World-Building: the Fundamentals of a Civilization

I'm not a teen, but I still follow Go Teen Writers because they frequently have articles hosted that I find personally helpful.  One recent post was so enlightening that I am going to credit it and then unabashedly steal it.

Shallee McArthur (science fiction author of The Unhappening of Genesis Lee), was featured on the topic of world-building and creating the culture of your story.  She referenced her opportunity to travel to Ghana, a culture which everyone told her would be inconceivably different from our own western United States.  Like anyone charged with the optimism of youth, she thought she appreciated this information and went buoyantly onward, unaware of the shock that was awaiting her once she touched African soil.
'Eventually I realized my biggest problem with culture shock was that I couldn't forgive Ghana and its culture for not being MY culture. I didn't understand the values behind the behavior, so I couldn't accept it. Once I was able to learn from the people around me, and to look at things and say, "this is the way it is because of this reason," I was able to love it.'
Her experience with a very foreign country has helped her get to the root of world-building.  It isn't different dress or language or even customs which make a culture so new to us, it's values.  Good, bad, mixed up or misplaced, values are the core of a culture.  This is something which I understood intuitively, but until she put it down in words and diagrams, I had not really looked the matter in the face.  As humans, we are (as much as we may try not to be) eminently logical creatures.  Purpose and reason define our functions.  We do not eat our food, put on our wardrobe, or order our days, without reference to some set of values which, to us, make sense.

The same applies to world-building in fiction.  Without values, anything we invent for our worlds has no foundation, no purpose or reason, and feels detached.  It runs the risk of lacking a certain depth which every writer covets for his writing.  But these values are at the core of a civilization.  How do you weave them into your novel when they lie beneath the surface of the visible attributes of your world?

A lot of people have mentioned to me that the main character of Plenilune does not ask some glaringly obvious questions when confronted with the brave new world of the novel.  Well, first of all, the main character doesn't have the sort of personality to immediately ask those pat questions we've come to expect of characters encountering new cultures.  Secondly, I don't feel like patronizing the reader and giving the fatal "info-dump."  These unspoken questions continue throughout Plenilune, and are subtly answered along the way as the main character begins to learn and appreciate the value-system of the culture she is experiencing.  As the reader and the main character begin to understand the value system of these strangers, and learn what they consider important, their moral sine qua non, their treasured beliefs, the structure of their civilization and their actions make sense.
what are the values of your world?

A Writing Virtue Learned Through His Absymal Sublimity, Undersecretary Screwtape

"Is description hard for you?"
I think at the time I was asked that, I said "no," because in general it isn't as if I sit hunched over my desk, rubbing my temples while I stare at the screen, wracking my brains for the right description.  In general, description comes naturally to me.  But the truth of the matter is, I've never analyzed what aspects of writing are hard for me and which are easy - plot arcs, character development, world-building, narration, description, dialogue, etc.  Usually, I am far too busy being concerned with becoming better at everything, and doing justice to the novel under my knife. 
it's all hard, after a fashion
I just finished reading a great little post from Go Teen Writers by Shannon Dittemore on sticking with your novel when the fire of your first love has died.  Most of us are plagued with numerous spin-offs and completely-other story ideas, which threaten to lure us away from our project when our project becomes work instead of fun.  I'm sure a lot of us are guilty of veering off and doing just that, leaving our original project languishing in the sad, uninteresting middle, cobbled together by vague promises that you will return.  But you know that as soon as you hit the rough patch of your new project, you'll be whisked off onto another story, leaving yet another story to die.  Have you done it before?  It doesn't feel very good to think about it, does it?
how do you stick with it?
Honestly, Nike is right: you have to just do it.  But that's not very helpful to simply say.  If you have a long history of starting-and-ditching stories, how do you break the habit? 

Perversely, I've really never had trouble finishing a story.  I am generally lazy and impatient, but when it comes to my writing, I can think of only two stories (still promising) which I had to set aside because something else needed my attention more.  This does not mean I don't get wild ideas for more stories while I'm in the middle of a project: my entire Plenilunar series is a testament to that!  But as far back as I can remember, all of my stories, all massive beasts, were started, worked through, and finished.  I've never developed the bad habit of running off after a new story in the middle of a current project.  So who am I to offer advice?
you don't plunge into the river to save a drowning man
I do know what it's like to lose that first flame and to feel like you've lost your way in the story.  Believe me, I feel like I've been wandering blindly through Talldogs in a passionless malaise.  How much more fun would it be to, say, tackle the character snarls of Maresgate or plunge head-long into the cataclysm of Cruxgang, and leave Talldogs until I "got more ideas" for its plot?  Well, it might be fun, but somehow I doubt it, because I'm not fooled into believing that the cycle can be broken by continuing to follow it.  Talldogs hasn't always been fun to write, so I had to do the only thing I could do, and Shannon Dittemore is absolutely right: you have to persevere.  There isn't a magic spell you can cast on yourself or your novel, there isn't a writing camp or a playlist to get you inspired.  You have to keep moving forward, believing that you will come through and that you'll have done the right thing, if not the easy thing.  Do you remember that quote by Screwtape?
"Do not be deceived, Wormwood.  Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."
In a way this applies to Talldogs, and your novel, as well.  Even though long months felt like I was dragging the corpse of a once flourishing plot through a sorry Word document, I believed that in the end I would rekindle that blaze of life.  I couldn't see it, I couldn't feel it, I often did not know where I was going.  But I kept going.  And you know what?
the fire rekindled
I'm so glad I did not give up, and I think you will be too.

Keeping On Keeping-On

charm & gumption
tea is brewing
everything's going to be fine

I really don't let on how difficult it is being pregnant, for multiple reasons.  One is that my pregnancy has been textbook simple compared to the pregnancies of other people I know, so why seem like I'm complaining?  That's really bad form.  Another reason - while I want people to care, I really can't stand sympathy.  It makes me uncomfortable and embarrassed, and in the end I would rather tell people I'm doing fine.  When I'm with other people, I usually am, because I pull myself together and I make myself look great and feel great, so I don't lie when people ask me how I am and I say fine.  Reason number three, I'm tired of the casual disparagement thrown at child-bearing.  People assume it's going to be horrible, they make fun of it, they have no respect, and I'm sick of that.  So I get out of my pajamas, I put on my make-up, I slam my feet into the highest pair of heels I can manage, and I go out there and prove to them that, yes, pregnancy is rough on the body and often terrifying and confusing, but you can do it gracefully.
no pun intended, but you have to push
I do acknowledge my physical and mental limitations.  I'm carrying almost twenty extra pounds on my petite frame, and the frame is getting looser and looser as it prepares to shed that weight.  Movement, which was once taken for granted, is now carefully premeditated and provided for.  I know I only have so much energy in my body, and that energy level is usually less than what I have guesstimated.  When they talk to you about "pregnancy brain," do not scoff at them.  Chemically, it is a real deal that I have to own up to: I can no longer remember, or think, as clearly as I could.  It will pass, but at present it's a real struggle.

But I have things to do.  I want to keep reading, I want to keep writing, I want my house to not be a wreck.  When it comes to my writing, I'm actually grateful that it is November.  I haven't done NaNoWriMo in years, not officially - I'm not sure I've ever played by the NaNo rules, ever.  And NaNo is one of those cult-classics among writers that you can't say anything negative about, so my views on quality and my general independence from prompts stay on my side of my computer screen.  But this year the notion of NaNo has helped keep me going.  The daily wordcount (to reach 50,000 words by the end of the month) is 1,667, and so I have put it upon myself in the loosest terms to aim for that number each day.  Even if I write only a portion of that - even if I don't bring myself to write at all during a day - I start afresh the next day.  No worries, no pressure, just a goal.

In this manner I have pushed Talldogs well into the endgame of its plot, and I am currently writing this blog post from the auspices of a marvelously productive writing day (5,443!), which has made me happy.  I don't expect it to be repeated tomorrow, but that's okay.  I know my limits, and I've pushed the ones I can  Those who have been pregnant know that emotional stability during this time is important.  To me, staying creative and keeping my plot moving is also important.  I've managed to maintain these two in 1,667 words.
so, so close to the end!


For those of you who grew up in the nineties, I may or may not make a Carmen Sandiego joke.

This beautiful albeit scantily-clad map of Plenilune was roughly sketched out by yours truly many moons ago under the influence of a splitting headache brought on by an unconscious iron deficiency and the willing consent of a double dosage of Tylenol PM.   That it was brought out in such clarity is a testament to the problem-solving skills of the digital designer, who had to interpret my nearly-illiterate scrawl across two sheets of college-ruled paper.  And that is the brutal truth of the creative process of almost any artist the whole world over.