Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: the Narrator is Your Ambassador

Welcome to Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! I couldn't resist the alliteration. It's been great to see the response from so many people, and I'm sorry I can't discuss all the submissions. However, I will keep them in my files so that, if I get fewer or no submissions in a later week, I'll have some to go back to.

Let me start by saying that this workshop is all about supportive critique. I have no problem with the idea of readers commenting on each post, but I'd like you all to think about this as what I think of it as, a Work In Progress. So please, be civil and helpful. If you desperately want to comment on something you think is an issue, you might say something like "I was confused by..." etc. I want the people who submit their work here never to feel intimidated. I'm happy to hear supportive suggestions for my approach as well.

What I'm going to do today is show you the excerpt, colored up to show you where I'm picking up world information, and then put some comments in to explain my marks and talk about the relationship between a narrrator and his/her world. I'm hoping that these comments will be helpful for some of the other folks who submitted, even though I wasn't able to use all the submissions.

Here's the excerpt:

***
King Aidan looked towards the town of Sabin and further towards the sea. Coldness filled him. Black lines weaved in the sky, edging their way into the heavens. The coastal town was burning.

"My Lord."

Aidan forced himself to turn to Martin, his man at arms and a solid presence in the face of chaos. His expression stoic.

"They are upon us with no warning. What evil gives them breath?" the King said.

"My Lord, fire precedes them. Our men cannot see this foe from the sky."

"And so it begins." King Aidan turned back to the sky. "All things return to a place of beginnings," he murmured. And so it did. The once peaceful lands of Vengarion would be no more. The evil came through the night giving rise to the destruction at hand. Aidan knew this day would come. Foreseen before his birth, he prayed it would not come to pass during his lifetime. But men held no power over such things...until now.

"My Lord," Martin broke his reverie, "'tis Airellen. She has begun to birth."

"Fetch the midwife. There is nothing we can do but fortify our defenses here. Theonor will see to the soldiers."

Martin bowed and walked off.

King Aidan gave one more glance towards the sea before retreating back into the castle, his heart a wedge of stone, heavy in his chest.

The beautiful Airellen, pale as ivory bone, lay on blood stained sheets, propped up against a pillow. Her fine brown hair stuck to her face in wet strands. Aidan knew at that instant she would die. His beloved wife, Catherine, had met such a fate bearing his son, Wilhelm.

“My dear,” he said his voice optimistic. “You have chosen such an unfortunate hour to birth.”

Airellen smiled. “You know me. Full of surprises, my lord.”

Aidan remembered why he grew to love the once vibrant, Airellen. He had refused to accept Wilhelm’s decision in his choice to marry her, but she surprised him. He learned to see what Wilhelm saw in her, and learned why he loved her.

“Wilhelm?” she asked.

Aidan forced a smile. “They have not yet returned.” He looked from Airellen to Edalene, wife to his eldest son. “We are at war milady,” he went on. “I sent word to the provinces and Edmund’s forces but fear it may be too late. The enemy has been given speed and will be upon us soon.”

“You must take Edalene,” Airellen said. “Caelen is Phillip’s daughter and your heir. She must live.”
Should both his sons fall into darkness, Caelen would be the true heir, his only heir. Edalene let out a loud sob.

Airellen’s voice fell to a whisper, “Tell Wilhelm I love him. Tell him never to lose hope.”

The room fell silent. Edalene wept.
***

First, let me thank the brave E. Arroyo for submitting this and letting me talk about it. One of the things I like about this excerpt is that there's a clear main character, King Aidan, who is experiencing an event, the birth of a child during an attack on his territory. Both of those things are great assets for worldbuilding, as they give you tools to use and they keep the narrative moving rather than having it feel static like nothing is going on.

To give you a sense of how the blue-green words give me world entry, I'll go through them, just for the first couple of lines. King Aidan tells me this is a world where there are kings, and they can have existing Irish names. I immediately conclude we're dealing with humans (or possibly fantasy-humans). The town of Sabin isn't one I know, so I start to suspect that we may be in a fantasy world - but I'm not sure at this point (there are a lot of towns I don't know), so I'll keep my eye out. The sea is also a potential hint, because this is a phrase very commonly used in fantasy contexts. From the word weaved I know we have weaving in this world (or in its past, but I already suspect hand-weaving happens in the time period in question). The heavens is another marker: it suggests religion, but relatively vaguely, a choice often made in fantasy contexts. The coastal town, like the sea, places us in a location not far from the ocean, which could have interesting consequences later.

The speech of the characters has an archaic feel to it, so I'm not surprised to find Martin being described with the word man-at-arms, nor am I surprised that the king is in a castle. However, I'm not certain enough about the alienness of the town name "Sabin," so it's not until the phrase "the once peaceful lands of Vengarion" that I am absolutely certain we're in a fantasy world, rather than, say, an alternate medieval Earth. This is then backed up by the way "evil" is treated as a force in itself, and things are "foreseen."

I find a couple of unexpected social things here. The king tells Martin to fetch the midwife, which isn't what I'd expect of a typical king of this era; it either means he's more concerned about the birth than a typical king, or that the social rules here are slightly different. At the moment I can't tell which. You also tell us that the king didn't approve of his son's marriage choice but came to love Airellen. This is very unusual in the context of the medieval social contract, and stands out.

The narration generally seems to track with King Aidan's point of view, his thoughts and emotional reactions. However, it has relatively distant moments. The king is referred to as "King Aidan," "Aidan" (closer) but also "the king" (more distant). There is also some distant narrative telling, as for example when we are told "Aidan remembered why he grew to love the once vibrant, Airellen."

Here I'm going to admit my bias toward close point of view. Not everyone feels the same way I do, but the reason I have this bias is that close point of view helps you put in a lot of world information. Works like Kij Johnson's "26 Monkeys: Also the Abyss" have also shown me that even if you don't get really, really close, you can still use the narration to show more things about the narrator and the world.

The narrator - in this case, Aidan - is your ambassador. It's in his understanding of his own world, and his actions within it, that we're going to understand it too. That's why it's so important that we are not only considering him, but doing things with him (more opportunities for showing as opposed to telling). There are a lot of great opportunities in this little piece to enhance our sense of where we are and what's going on.

I always recommend giving an obvious fantasy-world marker right up front. Aidan has an Irish name, so you'll be working against that (which may be why I wasn't sure about Sabin). Maybe you could also name the sea. The other thing I'd recommend is to show us, quite early, what makes your fantasy world different from others we've seen. That's not as important in the first two lines, but within 500 words we should have at least a hint of its unique quality. Actually, I'll qualify that: my world of Varin acts like fantasy but has technology, and people get mad at me (literally) if I don't make that clear immediately. So I decided to put a reference to lightbulbs in the first line of "The Eminence's Match" to set expectations.

As you consider this piece, ask yourself what each place might mean to the king. For example, has he been to Sabin? Is it full of his people? Is he a kind king, and does he ache for them as they are burned? Does he want to flee? Does he want to fight with Edmund instead of being where he is? Why is he standing in his castle (actually, I'm not sure it's his, given that you say "the castle," but I'm assuming so) while this is going on. Is it his home? Or is he being hosted there? Is it familiar to him? Also, you have a lot of characters here, which means a lot of names, and I lose track a little of who's who. Make sure to keep Aidan referring to them by terms that show how they relate to him, and give us emotional cues to the relationship where you can.

This applies similarly to the events at hand. Has Aidan been waiting for the birth? Or preparing his people to flee? Has he been paralyzed by the thought that the doom foretold will be falling on his head? Maybe he has, and Martin's arrival gets him to break out of it, to move. Maybe he has to put on a show of bravery for his man-at-arms that he doesn't have to for members of his family - or maybe he has to act brave even while watching his daughter-in-law die. Maybe Airellen's death, and its parallel with the death of his own wife, makes him feel an even greater sense of the futility of what he's trying to do against the forces of prophecy and history. The piece will be stronger if we have a sense of his goals and how the events affect them.

Below I'm going to put comments into the text. Before you panic, please be aware: these are not corrections. My style of commenting is to have a little conversation with what I'm reading, about things I notice or don't understand, or places where I see an opportunity to do more. Given that opportunities for worldbuilding are all over the place, and that I want to be as specific as I can, that means lots of chit-chat! But I wouldn't expect our writer to change things in every place I mention, nor to add a whole lot of extra detail - this is about thinking about the text in a different way. If I can pique you to think about what the text is doing, and what it might be capable of doing, then I'm happy.

***
King Aidan looked towards the town of Sabin and further towards the sea [not clear if Sabin is on the coast or between castle and coast. How expansive is this area?]. Coldness [what kind of coldness? Could you hint about his belief system or environment?] filled him. Black lines weaved in the sky, edging [black lines weaving seems to contrast with "edging" here. A more thorough weaving-grounded metaphor might illuminate the world interestingly.] their way into the heavens. The coastal town [Is this Sabin? If so, use the name, maybe with an adjective to show Aidan's attitude toward it...] was burning.

"My Lord."

Aidan forced himself to turn to Martin, his man at arms and a solid presence in the face of chaos [maybe, "the attack" or something more specific? We don't know why Sabin is burning yet]. His expression stoic. [nice point-of-view with "forced himself" "solid presence" and "expression stoic"]

"They are upon us with no warning. What evil gives them breath?" the King said. [I wouldn't probably use "the King" here, because it feels external. Is he trying to steady his voice? How does he feel? What impression is he trying to convey to Martin?]

"My Lord, fire precedes them. Our men cannot see this foe from the sky." [is the foe coming from the sky? or are the men in the sky? I initially thought the black lines in the sky were smoke, not adversaries, but now I'm not sure. You might want to make this less ambiguous as we aren't entirely solid with the nature of the world yet.]

"And so it begins." King Aidan turned back to the sky. "All things return to a place of beginnings," he murmured.[maybe indicate if this is quoted from a significant text?] And so it [they?] did. The once peaceful lands of Vengarion would be no more [this would have more impact if we knew what peace in Vengarion meant to Aidan himself; it would deepen both the place and the person]. The evil came through the night giving rise to the destruction at hand [what does he know about what it is? evidence from reports? hints from prophecy?]. Aidan knew this day would come. Foreseen before his birth, he prayed it would not come to pass [maybe give us a specific agent here. What does Aidan know about who has come to attack him?] during his lifetime. But men held no power over such things...until now.[this is intriguing and I'm hoping to know more. Why is he so certain that men now hold power over things when they didn't used to? This looks like something to pursue as you go forward.]

"My Lord," Martin broke his reverie, "'tis Airellen. [What is Martin's status relative to Airellen? Maybe he should call her "the lady Airellen"] She has begun to birth."

"Fetch the midwife. There is nothing we can do but fortify our defenses here. Theonor will see to the soldiers." [I can tell Theonor's not important to this scene by the way he's mentioned here. I wonder how Aidan feels about what he's telling Martin]

Martin bowed and walked off. [He walked off...where? This is a great opportunity to make specific where they are in the castle and what it is like, even if you only give us three or four words about it.]

King Aidan gave one more glance towards the sea [is it the sea he's looking at? Why? Or is it the destruction?] before retreating back into the castle, his heart a wedge of stone, heavy in his chest. [the wedge of stone is a very appropriate metaphor for the setting you've created. Good use of metaphor to back up both emotion and setting]

The beautiful Airellen, pale as ivory bone, [this is a bit tricky as worldbuilding goes. Ivory suggests elephants as well as just color. Bone is more flexible to alternate settings.] lay on blood stained sheets, propped up against a pillow. Her fine brown hair stuck to her face in wet strands. Aidan knew at that instant she would die. His beloved wife, Catherine, had met such a fate bearing his son, Wilhelm. [make sure you indicate in this paragraph who Airellan is to Aidan. Perhaps with an adjective that is more paternal than "beautiful" in the first sentence? And you could indicate how sad he is that his son will now share the experience of paying for a child with the life of his wife (or worse, losing both child and wife).]

“My dear,” he said [keeping?] his voice optimistic. “You have chosen such an unfortunate hour to birth.”

Airellen smiled. “You know me. Full of surprises, my lord.”

[What is his instant emotional reaction? Something like "how like her!"? That might show him entering his memories of her rather than telling us.] Aidan remembered why he grew to love the once vibrant, Airellen. He had refused to accept Wilhelm’s decision in his choice to marry her, but she surprised him. He learned to see what Wilhelm saw in her, and learned why he loved her. [how would he feel these memories internally?]

“Wilhelm?” she asked. [Is she worried? Weak? What does Aidan observe, and how does it fit with his expectations from his own past experience?]

Aidan forced a smile. “They [who? a group of soldiers? Specificity would help tie down the larger situation.] have not yet returned.” He looked from Airellen to Edalene, wife to his eldest son. [it might be good to know from Aidan's entrance that she is in the room. Is she also the midwife?] “We are at war milady,” he went on. [is he informing her of this for the first time? Does he mean to tell Airellen as well? Would he try to protect Airellen, convinced as he is that she will die?] “I sent word to the provinces and Edmund’s forces [is this his eldest son? It's not clear. If so, Edalene probably knows that he has forces and is in the provinces. This might be a good place for Aidan to say how he knows Edmund is a good man and will hurry, but it's too far from X place for him to bring his reinforcements here in time] this but fear it may be too late. The enemy has been given speed and will be upon us soon.”

“You must take Edalene,” Airellen said. “Caelen is Phillip’s daughter and your heir. She must live.” [We don't know Caelen yet, nor her relationship to Edalene or Aidan, and the reference to Phillip won't tell us their precise relation. If she's Edalene's daughter, maybe Airellen could say something like "Take Edalene if you flee; Caelen can't live without her mother." and leave Aidan to provide the information about Caelen being his heir]

Should both his sons fall into darkness, Caelen would be the true heir, his only heir. [Aidan's internalization seems distant here. His sons are now in mortal danger; how does he feel about that? Under attack himself? Suddenly recognizing Caelen's significance? Also, since this is Aidan's internalization, I'm surprised when the next person mentioned as subject is Edalene.] Edalene let out a loud sob.

Airellen’s voice fell to a whisper, “Tell Wilhelm I love him. Tell him never to lose hope.” [I can't help wondering where her baby is. But that might be explained outside of this excerpt!]

The room fell silent. Edalene wept. [I would love to see Aidan's reaction at the sight of Airellen breathing her last. It's a moment of intense emotion, and you could take advantage of this to parallel current events and his sense of hopelessness with the sense of hopelessness that he had watching his own wife die. Or have it differ from that moment, giving him more fight and a drive to go into the next piece of the story.]
***

Thank you so much again, E. Arroyo, for sending me a piece of your story. I hope you find these comments helpful, and I would love to hear further thoughts from you. The discussion is open!

Note: I want to keep comments open and unrestricted here, so I'll switch on moderation only if I start to see problems with incivility.