself as education and understanding of what publishers want than PUA tries to pretend it cares about women’s feelings.  Obviously gaming publishers into giving you a contract is morally incomparable to the sorts of rape-tastic, misogynistic, creepy bullshit that is most PUA, but while the degree differs greatly, the pattern of thinking is remarkably similar:

If you just do the right things, say the rights things, have the right timing, women publishers  will give you a blowjob contract, and the reason you’ve failed so far is because you just haven’t learned the rules.  Even if you’re ugly/poor/an asshole your book has some issues, you can greatly improve your chances to get laid be published, if you just learn these ten simple tricks/pick-up linesbody language cues query rules/grammar tips/plot structures.

But that’s not really how dating writing works.  These ideas teach you to lie to women compromise your story on the basis of a few trends or anecdotes coming from a small group of people, many of whom don’t really have the knowledge or experience to back up their claims.

The issue that inspired this post was about querying series vs. standalones.  And how you should pitch a standalone-with-series-potential, even if you wrote the book you’re pitching as a pure series/pure standalone, and some fairly significant changes would have to be made to fit this “rule” of querying/publisher’s desires.  Otherwise you’re committing serious publishing faux pas.  And this is just one example from a long list of writing and publishing truisms, such as “show, don’t tell” that don’t reflect the reality that much.  There’s a whole mythology behind this type of thinking, and it’s being perpetuated even more now that the writing community is so interconnected and interactive.  Someone, no matter what their platform, spouts off about these rules, and the people who hear them take it as gospel and repeat it to everyone they know.  I’m not saying anyone is doing anything intentionally malicious here.  The fact that 99.99% of this interaction is in good faith makes it all the more insidious and damaging.

I have a problem with this type of thinking for a few reasons:

A)  A lot of it is just plain untrue, or misunderstood from legitimate/contextually specific suggestions and advice.

B)  Not every situation is the same, nor do all agents/editors/authors/readers agree on every little detail.

C)  It perpetuates an idea that the rules are what get you published, explain why bad books get published/accounts for why your literary masterpiece is still seeking representation after five years and forty rounds of increasingly desperate querying.

Much like the great majority of PUA philosophy, it takes the responsibility off the shoulders of the AverageFrustratedChump author, places the authority in the hands of a few misogynist assholes merely lucky/misguided/well-meaning-but-misinformed authors/agents/editors.

That’s not to say that these people are lying, or stupid.  Just that success doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding of that success.  Eeveryone’s experience in dating writing/publishing is different, and you can’t apply every little thing to every single person.  Sometimes you just have to admit you’re boring/an asshole/have bad timing aren’t quite ready for publication/this book will never be published.

I wish I had some answers.  Some way to remove this fog of misinformation.  A sure-fire route to publishing success.  But just like everyone else, the process is always going to be just a bit beyond my full understanding, and I’ll have to take some risks, indulge in some trial and error, and eventually work my way there by hard fucking work or a bit of lucky coincidence, just like everyone else.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2013 in Publishing

 

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Raging Reader Round-up (08/05/11)

Maybe I should just officially change the date for this to Sunday. 😄

1.  Is responding to a review ever a good idea?

2.  Are you happy when you’re not writing?

3.  Epic Fantasy is what?

4.  Things You Should Learn From Writing

5.  How Selling a Book Really Is

6.  FanFic is fun, whether you’re writing it or arguing about it.

7.  How Good Writing Can Still Make a Bad Book

8.  Starting a Book?  It Might Help to Know the Endgame

9.  Your Agent Rocks, but She Isn’t Wonder Woman

10.  If I Had a Jam Jar as Big as #8, I’d probably go ahead and fill a swimming pool with jam. 🙂

11.  If you wanna get a record deal, you gotta do coke.

12.  Distractions, baby.  I love ’em.

13.  How Do You Feel the World?

14.  Writers and readers are characters, too.  Don’t let anyone tell you they aren’t.

15.  Why One Character is Never Enough

16.  Revise, Rinse, and Repeat

17.  Good descriptions, but I’ve never been a fan of mixing genres and age categories.

18.  Samuel’s Real Skinny on Self-Publishing

19.  A Path to Publishing with Bookends, LLC

20.  Life doesn’t happen to us, we happen to life.  And it isn’t always pretty.

21.  Sex, Genetic Determinism, and James Tiptree Jr

22.  Men read romance, too.  Considering her blog, I’m considering buying this book.  Internet marketing works, people.

23.  If only SFF authors wrote posts like this, they would sell a lot more books. 😉

24.  Still don’t like it.

25.  I love my state. 😀

26.  More bullshit about social networking.

27.  Literary writing is still literary.

28.  Young authors are great, and I’d love to see more.  But old folks still got game.

29.  Chick lit is still lit people.  Deal with it.

30.  How long will books and movies stay on their own sides of the line?  Alternate endings are…?

31.  Inciting incidents and authorial experience.  Do established authors get more slack?  Do they deserve to?

32.  Can you be a dummy and write YA?  That’s what the title of a book by this lovely lady says.

33.  Writing Tips from a Dark Future.

34.  Short Story Submission

35.  A link to a list of Marketing Links I stole from Sierra Godfrey.

36.  Short stories are not novels, Mr. Martin.  But otherwise good advice.

37.  Other authors are awesome, but you are, too.

38.  Never say that hard work doesn’t get you anywhere.

39.  Push some paper, publishers.  We know you can do it.

I never set out to be an aggregator blog, but it’s almost all I can do to keep up with these round-ups in-between the cracks of “real life.”  That will change eventually, I hope, once my schedule settles down.  Hope y’all find this links useful in the mean-time.

 
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Posted by on August 8, 2011 in atsiko, Raging Reader Round-up

 

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Raging Reader Round-up (7/22/2011)

Because having to read 100 posts in a week to pick out the gems makes me rage.  But now you won’t have to.

1. I wish I was a Lannister.

2. You have a million excuses.

3. You remember that awesome post I did on where writers get our ideas?  Well, it was a lie.  We really steal them from teenagers on the bus.

4.  You know that theory about how every choice we make creates a branch in the timeline?  Well, it would certainly explain all the contradictory posts about the future of publishing.

5. Neil Gaiman’s Guide to Writing

6. If you don’t love agents, they won’t love you.

7. Bad Pick-up Lines for Snagging an AgentAnd worse ones.  Also, drunken beagles?

8. Alien planets are great.  But how ’bout something a little more exotic?

9. Why you might not wanna leave a drawer full of crap for relatives to find.

10. Don’t trust the word “average” in publishing too much…

11. Even being a published writer these days can suck.  Especially if your agent thinks they should be your publisher, too.  That’ll probably look something like this.  At least not everyone is doing it.  And agents and editors are out to get you, or at least, the people they work for are.  That said, if you do get an editor, you can be pretty sure they love your book.    Of course, even if your publisher is still your publisher, you might find your contract amended automatically by e-mail.  And it’s more than one publisher.  Which might be good or bad for you as an individual, but says a lot about how well publishers are treating their authors.  Not much of it good. The book industry is in more trouble than you though, huh?  And the booksellers are in worse.   But we can save it!

12. The above links talk a lot about how writers should know the business side as well.  Tawna Fenske prefers not to.  What about you?

13.  The first week of sales matters.  You probably knew that.  Did you this?

14. Is your character boring?  Passive?  Perhaps even a bit wimpy?  That’s okay.  YA Historical Fiction author Katy Longshore has devised an 8-Step Program for Crappy Characters.  You can save everybody.

15.  Motivation is important.  But just how obvious should you be about it?  Janice Hardy has some suggestions.

16.  Establishing your character’s, er… character, is very important.  But studies show that circumstances can have a much more powerful effect on behavior than your underlying personality.  Janice Hardy has some tips on how to incorporate this into your stories.

17. The Intern (is she really an intern, still?) dissects a book that readers couldn’t put down:  Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  And goes on to explain how it’s like a video game, and why that makes it so appealing.  Being a gamer myself, I have to agree with most of her analysis.

18. The first thirty pages of your novel are probably boring.  Cut ’em.

19What to do when an agent says no to your new project

20. How to Manage Your TIme as a Writer by Mindy Klasky.

21.  When you’re a fantas or science fiction writer, you often deal with world-building, and creating new cultures.  One way to make this easier is to learn ore about cultures on Earth.  Here are some interesting stories from Juliette Wade.

22. An interesting discussion on the origins of various cultural structures and metaphors courtesy of Google + Hangouts.

23. How cosplaying can teach us about world-building.  You know who you can ask about various types of clothing in different historical periods, or just about clothing in general?  Cosplayers.  Just because they may happen to be dressed up as pichu in high heels, that doesn’t mean they won’t know how to cut a Japanese yukata, or how to sew a Fauntleroy suit.  The take-away:  Even the craziest hobbies have unexpected value.

24. Is language completely arbitrary?  Many studies say not.  And you can use that in your writing and your world-building.

25. On the construction of story endings and tying shit up.

26.  On hooking.  Because all the best writers are doing it. 😉

27.  Kids are the future, and they know it.  So how come you don’t hear about it much in YA?

28.  Lots of cons and conferences tout manuscript evaluations as a feature.  John Gilstrap over at The Kill Zone give us his Ten Rules for Manuscript Evaluation and how to get the most out of it.

29.  Meg Gardiner on drafting a novel.  No lie, brainstorming is the best part.  Writing the thing out is… somewhere in the top 10.

30.  Kathleen Pickering on on-site reasearch.

31.  What typos cost you. Courtesy of the NYT.

32. Three Ways to Publish from Anne R. Allen.  Of course, there are more than three ways to publish.  Plenty of folks are successful with web serializations.  I’m gonna be publishing a manga a page at a time on Deviant Art.  But Anne does tackle the three main methods of publishing a book-length work.

33. Jennifer Archer on selling her debut novel. Three times. 🙂

34.  Genre vs. Literary: Why the hate?  Thanks, Roni.

35. Best-selling vs. Best-writing from Meghan Ward.

36. Making Old Thoughts New Again

You know how I mentioned I read over 100 posts this week?  That was a lie.  That’s just the number in my blog reader.  But blogs love to link, and I can’t help but follow.  It was really something like 200.  Which may explain my lack of novel-writing this week. 😄

So why only 36 points?  Well, keep in mind that some of them had more than 1 post.  And some of the posts just weren’t worth passing on.  Just be glad I read those ones for you. 😉

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2011 in atsiko, Raging Reader Round-up

 

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