Doll’s house

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This seriously disturbing ‘doll’s house’ is the work of Giai-Miniet. There’s more here, if you’re interested

I was going to write today about plotting and the difficulties thereof. But last night I realised that’s not what I’m struggling with. Plot is all about people, about what they do and what they cause to happen. I’m more concerned with the architecture: with giving my cast a place to inhabit, to interact with and to burn to the ground.

I’ve been struggling with making my ideas work. I have my protagonists – it’s a sequel to Oneiromancer – so that’s done. I have my location (contemporary Brittany). I have an idea of what drives the story and where I want it to end up. But I can’t get down and actually write the damn thing because I don’t have my backdrop: I don’t know what drives the as-yet-uncreated minor characters or villain(s); I don’t know what’s happened before my characters got on stage.

A good book is all about the creatures who inhabit its pages. No-one (these days) starts with reams of backstory. It must start in the middle, after the ball’s been rolled and as the pins are tremble at its approach. The die has been cast but the score is obscured.

But the author needs to know what that score is. I need to have built my doll’s house, to know the position of every wall, every piece of furniture (for a good solid chair is very handy for beating down any giant mutant rats that may sneak in), every hidden passageway. Then my characters can move in and – hopefully – burn the beds, rip off the wallpaper, dig into the cellar and maybe hack into next-door’s wifi.

But (most of) the walls will remain. My world. My political machinations. The bits that will only be revealed to my cast as they explore: the skeletons that’ll be exhumed; the maids to lust after; the cows that give blood instead of milk. The cast will change their world as they walk (run, career, hurtle) through it. But I need to know the nature of the diorama they’ve just been cast into.

A good plot allows your characters to pull down the world into which they’re been scattered. But the world has to have been there first.

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World-building 101

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There is a misconception that planning equals plot. To be sure it can, but there’s a whole other layer of planning that must come first. The heavy lifting. What is often, and sometimes misleadingly, called world-building.

Some of the best science-fiction is set on a world indistinguishable from our own. Some of the best fantasy too. That doesn’t mean that world-building is any less important – or complicated.

Every novel is different. When I was working on Night Shift I began with an idea – a murder on an isolated base somewhere. My planning really took the form of working out why that base existed; how the resolution (the reveal) could make logical sense. Essentially I was seeking a political structure in which to operate.

My first ideas were to set it in space, in a derelict mining station, and the politics were based on rival corporations. But I’ve always shied against running too far into the future and I reined it in to focus on Earth, either in the deep oceans or on Antarctica. The final decision was only made when the title came to me. The questions then were about who, what and why a base would be established there: what set-up would lead logically to the resolution I sought?

Now I’m working on a new project. I have my high-concept – shared consciousness – and setting. Now I have to stop writing and start thinking. How established is the technology? Does the Man on the Clapham Omnibus know of the possibilities, or is it a government secret? How did we discover this science? Are there named inventors, and what consequence has this had on the world? Does any of this actually matter anyway? I need to know the answers if only to help me find my way to the right questions.

As with Night Shift, I can’t work out my antagonist until I know what frame he/she/it works in.  I can’t find my character’s goal until I know what she’s fighting. This, for me, is the real work of writing. We have to be plausible and consistent and through plausibility and consistency comes motive and plot.

Oneiromancer’s planning was all about the system of ‘magic’ I was going to use. Again I had my protagonists established; this time I’d already decided on my setting (contemporary London). I knew it would all be about manipulating dreams. My planning was really about political structures on alternative worlds: culture, history and politics.

Maybe other genres are different. Historical novelists can drop plots into existing structures; they have real, known figures with which to play. Their challenges are different. Likewise contemporary crime novelists have a world ready-made for them. They still have to work on characters, motives and rationale, but they don’t have to draw maps of imaginary nations or work out by what mechanism dragons fly.

This is hard work, and I suspect it’s why writers like series’ so much: the lifting only has to be done once and then it’s all about revision and reinforcement. Ultimately the time spent here will determine whether I have reams of unsustainable ramblage or an actual story. Somewhere in the undergrowth is the golden egg of Plot, but it must be kept warm and safe and allowed to develop in its own time.

It’s giving me a headache. Someone pass the paracetamol. It’s right there, next to the used clichés. Cheers.

World leader pretend

Building a world is not just about fantastical kingdoms or the sins of a solar empire. It’s about the mood you sprinkle throughout every bit of your story. And you can create the world in the simplest ways because humans are stupid.

Every single word you use has a whole host of connotations surrounding it. Words don’t exist in isolation, they rely on context to sharpen and focus their gaze, and each word you choose carries weight beyond the simple.

For example: ‘A rat skittered from a pile of rubbish’. Without any further clue I bet you placed that scene in the sort of place you most associate rats and rubbish; for most of us probably a scene of urban decay (for me it was the alley behind my old flat) but if you’re from the countryside your impressions may have been different.

The point is that you don’t need many words to form an image in someone’s mind. Mention weeds poking through broken concrete and you create not only a picture but an atmosphere. Replace ‘weeds’ with ‘wildflowers’ and the mood changes.

This is what you’re doing when you’re world-building. You’re not trying to describe everything that moves or everything that the character sees or feels. You’re trying to pick the points that are either integral to the plot or create an emblematic link in the reader’s mind. You’re trying to find the touchstones that illuminate not only what you’re focussing, but on the situation as a whole. And those touchstones have to be unique; clichés (and both examples I’ve given here might be considered clichés) are Right Out.

The universe of every story is to some extent a fantasy. Very few novels exist purely in the ‘real’ world; they all have their frameworks that need to be defined. Even Dickens, the arch social commentator of his day, had to build a world that only existed in his mind. The wild marsh from the early stages of Great Expectations; it might have been based on a real place, but he had to define the harshness of the world from the same toolbox as the creator of an epic fantasy. Miss Haversham’s house could’ve been drawn by Stephen King.

Worlds aren’t just about political structures; they’re about the every day lives of the protagonists. And because the human mind is so amazing, describe the floor (carpet or lino? Dirty or clean? Does it muffle the sound or create echoes?) and you’ll find you’ve described the walls and ceilings also, and possibly the state of mind of your character as well. It tells you something of a person if their bedroom is shared by generations of the same family of spider. Are the knickers strewn on the floor or neatly laundered and folded away?

This is world-building. It’s all about the subtle little words you slip into action; no stopping to gaze around at your surroundings; it’s about graffiti or posters or perfectly manicured lawns. It’s the smell of damp, the whisper of wind in the trees. It’s the things delicately woven into the background that the reader barely notices but still influence the way they feel in this world.

Sometimes you’ll need a wadge of description if you need to describe something completely unexpected: and if your characters are searching a bedroom, say, or are having their first glimpse of a new planet, a look around is entirely necessary. But the real skill of writing is to give the readers something utterly normal and yet feed them the information they need to fully experience that place – without them ever noticing the writer’s hand.