Sunday, November 3, 2013

Setting and World-Building - Keep It Concise!

On my way home through LAX last week, I passed this little scene. That airport is terrific for having these charging/work desk laptop stations. Both mom and daughter were equally absorbed in what they were doing. (The daughter's device is also plugged in.) Some might complain that they should be talking to each other, but I love that they shared this - such a companionable moment.

You can draw a lot from the setting. If I hadn't told you, you might not have guessed it was an airport. But the woman's carry-on bag suggests travel. The tile floor looks like a public space and the big pillar tells you it's a large one. The tropical plants hint at a warm weather location. You might be able to figure out that the bench to the left is a shoeshine stand - also indicative of an airport, bus or train station - and the keen-eyed might catch that the slice of lighted sign to the right is a concourse map. Perhaps there are other clues you picked up - if so, share!

In this way, we talk about a picture being worth a thousand words. (Although the above was only 180.) I've never particularly liked that adage. (It turns out to have kind of a weird provenance. And if you go to that link, consider donating the $3 to wikipedia's fundraiser - they're a non-profit and deserve at least that much.) Also, this bit is really amusing:
Another ad by Barnard appears in the March 10, 1927 issue with the phrase "One Picture Worth Ten Thousand Words," where it is labeled a Chinese proverb. The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Familiar Phrases quotes Barnard as saying he called it "a Chinese proverb, so that people would take it seriously." Soon after, the proverb would become popularly attributed to Confucius.
The reason I don't like it - and ironic to me that it's originally attributed to a newspaper editor - is that it implies that words fail where a picture succeeds. The adage also suggests that many, many words are needed to convey a story.

I don't believe this.

Now, I'm a concise writer. Always have been, really. My Master's Thesis was the shortest in the department - and not because the project wasn't complex. It was a honed-down PhD project. My developmental edits are unfailingly to add text - I'm *never* asked to trim words. And I know this leaves some readers behind. At the same time, I have trouble reading authors who feel to me like they retread the same concepts/problems/angst endlessly.

Just last week, I got involved in a Twitter convo where someone said something along the lines of "in a 100K book, you can't have good world-building and [X]." I don't really remember what [X] was - it might have been a good romantic arc. But we were discussing the balance of romance, action and world-building in a story and which preponderance made it fantasy vs. romance. At any rate, I said that I thought an author can do excellent world-building in 100K, regardless of the rest of the story.

Key to Jargon for non-industry types:
100K -> 100,000 word novel. The typical novel ranges from 80K to 120K
World-building -> creating a world different from our reality, particularly relevant in fantasy where the world is *entirely* different from ours, e.g., also knows as setting
 It doesn't take a lot to establish the setting. Just as in the picture above, a few key hints tell you everything you need to know. I think this is important. Some authors get heavy into world-building, wanting to tell you all about it - from the ecosystem to the various races all the way up to the thousand-year history. You'll note that all of that stuff is BACKGROUND. As in, the stage setting. It's not the actual story. Yes, the author absolutely needs to know those things, but - and this is a big BUT - she doesn't need to tell the reader all of it.

So, in answer to the Bordello's Topic of the Week (see how I made you read all the way through to find out? I would say clever me, but I didn't do it on purpose), Setting: How Much is Too Much?, I'd say anything that isn't directly relevant to the story is too much. Sure, that internecine war over corn crops is a great bit, but it's not relevant until the corn shortage impacts the main characters.

Notice that I specify main characters there - no secondary spin-offs away from the primary action. I know this isn't the Fantasy Way, but it's the Jeffe Way, for better or worse. This way I have plenty of words left over for important stuff.

Like sex scenes. :D


  1. I think world building and descriptives are just as subjective as everything else in the writing world. What works for the two of us (get to the point and leave plenty of room for the good stuff) isn't always what works for someone else. Just last week I got slammed for not enough backstory and descriptives, where the week before it I was praised for getting it "just right". It's enough to give a girl whiplash.

    1. Ack - that sucks, Rhenna! But it's also a good example for how you can't listen to each individual slice of feedback. It's crazy-making!

  2. My books tend to be on the shorter side, too. I love evocative descriptions, but I think exposition must be avoided at ALL COSTS. It's much more fun as a reader AND as a writer to lay in clues abut the world, so we get to discover it organically.

    And yeah, the more time we have for sex scenes, the better. :)

    1. lol! I love the "discover it organically" approach, too.