How to Assemble a Planet

Oh, did you really think you could surf to this blog entry and learn how to design and construct an entire planet?  Well, okay, you were right.  So long as you’re expecting a how-to about fictional planets.

transparent-planetAuthors call this ‘world-building’ and they sometimes use the term ‘world’ in a different sense than the term ‘planet.’  In fiction, the world is not just the physical planet, but its inhabitants, their culture, and their environment too.

In most fiction, it’s not necessary to build a world, since the authors use the present-day (or historical) world we already inhabit.  They can assume readers are familiar with Planet Earth.  Such authors are free to focus on key aspects of Earth that are relevant to their story, to paint a biased picture of our world as seen by the author or one (or more) characters.

But in fantasy fiction or science fiction, it’s often interesting and fun to imagine and create very different worlds from Earth, or a very changed Earth.

Memorable, classic, examples of world-building include (1) Middle Earth from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, (2) the planet Arrakis from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune and its sequels, and (3) the strangely-shaped structure of Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld.

If you set out to build a world for your fiction story, what things might you consider?  A partial list includes the particular laws of physics, the solar system, the planet’s size and gravity, configuration of solids and liquids internally and on the surface, the atmosphere, geography, climate, plants, animals, and sentient creatures.  If your world has sentient creatures, then you could consider such things as cultures, languages, religion, art, education, economics, government, law, traditions, taboos, and technology.

Although Wikipedia has an interesting article on World-building, there are two other sites that I found more beneficial:  this one, and this one.  The latter site is run by Melanie Simet, who has come up with four cardinal rules of world-building that I really like, starting with zero:

0.  Be Original.

1.  Don’t distract your reader.

2.  Make your world coherent.

3.  Know at least one level of detail deeper than you need to.

She explains these in more depth on her website, so I won’t repeat those details here.  I would like to emphasize Rule 1, though.  It can be a temptation to get so involved with world-building that you forget it’s just a setting.  Stories are about characters dealing with problems, so don’t give your readers a documentary.

I’m sure this world-building is starting to sound like an awful lot of work, when all you set out to do was write a story.  It can be involved, but it needn’t consume you if you keep Simet’s cardinal rules in mind as you go.  If you write short stories, like me, you don’t have as much need for comprehensive world-building as a novelist would, unless you’re planning a long series of stories set on the same world.

That’s a glimpse at the basics of world-building.  Have fun.  Make your world an interesting one to read about.  Enjoy your taste of God-like power.  If this blog entry has inspired you, and you end up selling your story set in a fascinating new world, please let me know.  Your world could well be visited by—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 24, 2013Permalink

Being Poseidon’s Scribe

Many fans have noticed the headline of my website:  “Poseidon’s Scribe—Advice for beginning scribblers, straight from Olympus.”  Questions have been pouring in about that, and it’s time I answered them.

Are you really Poseidon’s Scribe?  Yes.  It’s not the sort of thing you’d make up, or dare to impersonate.

PoseidonI thought Poseidon was a myth.  Does he really exist?  Oh, yes.  God of the Sea, Earth-Shaker, Tamer of Horses.  He exists, all right.  And he gets rather upset when some mortals think him a myth, so I’d believe in him if I were you, especially if you’re going near water.

The Romans called him Neptune; does he prefer to go by Poseidon?  He’ll answer to either name, but I think deep down he prefers the one with more syllables.

Why does he need a scribe?  I never really thought to ask him.  The twelve gods and goddesses in the pantheon each have one, probably because they want their exploits preserved for posterity, but can’t be bothered to write for themselves.

What sort of things does he have you write about?  Oh, you know.  On this day, he created an island.  On that day, he got angry at some sailors who worshiped him insufficiently, so he sent a storm.  Made whirlpools, created sea-monsters, went to New Orleans in mortal form to have a good time at Mardi Gras.  That sort of thing.

What is Poseidon like to work for?  Officially? A great guy, a wonderful boss.  (But the stuff I could tell you…!)

How did you get the job?  Saw the ad, sent my resume, sat for an interview.  Pretty much the same as any job.  Well, except for being teleported to Olympus for the interview.  He looked over samples of my writing, and must have liked them.

What does the job pay?  Poseidon didn’t really get the whole ‘salary’ thing at first, so I had to be insistent.  Then he wanted to pay me in gold, with a morsel of ambrosia and a half cup of nectar a month.  I finally introduced him to direct deposit.  Basically the salary isn’t stellar; it’s about what a Grecian earns.

What are your work hours?  Irregular, to say the least.  At any time of day, Poseidon can pop in and demand I write some account of him making a sea spout to terrorize people, or whipping up a squall for fun.  After the first month, I got the hang of the self-glorifying language he preferred, so it’s a rare week when I need to work more than forty hours.  That leaves time for my hobby, writing fiction.  I’m just glad I’m not Hermes scribe; that poor guy has to write fast.

Where is your office?  Can you work from home?  I do work at home, actually, though on some occasions the sea-god teleports me to some ocean or other to see an event (or its aftermath) myself so I can describe it as an actual witness.

Do you get benefits?  No.  Although I keep telling Poseidon it’s a full-time job and I’m entitled to benefits, he’s an immortal and considers me a temp.

Can Poseidon fire you?  Or worse?  In theory, yes.  There was a period, a few centuries ago when he would turn his scribes into goats or banish them to Hades if they wrote poor accounts.  But that led to a shortage of mortal volunteers, so now there’s a process he has to follow.  No changing into any sort of animal without thirty days advance notice, arbitration hearings, full documentation of deficiencies, access to a lawyer, etc.  I think my job’s pretty safe.

How do I get a job like that?  Well, there are only so many gods, and they like to hire young scribes who will serve for a full mortal career, so positions don’t open that often.  If I had to guess, I’d say Hephaestus’ scribe would be next to retire, maybe in fifteen years or so.  If you’re into writing about fire, metalworking, masonry, and sculpture, that could be the job for you!

There you have it.  If you think of more questions, just leave a comment or click on Contact in my menu above to send an e-mail to—

                                                           Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 17, 2013Permalink

Details,Details…

When I said I’d blog about choosing details wisely in writing fiction, I meant it; I just didn’t say how soon I’d get around to it!  Writers often have to describe scenes, characters, or objects in their stories.  Which details do they choose to mention, and why?

First let’s examine some of the things writers try to accomplish in their descriptions:

  • First and foremost, create an image in the reader’s mind
  • Convey the mood and theme of the story
  • Show the attitude, personality, and mood of the point-of-view character
  • Foreshadow a later event
  • Illustrate connections to, or separations from, other scenes, characters, or objects in the story

That seems like a lot to accomplish, a lot of baggage to weigh down a few words.  Partly for that reason, in books written in the Nineteenth Century and earlier, descriptions were long and tedious.  Writers weren’t as selective about details; they threw them all in.  Today’s readers won’t stand for that, so as a modern writer you’ll have to keep your descriptions brief.

Say you’re writing about something or someone and you want to convey the image to the reader’s mind.  How do you choose the details?  Here are some guidelines:

1.  Three is a magic number, as far as the number of details to pick.  Don’t stray too far from it either way.

2.  Specific details beat general ones every time.

3.  Nouns and verbs are better than adjectives, and adjectives are better than adverbs.

4.  Consider using a mind map to mentally play with all the details you can think of, then select the few that best serve your purposes.

5.  You don’t have to gather all the details together in one place, in one solid paragraph.  You can sprinkle some of them around later in the scene; that helps break up the narration and keeps the image fresh in the reader’s mind.

Here’s an exercise you can do to improve your skills in selecting details for your descriptions.  Pick something to describe–the scene out your window, a movie or TV character, a household object.  Now create a mind map filled with key words about your chosen thing.  Next write two description paragraphs, one in a happy mood and one in a sad mood.  Write two more paragraphs, each as if narrated by characters with opposite personalities.  Write another one that contrasts your chosen thing with some other.  Just as no two witnesses describe a traffic accident the same way, using the same details, there are innumerable ways to describe anything.

Let’s analyze how George Orwell described the scene outside a character’s window at the beginning of his novel, 1984.

Outside, even through the shut window-pane, the world looked cold. Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, big_brother_is_watching_you_by_teabladezz-d20dgysthere seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere. The black moustachio’d face gazed down from every commanding corner. There was one on the house-front immediately opposite. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said, while the dark eyes looked deep into Winston’s own. Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the single word INGSOC. In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs…

In addition to giving a concrete image, this certainly conveys mood and theme, and also foreshadows.   I like the contrast between nature (shining sun, blue sky) and man-made items (torn paper, poster flapping, commanding corners).  Well-chosen details.

More practice will increase your skills at picking details to include.  Leave me a detailed comment if you got something out of this blog post.  Knowing the devil is in the details, I’m—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 9, 2013Permalink

Donkey and Elephant Stories

donkey elephantIs it wise for a fiction writer to inject personal political beliefs into his or her stories?  Or is the question moot; is all fiction in some sense political?  Let us roam with elephants and donkeys.

Arguably, both politics and good fiction are about ideas.  The ideas explored by politics surround questions like:  How shall people be governed?  What is the role of government?  What is the nature of power? Can we arrange governing systems for maximum benefit to all?

Fiction also deals with ideas, though these are not limited to political ideas.  Often they boil down to basic questions of philosophy:  What is beauty?  What is truth?  What is justice?  What happens after death?

But my real question is whether writers should make their political leanings obvious in their stories.  Some authors certainly do.  L. Neil Smith is very libertarian.  Robert Heinlein, too, leaned libertarian.   Isaac Asimov leaned to the liberal side, though not blatantly so.  Ayn Rand was passionate about her political philosophy, which she felt was new and different enough to have its own name—Objectivism.

In my view, there are dangers in making your political views obvious in your fiction.  For one thing, you can turn off at least half of your potential audience.  Those who disagree with your political stance won’t read more than one of your books.

If your intent is to persuade, consider this.  Have you ever heard anyone say something like this after a political argument: “Thank you.  I’ve come around to your side, based on the strength of your logic.  I see now that I’ve been voting the wrong way my whole life.  Thanks again, for helping me see the light.”  Almost nobody changes his party affiliations that easily.

Another danger in overt political fiction is predictability, and therefore dullness.  When the good guys believe as the writer does, and the bad guys are of the other political party, the reader knows who will win.  The reader can feel like she’s being preached to.  Clever and rare is the writer who can represent the opposite side in a fair and convincing way.

NightOfJanuary16thIt’s my view that Ayn Rand achieved this in her stage play “Night of January 16th.” The play occurs, for the most part, in a courtroom.  Near the end, the judge dismisses the jury to their room to render a decision. At that point it’s announced to the audience that they are the jury and will be allowed to vote guilty or not guilty.  (Either that or twelve audience members are selected at the start to play the jury.)  A vote of not guilty represents a tilt toward Objectivism, and a vote of guilty means the opposite.  There are two endings to the play, and the actors perform the one voted on by the “jury.”  I understand that, in all the plays performances since it premiered in 1935, the ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ outcomes occur about equally often.

My recommendation, if you’re set on writing overt political fiction, is to (1) do so in a subtle, metaphorical way without preaching to your readers, (2) poke fun at or lambaste all politicians equally, focusing on the separation between politicians and the rest of us, or (3) be as even-handed as possible, with bad guys and good guys on both sides.

What are your thoughts?  No, not about the last election—I mean about the prudence of putting politics in your fiction!  Leave a nonpartisan comment and let me know.  Steering well clear of donkeys and elephants, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 3, 2013Permalink