Where I work, I see and hear many interesting things. Some are amusing. Some are frightening. Some you will only ever see/hear in our building. They’re things that just don’t happen outside those four walls. Someday, after I retire, I’m going to compose a book of some of the best things I’ve seen/heard.
Here’s a sample. I mean, seriously, where else are you going to find this? It was in the breakroom on the counter:
“I am an echo of the eternal cry of ‘Let There Be’.”
–Stephen Schwartz, CHILDREN OF EDEN
As I said a few posts ago, dissertations on craft just ain’t my thang. There are people who do it far better than me ontheir blogs. But every now and then, a topic comes up that I can’t resist talking about. And this one interests me as both a writer and an editor: the idea of world building.
I’ve seen discussions of this come up online more and more lately. The consensus seems to be that readers love “good world building.” But when I see this, it’s almost always when the discussion involves genre writing (sci-fi, fantasy, etc.). Because of the nature of genre, a high premium is placed on skillful world building. It’s the backstory that explains the horrific events leading to the creation of the dystopian society. It’s the laws that govern the use of magic. Genre world building can be a bit tricky, especially when it comes to avoiding the dreaded info dump. (Also known as Death by Exposition.) It can be even trickier depending on the voice (first person narrator world building should be an Olympic event). And because of that, genre writing is where world building is most likely to go awry, when laying out the societal infrastructure takes pole position over building the character’s world. Some writers fall so in love with their own backstory that they forget not ALL of it needs to be spelled out or that the story is about the characters, not the fifty years of imagined history that preceded them.
In this year’s Printz award winner, SHIP BREAKER, Paolo Bacigalupi does a great job of building his main character’s world. You get plenty of information about how the world works but you get it through the lens of Nailer, the protagonist. His day to day struggle to survive says more about the world he lives in than three or four pages of info dump. Or just look at the first page of MT Anderson’s FEED (an oft cited, yet I still feel vastly underappreciated, book) if you want a master’s class in down and dirty world building.
Ultimately, though, I think it’s a mistake to default to genre writing when discussing world building. It’s easier to admire because it turns reality on its head in ways the brain can’t ignore. It’s also easier to deride when it becomes something that is applied with a turbo-powered sledgehammer. But all writing should be about world building. From your two paragraph flash fiction to your 115,000 word first novel that should probably be half that size. From the story of a young man who extricates himself from an abusive family to the story of a deaf girl who becomes the manager of a rock band. There’s no spellcasting, no matter transporters, no arenas where children fight to the death. But there are still worlds that these characters live in. It may bear a strong resemblance to the world you see every day but it’s not the same. Because, when done correctly, you’re seeing it through the protagonist(s)’s eyes.
Done correctly? Yes. Because just writing isn’t world building. It’s far more calculated than that. For me, world building doesn’t always come out in the first draft. I might hint at it but it’s later passes where things really begin to flesh themselves out.
The best kind of world building happens without the reader even realizing it. It builds slowly, offering insight at impeccably timed intervals. It’s insidious, lurking in an offhand comment from a secondary character, tempering the old with the new, taking the familiar and giving it a twist. Most importantly, it’s an intimate experience. It’s a protagonist (or protagonists) offering a private, totally subjective tour of their personal human condition. Reliable or unreliable, our narrators accomplish as much through their observations, their philosophies, and their actions as was accomplished in a very famous six day period.
I’d like to see more appreciation for world building in non-genre writing. It’s there. Don’t let the familiar fool you.
Hey there. I’m Brian’s neuroses. Are you comfortable? Can I make you comfortable? I’d hate for you to be uncomfortable. Just let me know if I can make you comfortable.
Should I be saying comfy? Does everyone know what I mean by comfy? Problem is, if you say it enough, comfy doesn’t sound like a word anymore. Comfy. Comfy. And it wasn’t even a word to start with.
I’m a little bit on edge. A lot on edge. You see, for the first time ever, a real person is reading my book. Not a friend. Not a classmate. Not an industry professional. A real, honest to goodness human being with a brain and blood and very probably sweat glands.
This has never happened before. And it’s kind of vomit inducing. See, for months now, the vampire in my head has been telling me I suck. That I’m really, really terrible. And lately it’s been saying, “See? That real person who reads this is going to think so too. Then you’ll know I’m right.”
Now, Brian knows that the reality is not everyone is going to like his book. But I, his neuroses, have this fear that NOBODY will like his book. That people will point and laugh. That readers everywhere will create cruel limericks simply to express their disdain. And once you’ve been mocked via limerick, it’s pretty much done. Game over, man. Game over.
So I’ll be over here in the corner, teeth chattering and knees knocking. Like Mel Brooks said, “Hope for the best, expect the worst.” Which is good because that’s something I’m awesome at! Go me!
(Scene: Standing in the break room, waiting for my lunch to finish cooking in the microwave. FEMALE CO-WORKER points out the window where a light snow is falling against a bright blue sky. The sun overhead catches the new snow, giving it a sparkling effect as it floats to the ground.)
FEMALE CO-WORKER: It looks like someone’s throwing fairy dust!
(Suddenly, the snowfall increases dramatically and as the sun glints off, the rapid twinkling almost looks like a transporter effect from STAR TREK.)
ME: Now it looks like someone’s on the roof putting fairies through a wood chipper.
(FEMALE CO-WORKER stares at me for five full seconds before vacating the break room without another word.)
So what’s the first thing I do after saying I won’t be posting book reviews on the new blog? I post a book review.
Except it isn’t.
A review would give a thorough synopsis and talk about what the author did right and what the author did wrong. I can only talk about what the book did to me.
It blew me away.
THE MARBURY LENS is about a teen named Jack who is kidnapped early in the book, escapes, and begins to question his sanity as a result. While visiting London, he’s tricked into putting on a pair of glasses that let him see a sort of alternate world, a hellish place called Marbury. In what we might call reality, Jack struggles to go on with his life, hanging out with his best friend, Connor, and exploring a burgeoning relationship with Nickie, an English girl. But he’s haunted by the events surrounding the kidnapping, besieged by memory blackouts, and fighting an overpowering, self-destructive compulsion to return to Marbury where he’s on a quest to lead two young boys to safety.
THE MARBURY LENS is one of the most original, mind-bending books I’ve read in a long time. It made me paranoid and uncomfortable. But no matter how paranoid or uncomfortable I got, I had to keep reading. Just like Jack’s compulsion to return to Marbury, this was the first thing I picked up whenever I had free time. And the minute I finished, I went online and ordered the author’s two previous books.
That said, this book is not for everyone. It’s graphic and violent. And it really, truly messes with your head. But I can’t recommend it enough. It’s worthy of study just to see how Andrew Smith crawls under your skin and sets up shop. It keeps you guessing and just as Jack questions his sanity, you start to question what you think you know about the book as well. It’s masterful and intense and I won’t forget it anytime soon.
Obviously I read a lot. Some stuff is same ole, same ole. Other stuff is well-written and entertaining. But it’s truly, truly rare when a book shakes me up and stands out in ways I find hard to describe. This is that book. I hope to see/hear people talking about THE MARBURY LENS for months to come.
Online recently, I’ve seen several discussions on one aspect of the writing process that can be summed up in the question: are you a plunger or a plotter? Plungers just dive right into writing, unsure of where they’re going, who they’re writing about, or how best to proceed. They may have a few general ideas but for the most part, they fly blind. Plotters sit down and, often meticulously, craft a roadmap for where the story will take them, how the characters will change. Both techniques are completely valid (ALL techniques are valid, I suppose, as each writer’s process is unique) and each offers something to different writing temperaments (for anyone who might be interested, I tend to be a little of both and it depends on the project).
In creating this, my third blog (my first as a published author), I started with a bit of an identity crisis. The first blog I started in 2005 was kept in tandem with my experiences in the MFA program. It was a lot of things. An attempt to chronicle my thoughts as I went through the program. An experiment at developing an online persona. A place to tinker with fiction, some of it blurring the line between reality and what was not. I finished the program with a shiny new MFA and sold my master’s thesis as my debut novel. I felt this signified a turning point whereby the MFA blog needed to evolve.
So I shut it down and started my most recent blog, Assume Crash Positions. This new blog was an effort to be more of myself (and less of the “online persona”) and was meant to catalog my experiences while I awaited publication of my first novel. It was an unmitigated failure. I offered very little introspection (I found it harder to do so in this new blog incarnation) and spent most of my time linking to funny YouTube videos. (You have to admit, some of them were hysterical.)
Now that my debut novel, CHASERS, is due out next year, I’m launching an official website and another blog (c’est ici). So… what’s this new blog all about? I considered several avenues:
–PUBLISHING: I’m an editor. I acquire young adult books for Flux. It would make sense to talk about the publishing process, the behind-the-scenes stories, give tips on writing query letters, etc. But the fact is simple: there are scores, possibly even hundreds, of other blogs that offer this same information and they’re much better at it than I would be.
–CRAFT: I’m fascinated by the craft of writing. I’m particularly fond of examining point of view, as it’s like the nervous system that affects every single other aspect of the story. Honestly, though, my study of craft is more introspective than something I tend to discuss. Sometimes, with close writing friends, I’ll pose questions and we’ll debate the merits of scene vs. summary (a well-worn debate). But mostly, I keep it to myself. And, again, there are countless other sources online that offer thoughtful analyses of craft.
–THOUGHTS ON CHILDREN’S BOOKS/CURRENT EVENTS: Now here, I admit, there may be some merit. In fact, in thinking about the things I’d like to discuss, invariably these sorts of things are bound to pop up. Every 3-4 months, the New York Times publishes some piece by an egregiously ill-informed writer who trashes children’s books and the internet practically detonates with outrage. I can’t help but feel this is unavoidable. But not quite something to spend all my energy on.
–BOOK REVIEWS: Again, I’m sure this may pop up from time to time, if I read something I’m really excited about. But I’m not sure I can devote my blog to this.
And as I considered these different possibilities, it occurred to me: I’m being a plotter. By nature, I enjoy studying structure of novels and that definitely brings out the plotter in me. There’s something safe and reassuring in rigid definitions.
But, in reality, while I utilize both techniques, I’m mainly a plunger. I tend to start with a few rough ideas, a couple scenes sketched out in my head. I tend to plunge until I get stuck and then the plotter takes over. Plunging can be scary, akin to driving without a map or jumping into a pool where you don’t know how deep it is. But it can also be freeing. What I love best about plunging are the surprises. Characters doing things you don’t expect, the ability to say “what if…”.
In all the novels I’ve completed, I followed this pattern: plunge until things get complicated, then sit down and sketch out the rest, leaving room for surprises but generally having a good idea of where I need to go and how I need to get there. And I figure if it serves me well in novel writing, it can work just was well on the blog.
So, plunge with me as I figure out exactly what this space is going to be about. I know, it’s daunting. Why stick with something when you don’t know what the ultimate pay-off will be? Could be exciting. Could be the Most Boring Blog in the Universe. Trick is, you won’t know until you take the plunge.
Are you game? (Don’t answer that. It’s rhetorical. I fear the answer. Look, only three posts in and I’m neurotic. Sure you don’t want to stick around just to watch the implosion?)
1. I will post a minimum of once a week (probably on Mondays).
2. I will try to be insightful and intelligent, raising questions when they need to be raised and submitting opinions for informed discussion. Failing that, I’ll shoot for moderately entertaining.
3. I will not simply shill my books. I’ll discuss my interests, possibly some current events as they relate to my interests or writing. Probably not a lot about my personal and professional (as an editor) lives. But I’ve been known to slip up in those regards.
4. I will keep posts about DOCTOR WHO to a reasonable minimum. I reserve the right to define reasonable.
5. I will not be someone I’m not. This will make some people happy. This will likely vex others.
6. I will endeavor to create a safe, nurturing environment for those who visit and share their thoughts. Intelligent discourse will be treated courteously. Opinions without basis in fact will not. As Harlan Ellison says, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your INFORMED opinion.” As with ‘reasonable,’ I reserve the right to define fact.
7. I will try not to complain about Twitter and Facebook like Uncle Grumpy Luddite. I will really, really try.
8. I will try to respond to comments. I will fail miserably for the most part. The effort will be more concentrated when trying to enforce #6.
9. I will remain positive, except possibly in those cases where complying with #2 means questioning the ill-informed (i.e. books being banned, etc.). In those instances, I will remain positively enraged.
Welcome to the Official Website of Brian Farrey! It sounds strange to say that. Never, in my life, did I think I’d have an “official” anything, let alone a website. But, wow, look. Here we are.
Still setting up shop here. Not much to see now but keep coming back and things will only get prettier. New content coming soon (and on a regular basis, he says with fingers crossed and hope in his heart).