How do you build a world?

Part 1: The Five W’s and a H

Before reporting became a dying craft, every newbie was taught that a news story had to answer five fundamental questions:

Who, What, Where, When, Why

… and sometimes, How.

In any piece of fiction, these questions are just as fundamental.

I’m going to talk about The Questions, here, while referencing a particular set of books, my own, The Were Chronicles – “Random”, “Wolf”, and “Shifter”.

Question 1: WHO?

When a squib arrived in my inbox announcing a forthcoming anthology of short stories about Weres, – accompanied by an admonishment of “and let’s see something different than the usual tired old tropes!” – I sat down to write a story that immediately popped into my head.

It was a story about a kind of Were-being that was very definitely not a “tired old trope” – it was something that I’d never seen described before, a wholly crazy out-of-left-field idea…

…the Random Were.

A Random Were was a shape-changer who would change into the last warm-blooded creature they saw just before the moment of their Turn – and if it was their FIRST Turn then that would remain their primary form, the form that they will always turn to if they do not see any other critters cross their path in the crucial moments.

The idea had some wonderful comedic possibilities – and in fact the short story I began for that anthology was very light and humorous. It began by positing an unfortunate farmyard incident which left my protagonist’s mother stuck for the eternity of her existence on this world… as a Were-chicken. And trust me, this still gets a laugh if I read that section of the story in a public reading. A Were chicken is FUNNY.

Except that this story quickly ceased to be mindlessly amusing. The Random Were could not exist without rules, and the more I thought about the rules the more a cohesive Were society began to shape itself – a society consisting of various clans who shift true to their form (the Corvids, the Felids, the folk who turn into dogs or bears or sheep or llamas…), the wild-card Randoms (who were the lowest on the totem pole, for obvious reasons) and another new thing, the New Moon Were, the kindred who shifted at the New Moon and not the Full Moon and who generally found themselves living as bats for the three days and nights of their Turn.

They rose in front of me, these people, these races, this society, and they became as solid and real for me as any (now all too ordinary) human being I happened to cross paths with in the street.

I abandoned the short story. It became clear that “Random” wanted to be a book, a huge book, in concept if not words. It meant creating a whole new world and building it up from its foundations… peopled by characters who quickly became some of the best fictional people I had ever had the privilege to work with.

But quite aside from tackling the big questions this book was also an intensely focused one, dealing with things on a much smaller scale than societal pressures – dealing with family secrets, and very very personal issues. The big picture was the Weres and their society – but within it, etched with a diamond-tipped pen, a sharp storyline emerged, and at the center of it was a girl called Jazz.

Jazz was the youngest in an immigrant family of Randoms who came to a new place looking for safety from persecution in the land in which they had been born. The safety proved to be somewhat illusory, because it was, first of all, bought at the very high price of personal freedom. The Were kindred was just as feared and hated here as they had ever been before except in the new world this was carefully hidden behind “rules” and “laws”.

Laws, of course, have always existed to be broken – and there is a level of both subtle and quite open torment – bullying, discrimination – leveled at the Were from their human peers. Jazz’s older sister Celia, who is central to this story, bore the brunt of this torment, to the point that it led to the fracture at the heart of this family – the silences and the secrets surrounding Celia’s death from an overdose of a Were-specific drug.

“Random” is an exploration of an individual trying to find her place in her world (particularly when her own Random nature leads to a transformation which will leave her in a very uncomfortable position) as well as an exploration of what it means to belong to a family, a clan, a race, a species.

It is, on the surface, a story about Were-kind. It is on a deeper level a story about what it means to be human.

“Random” wanted to be a full length book – but it was obvious very quickly that the story I had begun telling would not fit into a single book. I had a series on my hands.

What The Were Chronicles became is not so much a trilogy as a triptych, with a story arc being approached in three different books by three different POV characters – and in “Wolf”, book 2 of the series, the POV character is Jazz’s brother Mal. Mal is battling his own demons – he is at 17 the oldest unturned Were of his generation, which is destroying him, especially since his younger sister Turns before he does; and also, perhaps far more powerfully, he sees himself as guilty for his sister Celia’s death (because it was he who procured the tablets which she took, which then killed her).

The frustration and the guilt make Mal a dark character, perhaps even an unlikeable one – but it is his strength, his convictions, his ability to grasp a nettle when required and endure the stings which are necessary in order to achieve a particular goal, his growth as a character, his willingness to learn and change and shoulder both love and responsibility when they are both laid upon him, it is all these things that make him unique, and wonderful, and real.

He begins his book, “Wolf” as a whiny and petulant boy. He ends it as a man. This is a coming of age story, and it charts a path which may be thorny but which is always true.

Mal’s friend is the titular character of Book 3, “Shifter”.

Chalky is a young man who has lived by his wits and fended for himself since a very young age. He has acquired self-reliance, and power, and knowledge, and a mastery of his not inconsiderable gifts. He is a talented computer hacker, and he is also, as the book’s title implies, a wild card in the Were universe. 

He can change, as his kind can, into something other than human but for him this is not constrained by the phase of the moon or restricted to three days (neither more nor less). He can Turn into whatever he wants or needs to Turn into, whenever he wants, for however long he wants.

So my characters Jazz in “Random”, Mal in “Wolf”, “Chalky in “Shifter”, and Celia, the eldest sister, who spans all three books – these are the faces of the answer to my “WHO” question.

These are the characters who bear the weight of my story on their shoulders, which sometimes look entirely too fragile to hold up the load. But they are strong, my people. And they have a story to tell of their kind, of their families, of themselves.

Aspiring writers often ask how characters are created – and I have to disappoint them with an answer that, for me, characters aren’t created, they are born. My characters tend to step out of the back of my mind, fully formed, demanding that I sit down and take dictation.

They are real to the point that they will come and sit on my bed at night, kicking the side of the mattress with their heels, and tell me I am “doing it wrong” if they feel that I am. And they are usually right, damn them. To me, the person telling the story is a real companion, someone I know well, someone with whom I can squabble and tussle but whose opinions about their own story I deeply respect and whose suggestions (if I may call them that) I take very seriously indeed.

When it comes to “WHO”, it is very important to me that I know and understand the dramatis personae of my stories. Because without a strong “WHO” everything else can disintegrate fast. Do I begin with character, then? I could answer yes but again every story is different.

Sometimes it’s a situation that the characters are in. Sometimes it’s no more than the whistle of a distant train. Stories go where they will. But in the end, they are anchored by character – by the “WHO” in the equation. Because without a strong answer to that question you have invisible people who never come to life at all, and a story with characters who do not live – for you, the creator, as well as for those who will be reading about their lives when your story is done – is a story which will crumble to ashes at a touch.

Find out more about the Were Chronicles HERE

Why do we keep some books forever?

Books with tenure

Falling Books Bookcase photoSometimes I get an urge to run a finger down my bookshelves and remember books – why I got them, why I loved them, why I still own some but not others, what it is that makes a book get tenure in my library.

I still have a bunch of the early Asimov stuff – the robotics stories, the  detective-in-the-stars tales – and this is what I cut my SF teeth on… it was my password – “Hello stars, Asimov sent me”.

I still love some of the robotics stories, but it’s a sentimental affection. I, and the world, have moved on from the early simple sweet Asimovian storytelling. Comparing Asimov with, say, Stross, is like going from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian universe.

I can pinpoint exactly when McCaffrey began to go south on me. It was the Crystal Singer books. Good grief, but that woman was unpleasant. Tough, sure, able to fend for herself, talented, but MAN was she unpleasant. Why would I care about what happened to an unpleasant woman? I read the Crystal Singer books. I no longer own them.

I still have the Dragonflight/Dragonquest/White Dragon trilogy. EVERYTHING that has been said about them in so many other places is absolutely true. McCaffrey tapped into a powerful fantasy with her dragon-human bond – who wouldn’t want to have such a creature for a pet, a friend, a companion? But those books fail me TODAY in that they are too linear, too simplistic, too damned obvious. My tastes have gravitated towards the complex and the layered, the rich and the lush.

I first read Orson Scott Card’s Songmaster novel as a partial published in a magazine. I fell in love with the story, with the power of the tale, with the voice in which it was told, with the compassion and the tragedy that followed the development of the relationships of young Ansset and those who surrounded him, loved him, molded him, ruined him, redeemed him.

I picked up Ender’s Game – and really loved it. But then that franchise ran out of steam fast, and by the third book in that series I was gone.

The original Dune took my breath away then, and still does today. Here was my thirst for complexity slaked, and then some. It was incredible, and powerful, and it found a deep place within me. But the sequels – ah, the sequels – I managed to read the first three. I haven’t touched any since then.

Roger Zelazny’s Amber. I LOVE the original five. I am less devoted to the second set, but I still have them. Those books have full tenure. And not just because one of them happens to be signed.

Mary Stewart’s Merlin books? Keepers, all. One of the best and most powerful tellings of a story told many, many times. Spider Robinson’s stuff – ye gods, do I have to explain? The man’s a Pun King, and for someone similarly afflicted his books are a constant joyride of rolling-eye groaning delight. Keepers, again – and once more not because one of them is signed thusly: ‘To Alma, who obviously has The Callahan Touch herself.’

What else have I got there? Gene Wolfe? Larry Niven? Michael Moorcock?

Guy Gavriel Kay? Oh, him I’ve got – ALL of his books I’ve got. I could rank them for you, sure, from the astonishingly sublime (Tigana) to the merely magnificent (Song for Arbonne, Lions of Al-Rassan). I’ve got ’em all. He’s a keeper. Always will be.

Glenda Larke – friend and colleague – who understands story, worldbuilds with passion, and Writes Good Character. Keepers. Newer favorites, like Catherynne Valente, Elizabeth Bear.

Some books get bought, get read, get evicted. Others… stay.

They’ve got their hooks into my heart and my memory, somehow, and they are more than just the contents of a bookshelf. They are a set of signposts for the literary road I’ve traveled so far. They are not possessions. They are that part of me that is – that part that CAN be – written in other people’s words. They represent the bits of my mind and heart and spirit which THAT writer, THAT story, made possible.

So. What’s on your bookshelves, then…?

The complete version of this can be found at the Book View Cafe HERE

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In a lithub interview, Joyce Carol Oates talks about:

Great Editors, Bad Reviews, and the Internet

Joyce Carol Oates head shotJoyce-Carol-Oates- Photo Dustin Cohen

“The internet can provide a kind of visual beauty, but it does not seem somehow permanent, or “objective”—it can so readily be replaced by the next image. A book on a table, in the hand, on a shelf seems to exude a degree of integrity and “there-ness” totally missing in the digital world. However, I do much of my reading online and even on an iPhone. There is nothing wrong with this, and such reading is far better than no reading at all.”

Read the whole interview at lithub.com HERE

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At bustle.com, Joan Didion offers

11 Writing Tips

Joan Didion head shotJemal Countess/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Sound just like me.

Read the whole interview at bustle.com HERE

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What would happen if a first-born child is promised to two different witches? someone asked.

The question was irresistible. I began writing a short tale. 

To read my version of the story, consider making a small donation HERE

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Quote of the DayClive Barker quote

And it is one that all fiction writers bend their knee to.

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About me    My books    Email me 

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They read WHERE?

Good place to readWashington Square North, Nov. 2, 2013.

At Slate, David Rosenberg offers proof that New Yorkers will read absolutely anywhere by examing the work of photographer Lawrence Schwartzwald, who started a prolific series of people reading.

All of the images were taken spontaneously, apart from some of the celebrities he has seen reading.

See all the photos HERE

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I’ll be giving a reading in Seattle this Thursday evening and I’d love to see you there if you are within driving distance…

or have your own a private jet, of course.

WHO:      Alma Alexander (me)
WHEN:   Thursday, March 19, 7 p,m.
WHERE:  University Book Store, U District, 4326 University Way NE, Seattle
WHAT:     Reading and book signing

Random“There are werewolf stories and there are high school stories. Then there’s Alma Alexander’s new YA fantasy series The Were Chronicles. Set in a world of changelings as diverse as the many different creatures they can turn into. Strict regulation, isolation, and discrimination keep Weres always one notch below the normals they share the world with. And when Jazz—a teenage Random whose form is not completely fixed every Turn—uncovers startling secrets about her sister’s death, what begins is a complex and gripping story about family, culture, race and rebellion that will stay with you long after you turn its last page. Join us for a reading and signing, Alexander will share her brave new work, and maybe even spill a few secrets about what we can look forward to next!”

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How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction

The book war is over, Stephen Marche writes in Esquire, the aliens, dragons, and detectives won.
literary vs genreThe forms of genre—science fiction, fantasy, the hardboiled detective story, the murder mystery, horror, vampire, and werewolf stories—have become the natural homes for the most serious literary questions, he writes.

Only idiots or snobs ever really thought less of ‘genre books’ of course. There are stupid books and there are smart books. There are well-written books and badly written books. There are fun books and boring books. All of these distinctions are vastly more important than the distinction between the literary and the non-literary.

Time has a tendency to demolish old snobberies. Once upon a time, Conan Doyle was embarrassed by the Sherlock Holmes stories; he wanted to be remembered for his serious historical novels.

Read the whole article HERE

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Doctor Who takes the Bechdel Test

Blogger Sarah Barrett watched all 117 episodes of modern-day Doctor Who and analyzed how many passed the Bechdel Test which asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

Turns out that 96 pass the Bechdel Test, giving Doctor Who an overall pass rate of… 80%! That strikes me as not bad, but not outstanding either, for a show that has so many female main characters. I give you a B+, Doctor Who. I know you can do better.
Doctor Who Bechdel Test Infographic

See the story and full infographic HERE

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Extraordinary photos from NASA

NASA continues to blow our minds, Answers.com says, with photos of the vast unknown corners of space. From far away galaxies to our familiar Man in the Moon, these photos will show you things that are hard to fathom as realistic.
Whirlpool galaxyWhirlpool Galaxy: A spiral galaxy like our Milky Way, but is located about 30 million light-years from Earth. The photo combines X-ray wavelengths (purple), with ultraviolet (blue), visible light (green) and infrared light (red). A spectacular image to leave us astounded.

See all the photos HERE

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Author says Colonizing Mars Won’t Be As Easy As He Thought
MarsKim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy filled us all with hope that we could terraform Mars in the 21st century, Charlie Jane Anders writes at io9. But in the face of what we’ve learned about Mars in the past 20 years, the author no longer thinks it’ll be that easy.

Robinson explains that his ideas about terraforming Mars, back in the 1990s, were based on three assumptions that have been called into question or disproved:

See the rest of the story HERE

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Huge ocean confirmed underneath solar system’s largest moon
GanymedeGanymede’s magnetic field

The solar system’s largest moon, Ganymede, in orbit around Jupiter, harbors an underground ocean containing more water than all the oceans on Earth, Eric Hand reports in Science.

Ganymede now joins Jupiter’s Europa and two moons of Saturn, Titan and Enceladus, as moons with subsurface oceans—and good places to look for life.

Read the article HERE

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THIS ‘n THAT

If there’s one thing that every human on this earth has in common, it is that, at some point, we will have to deal with death, Elisabeth Donnelly writes at Flavorwire. She offers  25 books that look straight into the face of death and reveal something new about what it’s like to be alive, saddled with that knowledge that someday, we and our loved ones will die.

See all the books HERE

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Vertical Forest: An Urban Treehouse That Protect Residents from Air and Noise Pollution
Tree HouseApartment building in Turin, Italy – © Beppe Giardino

Read the story HERE

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Quote of the Day  

Do not read as children do to enjoy themselves… read to live.” ~ Gustave Flaubert

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Alma Alexander      My books      Email me   

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