World Building and Storytelling

This is my nineteenth time doing NaNoWriMo. Dang. NaNoWriMo is an abbreviation of National Novel Writing Month and the challenge is to pump out 50,000 quality-optional words in the thirty days of November.

In my head I’m composing a retrospective come December about all the great settings I’ve created over the last nineteen years that never found a story (so there’s something you can look forward to). This year’s effort may or may not qualify.

It was about 35,000 words in that perhaps the actual story began. All that stuff before? Things happened to people, people learned things, but it was all in service of defining the world these people live in. It was all world building.

It is a high compliment in my circles when someone says a writer is a great world-builder. There are big ideas (the world is actually a ring that goes all the way around the star) and subtle ideas (busy busy busy).

But a quick word to all you nascent writers that hang on my every piece of advice: World building is not storytelling. World building is the writer’s process for defining an interesting setting that creates a context for a great story.

For the love of Calliope, don’t spend pages telling me about the rules of magic in your story, or tell me about the vampire’s society, or draw me a fuckin’ map. Show me the world through your characters’ eyes. Tell me what they taste, what they feel, and how the world touches them. Chances are those people are going to change the world, so it’s their view of the world that matters.

You can (and should!) write all those other pages, and draw your maps or whatever you need. Just don’t make me read them. I don’t want to sit through a dissertation about your clever world. If it’s a swamp, start me with my boots in the mud and we can go from there.

35,000 words in, I had maybe 1000 words that could one day be published. But I was really starting to know where Malika lives. Now at 40,000 words, I have one potential plot and one unrelated story. Awesome if I can bind the two, but that seems a reach right now.

But as of 35K, I am definitely making somewhere.

You’re Killin’ me, Walgreens

I woke up this morning with something drilling into one of my sinuses on the left side. A constant, persistent, needle. I knew right away that it would be a day of sneezing and nose-blowing. This kind of thing happens, and eventually we all move on.

At work, I quickly exhausted the already-depleted box of tissues on my desk and grabbed one of those little travel-packs of tissues that happened to be at the ready.

After a tremendous honk I took a breath and it was as if the irritant up there inside my head had been given a hand grenade. I grabbed another tissue and honked again, and realized…

The fuckin’ tissues were scented!

Not just any scent, but some chemical smell designed perfectly to crawl up my nose and destroy me from the inside. Trojan Tissues.

I can’t walk into Hallmark stores. I usually avoid the detergent aisle in grocery stores. The terrible, terrible, perfumes make my entire face hurt. So maybe I’m an outlier for this. But the last thing I want to press against my face when my sinuses are angry is some goddam perfume rag.

I checked the packaging, figuring I was probably using some hoity-toity brand that believes that terrible smell is a value add. Nope. Walgreens. There was copy on the plastic wrapping about how lucky my nose was to experience the Totally Awesome Tissue.

I beg to differ.

They Know Too Much

Tonight I was surprised when I saw a banner ad with the name of my employer in it. Had the robot that created the ad known the significance of that name, it would not have bothered. But I loaded a Web page, and the Google-backed ad placement service provided personal data to the adbot, and there it was.

WTF? Then I realized I was using Chrome. I don’t normally. This eye-opening invasion is in fact what most people experience every day.

From a legal standpoint, I should be able to demand that Google delete all their profile information about me. But in fact I can only demand they delete the information directly related to my google accounts. Somehow, despite the depth of this profile, they cannot find a way for me to establish its ownership. Fuckers.

Why I am Not Convinced that We Should Remove Trump from Office

Anyone who thinks Donald Trump would even take the time to learn what the rules are before he broke them is delusional. The Donald has lived his entire life in a world where the rules don’t apply to him. He’s even bragged about that. He’s not intentionally breaking the rules, because he doesn’t care what the rules are to start with.

So it’s not going to take much digging to come up with a smoking gun bad enough to get Trump convicted of some malfeasance or other, and when the rat is on the table, a few carefully-selected Republicans in the Senate will have to “vote with their consciouses” and Donnie won’t be president anymore.

But here’s the thing. Should that happen, the Republican Party will let out a huge sigh of relief. The Republicans right now are paddling a canoe in choppy waters with a fizzing hand grenade rolling around in the boat. The ones doing the paddling know that if the hand grenade goes off, the boat sinks.

Along come the Democrats, who say, “We demand that you throw that hand grenade overboard!” The Republicans protest, but in the end they reluctantly jettison their deadly cargo. Not their fault! And so the same bastards that brought us WWE politics will be allowed to carry on, and suddenly the other clowns like Ted Cruz seem like rational guys (all of them are guys).

Or we could just suffer Trump for a couple extra months, and leave the hand grenade in their boat. The senate is in play in that scenario; just imagine the fallout within the party if Trump causes them to lose everything.

Ultimately, that’s what I want. I want the Republicans to suffer badly enough that they, ON THEIR OWN, not only throw the hand grenade overboard, but they also jettison the big-money assholes and foreign powers that paid to put that grenade in the boat in the first place. I want the Republican Party to be so damaged by this that they shift tack and try to be ACTUAL CONSERVATIVES.

If that happens, then perhaps Trump will have made America great again after all.

A Storytelling Conundrum

I have created a setting that is rather bleak, but the people in that setting don’t really know that. How do I communicate that the walls are unadorned, if no one in the room has ever seen an adornment on a wall? They’re just… walls.

A Thing I said to a Friend Recently

“Dude, you’ve crossed the threshold into big data now. It’s a moment where you have to swallow hard and denormalize.”

November 1st, 2019

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output to these hallowed pages. This year I’ve got a setting I like very much, and an opening that I can get behind, and little Malika promises to be a handful. But I don’t actually have much of a story figured out yet.

This part works, though, if you ask me, and sets up perhaps a Young Adult hard-sf story centered on a female character.

If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s based on a little piece I did a while back, but from the point of view of the more interesting person.

The Garden

The children walked single-file along the path, gravel cruncing softly beneath their feet. Malika was near the back of the line; only Remi was older than she was. She had walked this same path almost every day since her fourth traditional birthday, at the very front to start with, until Barry had come along and taken her exalted spot. Over the years new kids started at the front of the line and the older kids dropped off the back, to begin their vocational training and take the next step toward adulthood.

She had resented Barry at first, but after years of staring at the back of his curly-haired head, it had come as a shock the day he wasn’t there anymore. Now she followed Abigail’s pony tail.

They reached the half-bowl-shaped depression in the center of the garden, its gently-terraced sides providing seating in the lush grass. The little ampitheater was large enough for the whole clan to gather, but most of the time it was just the children, come for their daily histories.

They filed down the slope, and occupied the first two rows. The ground was cool beneath her, moist to her touch. She pushed her finger into the soil, then raised it to her nose to breathe its life. The garden was the center of her tiny universe.

Malika loved the history stories. It meant time in the garden, with the smells of the soil and the plants and the air heavy with moisture and oxygen. It was a symbol of their weakness, the older ones said, this desire of scarce resources, the drive that had been the undoing of her kind. But Malika didn’t care. She was a mammal, and she liked what she liked.

At the focus of the arc Evie waited for them to settle in, her pale face with that half-smile that almost never wavered. Evie was much paler than most of the children she faced, which was one reason Malika’s clan had traded for her. New Blood. Even now Evie’s belly was starting to grow for the second time. Malika’s family said that this baby was probably going to work out better than Evie’s first one had.

Most days, Evie would open her book of history and tell the children about one of the times a general or an ambassador had made a difference. These were the moments when all the other lessons the children recieved in the sterile classrooms outside the garden, from calculus to psychology, were put in context. When Malika was younger she had revelled with stories of success, tales of clever planning and dexterous adjustment, but now she was more interested in the failures. That was where the true wisdom was to be found. If Malika was going to be a general one day — which she most certainly was — then she needed to learn from the mistakes of those who came before.

Remi, to her right, would not be a general. Remi was smart, but he was a dreamer, and there was nothing in the universe worse than being one of those. When Malika leaned close she could feel his intelligence radiating from him, but he was unable to apply it to anything useful, anything that would justify his oxygen allowance. It’s not that he didn’t try, but his thoughts were often slow to develop. When he reached that thought it was often profound, at least to Malika’s ear, but profundity had little value. If he was better at math he might become a scientist, but numbers were as slippery as ion-repellent lubricant for him, never lining up in the orderly way they did in Malika’s own head. But there had to be some way he could contribute.

Thinking black thoughts, she pushed a little closer to Remi on the soft grass. The moisture from the earth soaked into the seat of her uniform, a feeling she could only know during the history stories.
Except this day, Evie did not open the usual book of history. She opened the Book of Earth. “It is time we remember where we came from,” Evie said in her soft voice.

While the little kids in the front leaned forward eagerly, Malika groaned. Once she too had been eager to learn of Earth, but not anymore.

“It used to be, in a garden like this one, the air was filled with music.” Evie waved her hand and cocked her head, as if she could hear the sounds. “All around were creatures called birds. They were like reptiles, but covered with lightweight, fibrous things called “feathers”. She held up her book so the children could see the illustrations. On one page was a strange creature with a pointed bone for its nose, an insect crushed in its mouth. The bird had its wings outstretched, to show the feathers. The other page showed one of those feathers; it resembled a leaf to Malika’s reckoning. Birds were reptiles that grew leaves and could fly. At least they ate bugs.

“Earth,” Evie said, her voice reverent. “It was a place like no other in the galaxy. A place of such rich variety and vast resources that mammals could flourish and build a civilization. Imagine,” Evie said, gesturing up to the dull metal over thier heads, measured by a grid of lights that emitted a set of wavelengths calculated to match Earth’s sun. “Imagine the sky, like a cieling but far above, blue, but not the sort of blue you can touch. Sometimes water would fall from the sky, and people would dance with joy.”

Malika closed her eyes and took a breath. She had loved that image as a child, she had imagined herself standing under the blue sky as water blessed her, but now she was almost graduated and she could see Earth for what it was: a mythical place. A story you tell the children. And the reason they made it sound so magical was to drive home the real lesson. All the stories of Earth ended the same way.

“No one knows what the music of the birds actually sounded like,” Evie said, her eyebrows sad over that same half-smile. She paused to turn the page of her history book.

“And then the mammals fucked it up,” Malika whispered to Remi. He turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise.

Evie hadn’t heard her. She held up the book again, this time to an image of desolation; trees burning and birds crying in fear as they were immolated. “But we know their music was beautiful. The first histories lament their loss.”

Evie pasted on a sad face as she turned to the next page of her history book. Malika didn’t have to look to know it would show their reptilian saviors.

“Malika.”

She whipped her head around to see Creche Master Willi rise from a bench in the foliage. The children went silent. Evie lowered her book, her eyes wide, her complacent smile forgotten. Willi held out his hand. ”Could you come with me, please?” It was not an idle question. The Creche Master held the power of life and death. It was the same question he had asked Barry.

Remi grabbed her hand without looking at her, but he let go as she stood on shaky legs. You don’t cling to compost.

Malika was having a hard time breathing as her heart tried to jump out of her chest. “Master Willi?” Her throat was so tight she could barely speak. She wanted to look him in the eye but inhaling was about all she could do.

His hand was still outstreatched. “If you could come with me.”

She didn’t have to stumble over anyone to shuffle up the slope to where Willi waited. Just breathe, she told herself. You’re going to be a general. She knew that wasn’t true. Not anymore.
Behind her the others were silent. She reached Willi, and he kept his hand out until she took it, gripping him tight. Her legs wobbled but Willi supported her through that link.

“Am I compost?”

Willi smiled, but it seemed forced. “We are all compost. You know that. Will you walk with me?” He didn’t wait for Malika to answer; he turned up the path to the bulkhead door, her hand still in his. The door opened and they both passed through quickly, allowing it to close again before too much magic leaked out.

The air outside the garden was brittle and cold, and left Malika always a little hungry for more. She followed Willi along a corridor, the deck the same gray metal as the bulkheads, stained here and there where humans were likely to touch. They turned in a direction that led to a door Malika had never passed through. A door to a differet world. No one ever came back through that door.
“Please,” Malika said. “I can be good.”

Willi gave her a sad smile. “I don’t think you can.” As her knees gave way he wrapped his arms around her, lifting her back up, supporting her. “But we’re not here to be good, whatever that means. We have to earn our way.”

They reached the portal that led from Malika’s tiny world to the domain of a star-conquering species. Willi lifted an oxygen tank from a rack by the door an Makila copied him, slinging the gas cylinder over her shoulder and putting the mask over her nose and nouth. “You are about to be judged,” Willi said. “I have told them you show promise. Don’t let us down.”

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Deadspin, I hardly Knew Ye

It was about a month ago that I read on the pages of deadspin.com how corporate assholes had destroyed Sports Illustrated. There are no more journalists at that respected institution, and actually not even any more photographers. Three months ago Sports Illustrated broke a huge story about an athlete, rape, and intimidation. It was a careful, researched piece of journalism.

That will never happen again at SI. The new corporate masters want clickbait but no actual content. Many staffers — the ones involved with journalism or, ironically, illustrating sports — were let go.

One of the journalistic institutions that railed most loudly about the corporate machine silencing the voices of writers was Deadspin. They seriously do not pull their punches there. They will tell you exactly why your favorite team sucks (technically they are a sports outlet), but they will also tell you why mainstream journalists are so lost when covering a man-child president — looking for a plan when there is none, looking for a policy when the man in charge is incapable of formulating one.

But now Deadspin has fallen to the same corporate bullshit. Their media owners tried to impose a mandate that they only cover sports, and the social issues that were directly related, but to stay away from pop culture and politics in particular. The deputy editor said no, and was fired. Much of the staff quit in response.

This is not small.

Over at ESPN, there has been a slow, quiet purge of columnists who dare talk about race and gender inequality in the context of sports. Although management says they have “clarified” their rules about only talking about politics and race when it is directly germane to sports, it’s pretty much impossible to say that Jemele Hill crossed some invisible line. Her essays were always in the context of sport. But that wasn’t what the ESPN bosses really wanted, no matter what they said. The didn’t want anyone rocking the boat.

Deadspin, if you squint at the name just right, looks like it might have been born to mock ESPN. And up until this week, it was a fearless voice. Boat-rockers one and all. But in the last couple of days, in the wake of mass resignations, many recent “political” articles have been replaced by straight-up sports stories. Three years after Colin Kaepernick took a knee, even the “renegade” media outlets have been coerced to the idea that somehow that athlete’s protest was not related to sports — even if it was a protest about something that touched athletes and their communities directly.

To the writers who quit Deadspin, who have put their livelihoods at risk for a matter of principle: I have an underutilized little server in a bunker outside Las Vegas, Nevada. If you want to fire up Rebornspin, I’ll host you no charge.

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