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.

The Creche

The children sat in a semi-circle in the grass, seventeen of them, aged three to nine in traditional years, their eyes fixed on Evie the storyteller, who sat cross-legged at the focus of the children, the Holy Book in her hand. The petite brown woman smiled, a little wistfully, and opened the Book. “Today I would like to tell you about Earth.”

Willi had to smile as he watched the younger kids sit forward eagerly while the older kids rolled their eyes. Will relaxed on his bench, partially concealed by the lush vegetation of the creche, but not actually hiding.

“Earth was a beautiful place,” Evie said. “It was like this,” she said, waving at the vegetation as it flourished under the lights of the creche, “but the air was sweet — and above,” she glanced at the gray metal over their heads, “above was the sky. It was like a ceiling, but far, far, above. And sometimes, water would fall out of the sky, and the people would dance with joy.”

Willi watched as one of the older children leaned over to the boy sitting next to her. With a thought and a gesture Willi tapped into her audio. “And then we fucked it up, because we are greedy mammal bastards.”

Willi groaned but he was watching today for precisely this event. He stood and cleared his throat softly. “Malika, would you come with me, please?”

The girl swung around and looked at him, her brown eyes wide in her pale face. “I didn’t…”

“Come with me.”

She stood and pulled at her jumpsuit, which didn’t fit her very well. Too small. They grow like weeds at that age, Willi thought. But there was no place for weeds here. Not in this garden.

Tears were escaping her eyes as she walked away from the other children. They watched her go with stony faces, internalizing the most important lesson of the day: There are some things you never say out loud.

Malika stood in front of Willi, her eyes fixed on his feet. He reached out and put his hand on her skinny shoulder and felt her shaking. “Am I compost?” she asked.

Willi let out a slow breath. He used his hand on Malika’s shoulder to steer her toward the exit. “We are all compost. But before we are fed to the grinder, we must justify the resources we consume.” To make his point he touched a control and the heavy door cycled open, revealing the stark passageways of the starship. Even outside the creche, the air in the sections used by the mammals was heavy with moisture and fizzing with oxygen. Expensive air.

“It is delicate,” Willi said, knowing that all his words might be heard, the same way he had eavesdropped on Malika.

She was crying now. “Please,” she said, as fluid ran out of her eyes and her nose. No matter how efficient the recycling was on the ship, the crew would never be able to condone such waste.

Willi leaned in close and whispered, “They resent us.” Her eyes widened and Willi gave her a tight smile. “For any one of us, the ship could support ten of them. Ten of them awake.” The lizards would hear those words, but that was all right. This was just part of the curriculum. Every kid got this lecture eventually, in one form or another.

“They hate us? Why do they keep us?”

Behind them the door to the creche closed, and they walked down the sterile gray passage, with no particular destination.

“No, they don’t hate us. They don’t — they aren’t capable of hatred. Which, indirectly, is why they keep us. But without them, we are lost,” Willi said. “Earth is gone, just a radioactive cinder orbiting an ordinary star. Our ancestors did that to themselves. This is our home now, and we have to earn our way.”

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