Today I have mostly been making a world.
In writing fantasy, as I do (kind of, my current novel is more post-fantasy than fantasy), that’s the most important part. If you can’t write a believable world, then all the rest of your work, however imaginative and inspiring, will be dancing around in front of one of those green-screen sets that used to be prevalent in old movies, and as easy to see through.
As my hero Ursula Le Guin (who I shall continue to quote for a while yet) says of fantasy which utilises unbelievable fakery in its worldbuilding and a noncommittal writing style, in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie:
“It is a fake plainness. It is not really simple, but flat. It is not really clear, but inexact. Its directness is specious. Its sensory clues – extremely important in imaginative writing – are vague and generalised; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there, are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic.”
Real directness, and simplicity, however, I think is vital to a believable world of one’s own making. As in my previous post, this is a world that you know full well isn’t real. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be believable. It also doesn’t mean that it can’t be a true story.
In Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?, Ursula Le Guin writes:
“For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.”
So I’ve been spending all my spare time today working on this world, because this world needs to be true, and believable, an engaging backdrop to a story which I’ve been working on for half a decade and fighting with for just as long. I’m hoping this will be the final editing phase required of it so I can make it at least somewhat close to the shining thing I made up in my head. It’s incredibly hard to express these things and tell the truth of what I’ve seen and felt, because it never comes out quite the same as it is when you’re thinking it.
Again, because she can express this far better than I’ve been able to, from yet another essay, Talking About Writing:
“The writer’s job, as I see it, is to tell the truth. The writers truth – nobody else’s. It is not an easy job. One of the biggest implied lies going around at present is the one that hides in phrases like ‘self-expression’ or ‘telling it like it is’ – as if it were that easy, anybody could do it if they just let the words pour out and didn’t get fancy. The ‘I am a camera’ business again. Well it just doesn’t work that way. You know how are it is to say to somebody, just somebody you know, how you really feel, what you really think – with complete honesty? You have to trust them, and you have to know yourself, before you can say anything anywhere near the truth. And it’s hard. It takes a lot out of you.
You multiply that by thousands; you replace the listener, the live flesh-and-blood friend you trust, with a faceless unknown audience of people who may possibly not even exist; and you try to write the truth to them, you try to draw them a map of your innermost mind and feelings, hiding nothing and trying to keep all the distances straight and the altitudes right and the emotions honest. . . And you never succeed. The map is never complete, or even accurate. You read it over and it may be beautiful but you realize that you have fudged here, and smeared there, and left this out, and put in some stuff that isn’t really there at all, and so on – and there is nothing to do then but say OK; that’s done; now I come back and start a new map, and try to do it better, more truthfully. And all of this, every time, you do alone – absolutely alone. The only questions that matter are the ones you ask yourself.”
She paints a rather dismal picture of the writing process, but an honest one.
Writing is hard.
But in how many other careers/callings can you say: “I spent today mostly making a world, completely out of nothing but my mind and a feeling I had once”?