Spoon in the teacup 2: reader investment in worldbuilding

A couple posts ago there was some discussion about the sort of detail that helps shape character.

I figured it might be worthwhile to ramble a bit about details in worldbuilding.

When I listen to discussions of favorite books, whether fantasy or historical novel, I keep hearing over and over that the memorable ones have a ring of truth, or seem real. If it’s fantasy, it’s believable worldbuilding, and if history, it gets the details right.

Getting the details right in a historical novel can be tougher than “Do tons of research.”. First of all, readers’ perception vary.. One person’s “true-to-the-period” rave contrasts with another’s “I couldn’t get past all the errors on page one!” rant, and a third’s “It was so stiff with historical blather I was bored and confused.”

Totting up errors can be just as boring unless one likes one-upmanship as a spectator sport. No writer can be an expert on any period outside of life experience, though lifetime scholars immersed over decades in a single period probably come as close as possible. We don’t get to live long enough to master everything. (And of course fantasy is fantasy.)

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Stop Yelling My Name

I’m on a lot of email lists. A lot. I go through every month or so and unsubscribe from as many as I can, but they proliferate. Some of them are sales emails that come from e-commerce sites I may have visited (or may not… really, some of the email I get is weirdly off-target in these days of targeted communications software). Others come from my preferred candidates–okay, fine, I probably want to hear from them. But the lists that come from organizations supporting policies shared by my preferred candidates? Not so much. And the tenor of the subject lines and preview copy? Shrill, shrill, apocalyptically shrill. I hate it.

I particularly loathe those emails that use my name. Continue reading


The Writer-Reader Contract

I remember a teacher long ago saying that that the writer-reader contract was more intimate than marriage:

“How’s that?” a student asked skeptically, with the face of one who has yawned through many an assigned book.

The answer was that one is willing, even eager, to take into their head someone else’s thoughts. How much more intimate can you get?

I’ve thought about that over the years since. Is contract another word for trust? That appears to be the case when readers will buy, unseen, the next book in a series, or by a given author, whereas they will circle around a new book by an unknown, reluctant to pay down money, even a small amount that they would think nothing of spending on a cappuccino.

But of course, with the cappuccino, they know ahead of time exactly what they are getting, and it only takes a small amount of time to enjoy it. A book is an investment of time, and who hasn’t heard “I wish I could get those hours back?”

I’ve found in discussions over the years that some balk at the word trust, and others at contract. How to define that relationship?

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The Rambling Writer Returns to Crete, Part 16: Iraklion Museum of Archaeology, Early Minoans

We’re back on Crete, at the world’s finest collection of Minoan artifacts, in the Iraklion museum. We’ll start with the oldest artifacts, from Neolilthic to the early Palatial period.

NOTE: Of course, Thor and I had to make another trip to Greece, as he’s fallen as much in love with the islands as I am. This time, in addition to other island-hopping, I wanted to return to Crete after 37 years. My first months-long trip was as a hippie backpacker, camping in the ruins and falling under the spell of the mysterious, vanished Minoan culture. This time, I got to introduce Thor to “glorious Kriti” and research more settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. This new blog series started October 19, 2019, and will continue every Saturday.

The Iraklion museum is a fabulous treasure trove of artifacts, as well as a beautifully-organized history tour. The exhibit halls are laid out chronologically, so we’ll follow that thread through the labyrinthine history of the early Cretans and rise of Minoan civilization. (Today we’ll cover up to the early palatial period, and move on next week into the full glory of Minoan art and architecture.) Continue reading


New Worlds: Sports

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Our modern craze for competitive sports may be noteworthy in its scale, with top athletes being paid enough to put them firmly among the economic elite, but the passion for sports in general is nothing new. We’ve always liked to watch physically fit people do impressive things.

In many cases, though, the original point wasn’t entertainment. It’s easy to lose sight of this now, when the nature of combat has changed so much . . . but quite a lot of sports started out as practice for war.

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The Chaos We Live With

Nevertheless, She PersistedFor years I’ve been writing near future science fiction in which chaotic collapse due to the climate crisis and extreme economic inequality are a given.

Some are published (check out “Chatauqua” in the BVC anthology Nevertheless, She Persisted or “Or We Will All Hang Separately” in my collection Walking Contradiction and Other Futures); others are in progress. None are dystopias from my point of view, because while they all assume things are going to get bad, they also assume that humans will muddle along and maybe even build a better future out of all this.

But I don’t think I’ve ever been able to write any near future stuff that doesn’t assume a crash. Even my story “Borders,” which was written in 1997, assumed that (it’s also in Walking Contradiction and Other Futures). Continue reading


The spoon in the teacup: Reader investment in character

At a con, a panel was asked:

What makes us believe in a world or a character, what undermines that, and how can that tension be leveraged?

I thought this would be a great topic for discussion, though at the outset I wonder if belief is too volatile a word—what we’re doing when we read is more of a suspension of belief, because we know the story is fiction going in. All my life I’ve enjoyed rereading Lord of the Rings, since that first immersive experience when I was fourteen, but I never believed Frodo, or Tom Bombadil, or Eowyn existed. Invest? Follow?

My initial thought was that any discussion is going to have to acknowledge subjectivity at the outset. There is no standard for Believable (or investment-worthy) characters. There are readers who criticized J.K. Rowlings for writing characters they considered flat and stereotypical, one-dimensional in action and prose. Obviously millions and millions disagreed.

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Auntie Deborah Advises on the Business of Writing

Auntie Deborah is back at her advice desk…

If two authors want to collaborate on writing a novel, how much should each author contribute?

Auntie Deborah: It all depends. There are so many different ways to do this. I’ve seen authors alternate chapters, divide scenes according to their strengths (ex: character/dialog vs action/technology), one writes the draft and the other revises it. I co-wrote a (published) short story in which my partner described a scene while I typed it out, asking questions and filling in details.

For the last 20 years, I’ve written posthumous collaborations with the author who was my mentor. During the last year of her life, we talked about the basic plot arc for the first 3 books, but then she died and I wrote those books (and 6 more and counting…) My natural literary “voice” is very close to hers so the transition was easy. Her Literary Trust approves the manuscript for consistency of style and content before it goes to her agent (who also happens to be my agent), so in a sense they act as a current collaborator. I work under subcontract to them and we have a formal, written, legal agreement.

The one unbreakable rule is that you set down in writing how you will resolve differences, divide payment, and what you will do if it all falls apart. Absolutely do not skip this step!

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