By Ross Willard
I know, I know, it’s winter and we’re all cold, but, if you can hang on for a moment and trust me, my being cold is actually kind of relevant. You see, I’m visiting my parents in a small town in Texas where we have a farm.
Right now, it’s about thirty five, forty degrees outside, and I’m cold. Which is weird, because I’ve had days in Colorado where I’ve joyfully worn short sleeves outside when the temperature got up this high. As a matter of fact, if it had gotten this warm on the day that I’d left Colorado, I probably wouldn’t have brought the jacket I’m wearing today.
But here I am. Cold.
Why? Because it’s all relative. I lived the first few years of my life in Michigan, and the first winter after I moved to Texas, I was stunned. People were throwing on jackets and huddling up right about the time I was starting to get comfortable. Of course, the first summer after I moved to Texas, I spent about a month wearing as little as I could and laying under the fan all day, but that winter I was amused.
So many times, when I’ve heard editors talking about what they look for and authors talk about how they start a book, they’ll put so much emphasis on the importance of getting right to the action as soon as possible. To an extent, I agree with them. Hooking a reader in, giving them a reason to keep turning the page is paramount: it doesn’t matter how good your story is, if readers have to slog through two hundred pages of description to get to the meat, they won’t do it. That being said, I think that many times authors forget the importance of world building when it comes to writing, and it’s an art every bit as important as the art of crafting action.
Why? Because a book about propriety in the nineteenth century can be every bit as captivating and riveting as a book about the end of the world. More so, even. I cannot even begin to imagine how many books over the last decade or so have been written wherein the stakes are the fate of all of mankind, where the world hangs in the balance and everything and everyone you’ve ever known or met will come to naught if one person fails in his/her quest to… well, whatever it is they have to do. And yet these books, at least, most of these books, will fade away with time. They will be forgotten, taken off of shelves, disappear from human memory, while books written a century or more ago, books about young orphans simply trying to survive on the streets and young women resisting society’s pressures to marry this man or that, will live on for a hundred more years.
Now, I’m not saying that I prefer the works of Dickens and Austin over more modern creations, in point of fact, I haven’t read either of them since graduation, and I don’t feel that I’ve lost much by doing so. That being said, if we were to write the basic plot of each down, show them to someone who didn’t know about literature, and ask which one was likely to be read and reread, generation after generation and which one would be quickly forgotten, I strongly suspect they’d be inclined to choose poorly.
But the thing in literature is that the stakes are always magnificent. Whether failure means death to a species, or less exuberant life for a single soul, we can experience the full range of human emotions in examining each. We can gnash our teeth in rage at the smallest bit of rudeness and feel our toes curl in delight at a half smile, if the author gives us the opportunity.
World building is often discussed amongst science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts (such as myself), because, well, we build worlds, but every author is required to be a world builder. Every writer is responsible for explaining to his or her reader why it is that their story is important. While authors like Dickens and Austin can be difficult to read because of their laborious passages and never-ending descriptions, the fact is that they have lasted for as long as they have because they do what so few other authors can: they paint the world in such a way as to force their reader to care about the outcome of their book, to reflect upon on it.
For you authors who feel your work is missing something, but cannot put your finger on what, forget, for a moment, your plot, and reflect upon your world.
Ross Willard, a Colorado resident, has been writing speculative fiction in one form or another for as long as he can remember. A longtime member of the Penpointers critique group, Ross can often be found reading or writing at his local independent coffee shop, or working on his website.