Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop: Take your time and build

Welcome back to the Wednesday Worldbuilding Workshop! Today's entry is going to be rather special, because I've decided to look at the first 500 words of a published novel, Nnedi Okorafor's Nebula-nominated novel, Who Fears Death.

I have a number of reasons for doing this, not the least of which is that this is a fascinating book and everyone should read it. My more personal reason is that I have had too few recent submissions to the workshop, and I'm not yet ready to discontinue it. Please, if you have enjoyed the nine weeks of the workshop and would like to see it continue, submit something - and encourage your friends to do so as well!

Previously at TTYU I have written a series of posts analyzing short excerpts of published works, in which I approached them from a general analytical standpoint and looked at whatever patterns and themes came up. If you're curious, those are my Ridiculously Close Looks. This time, though, I'm going to stick with the blue-highlight and brown reader response format, so it fits the established format for WWW.

Here we go!

***
My life fell apart when I was sixteen. Papa died. He had such a strong heart, yet he died. Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop? It's true that nothing could take him from his work, his art. He loved to make the metal bend, to obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop. So what was it that killed him? To this day I can't be sure. I hope it had nothing to do with me or what I did back then.
Immediately after he died, my mother came running out of their bedroom sobbing and throwing herself against the wall. I knew then that I would be different. I knew in that moment that I would never again be able to fully control the fire inside me. I became a different creature that day, not so human. Everything that happened later, I now understand, started then.
The ceremony was held on the outskirts of town, near the sand dunes. It was the middle of the day and terribly hot. His body lay on a thick white cloth surrounded by a garland of braided palm fronds. I knelt there in the sand next to his body, saying my last good-bye. I'll never forget his face. It didn't look like Papa's anymore. Papa's skin was dark brown, his lips were full. This face had sunken cheeks, deflated lips, and skin like gray-brown paper. Papa's spirit had gone elsewhere.
The back of my neck prickled. My white veil was a poor protection from people's ignorant and fearful eyes. By this time, everyone was always watching me. I clenched my jaw. Around me, women were on their knees weeping and wailing. Papa was dearly loved, despite the fact that he'd married my mother, a woman with a daughter like me - an Ewu daughter. That had long been excused as one of those mistakes even the greatest man can make. Over the wailing, I heard my mother's soft whimper. She had suffered the greatest loss.
It was her turn to have her last moment. Afterward, they'd take him for cremation. I looked down at his face one last time. I'll never see you again, I thought. I wasn't ready. I blinked and touched my chest. That's when it happened...when I touched my chest. At first it felt like an itchy tingle. It quickly swelled into something more.
The more I tried to get up, the more intense it got and the more my grief expanded. They can't take him, I thought frantically. There is still so much metal left in his shop. He hasn't finished his work! The sensation spread through my chest and radiated out to the rest of my body. I rounded my shoulders to hold it in. Then I started pulling it from the people around me. I shuddered and gnashed my teeth. I was filling with rage. Oh, not here! I thought. Not at Papa's ceremony!
***

The opening is interesting to me because of the fact that by the time I've read the first sentence, I'm sure we're in a human world. It's in the phrasing, My life fell apart when I was sixteen. This is a quintessentially human teen thought, reinforced by the word that follows, Papa. We get our first world-specific details with the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop, which set technology level in a way that rules out a number of world possibilities. Another very world-informative phrase is this one: nothing could take him from his work. There is a deep cultural familiarity associated with the idea of a man so dedicated to his work, and I think it contributes a lot to the sense of familiarity in this world. There are some distinct differences, though, such as the mother's response to grief, throwing herself against the wall. The first sign that we're in a fantasy world comes with the phrases fire inside me, different creature, and not so human. Only late in the 500 words do we get cues related to the African setting, in the sand dunes, the braided palm fronds around her father's body, and her father's face.

Now I'll go through and put in some think-aloud comments in brown.

***
My life fell apart when I was sixteen. **[This says "human" to me, I think because of the modern teen voice quality and the age cited.] Papa died.**[This fits with a human model] He had such a strong heart, yet he died. Was it the heat and smoke from his blacksmithing shop? **[I'm intrigued by the fit between modern teen voice and this technology.] It's true that nothing could take him from his work, his art.**[Clearly we have some familiar cultural values.] He loved to make the metal bend, to obey him. But his work only seemed to strengthen him; he was so happy in his shop. So what was it that killed him? To this day I can't be sure. I hope it had nothing to do with me or what I did back then.**[This uncertainty is a great source of curiosity that hooks me into the story. At this point I don't have an extensive view of the story world, but the lack of explanation suggests an insider viewpoint. What I know feels solid, and I'm curious enough to read on.]
Immediately after he died, my mother came running out of their bedroom sobbing and throwing herself against the wall.**[Here's valuable cultural information to suggest it's not in a location I know well.] I knew then that I would be different.**[This is intriguing, too. Not "everything would be different" but "I would be different." It's the first hint of the supernatural for me.] I knew in that moment that I would never again be able to fully control the fire inside me. **[supports supernatural] I became a different creature that day, not so human.**[Confirms supernatural, so a fantasy world, but already (and even without extensive details) it's clear this is not medieval.] Everything that happened later, I now understand, started then.
The ceremony was held on the outskirts of town, near the sand dunes. **[I like this physical setting information, and by now I'm feeling thirsty for it, but not impatient; it feels very welcome.] It was the middle of the day and terribly hot. His body lay on a thick white cloth surrounded by a garland of braided palm fronds.**[With sand, heat, palms, I feel the desert strongly here.] I knelt there in the sand next to his body, saying my last good-bye. I'll never forget his face. It didn't look like Papa's anymore. Papa's skin was dark brown, his lips were full. This face had sunken cheeks, deflated lips, and skin like gray-brown paper. Papa's spirit had gone elsewhere.**[I love how this is handled, with her gazing at her father's face within the context of the the goodbye ceremony and thinking what he used to be like. An insider viewpoint, and a simple, effective simile.]
The back of my neck prickled.**[This instantly had my attention.] My white veil was a poor protection from people's ignorant and fearful eyes. By this time, everyone was always watching me. I clenched my jaw. **[This is critical information about our narrator's identity, people's response to her and her to them. It is very subtle an not overdone but implies a larger conflict that I'm already curious to pursue.] Around me, women were on their knees weeping and wailing. Papa was dearly loved, despite the fact that he'd married my mother, a woman with a daughter like me - an Ewu daughter. That had long been excused as one of those mistakes even the greatest man can make. **[A contrast is well drawn between the people's response to her father, and to her, and the reason for it is given right at the end, suggesting the Ewu concept is one that will be returned to.] Over the wailing, I heard my mother's soft whimper. She had suffered the greatest loss.**[This also makes me curious.]
It was her turn to have her last moment. Afterward, they'd take him for cremation.**[This helps ground us in the cultural traditions surrounding death.] I looked down at his face one last time. I'll never see you again, I thought. I wasn't ready. I blinked and touched my chest. That's when it happened**[I immediately anticipate something dramatic here.]...when I touched my chest. At first it felt like an itchy tingle. It quickly swelled into something more.**[Here I'm certain that something supernatural is going to occur.]
The more I tried to get up, the more intense it got and the more my grief expanded. They can't take him, I thought frantically. There is still so much metal left in his shop. He hasn't finished his work! The sensation spread through my chest and radiated out to the rest of my body. I rounded my shoulders to hold it in. **[I find this part fascinating because I have the sensation of the supernatural even though the description is all of emotions perfectly appropriate to the situation. Perhaps only the intensity is what stands out, matching with the warning of the supernatural that I got in the last paragraph.] Then I started pulling it from the people around me.**[This is where the consequences suddenly expand, when it stops being only inside her and starts affecting other people.] I shuddered and gnashed my teeth. I was filling with rage. Oh, not here! I thought. Not at Papa's ceremony! **[I love this thought, because it suggests that this is something she has seen happen before, and she knows that bad things will happen if it continues.]
***

It's at this point that I'm going to have to break off, because I wanted to show how much can be done in as few as 500 words. What really impresses me most about this excerpt is how the worldbuilding is done gradually and subtly. Nnedi Okorafor keeps all of her world information perfectly consistent, even as no single word brings her world snapping into existence. In fact, a lot of the information is not waiting for us in objects, or in surrounding physical setting, but in the way that the voices sound, and in the way the people react to events. We sink into her world gradually but steadily, while hearing the voice of an insider - someone who knows what is normal and doesn't remark on it. This character remarks on contrasts and conflict, just as most people do - the contrast between her father's face alive and dead, the conflict between her and her mother and the people around her, and what place her father held in that relationship that he has now disappeared from. Given the intensity of Who Fears Death and the events that occur in it, this subtlety gives us the perfect entry.

Obviously, today isn't going to involve critique! However, I welcome any discussion, whether you have read this book yet or not. Also, if you haven't, I highly recommend you go and take a look.