The Mysterious, the Fantastic, and the Impossible

The current tagline for this blog is “Journey into the mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible.”

Sounds awfully fancy and intriguing, don’t it? I think it does, which is partly why I chose it. If I found a blog with a tagline like that, I’d certainly be interested in reading it. It also reminds me of old school comics, such as Journey into Mystery, which is the comic series in which Thor made his first appearance, so that’s kind of cool even though I don’t really talk about comics on this blog.

But primarily, it refers to my favorite parts about speculative fiction in general: Mysterious, fantastic, and impossible things. Creatures that exist purely in the realm of the mind, worlds that couldn’t exist in real life, and objects whose full histories may never be known.

To be clear, I am not hating on non-speculative fiction here. A good story is a good story, whether it is set in a created world or set in the real world or some mixture of the two. Genre does not affect a story’s quality. I’ve enjoyed many stories set in the real world, just as I’ve enjoyed many stories set in fictional worlds.

But it was speculative fiction stories that first got me into reading and they were the ones that first got me into writing. Although I may have been a bit harsh on worldbuilding back in October, I do love learning about imaginary worlds and strange new cultures and species that aren’t quite human. I also love it when authors leave certain parts a mystery. It tells me there is more to the world than what the author has shown, even if the author is not quite sure what the answer to that mystery is. It makes the world more believable, as there are many unexplained things in real life.

I try to have some of that in my own stories. My novels (none of which are published yet) always include a major mystery that is slowly revealed over the course of the story. I like to include things that are awe-inspiring, things that evoke powerful emotions in my readers despite their impossibility.

For example, in the short story Reunion (which you can read in the science-fiction anthology Constellations), I set the story on a giant ring-shaped starship called the Annulus that floats around an Earth-sized planet. I doubt something like that is even possible in real life (though with the way technology is advancing, who knows?); nonetheless, the idea of a ring-shaped starship big enough to wrap around an entire planet struck me in a way few ideas do and so I had to add it in, even though it does not affect the story too much.

Keep in mind it is possible to go overboard with the mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible. Writers can use them as a crutch to avoid explaining anything or to distract readers from awful writing. Sometimes, things can get too impossible or mysterious or fantastic, at which point no one believes what you have written and the story fails. Of course, each reader has different things they are willing to suspend their disbelief for and it is impossible to know for sure what readers will or won’t believe, so don’t lose any sleep if one reader tells you that your idea is unbelievable or stupid.

The mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible must be combined with good story. They are not an excuse to be lazy. In fact, I’d argue that a writer must work extra hard when writing about mysterious, fantastic, and impossible in order to avoid shallowness and frivolity. There’s little else that is more disappointing than a mystery that doesn’t make any sense or is gratuitous to the story.

-Tim

Immersive Writing

When I write, it is important that I immerse myself in the characters and world I am writing about. I cannot be a mere observer on the sidelines, mechanically recording the actions and thoughts and feelings of my characters or what their world looks like. I have to force myself to feel what they feel, think what they think, believe what they believe, see what they see, until I can start thinking of them as real people and not just figments of my imagination.

I consider this an essential part of organic writing (you can read about my organic writing process here). Because I don’t have a tidy outline to refer to when I am unsure what to write next, I need to know my characters and world almost as well as I know myself. I need to know what a character would or wouldn’t do under certain circumstances. I need to know what problems might occur in this world.

I rarely start out immersed in my worlds, however. It usually requires time for me to become fully immersed in the stories I write about. I know I have achieved immersion when I feel the same things they do and when I am thinking about my world and characters even when I am not writing about them.

As a result, sometimes the fictional world feels more real to me than the real world. I’m no Daydream Believer. I can tell the difference between fiction and real life. Yet in order to write stories that are genuine, I’ve found I need to blur the differences in my mind, make the dividing line between fiction and real life less clear than it normally is.

In other words, telling myself “It’s just a story, none of these characters are real, none of this really happened” is the most unproductive thing I can tell myself while writing. At the very least, I need to feel that my stories are “real” because if I don’t my readers won’t care about the characters, their world, or the things happening to them.

After all, isn’t that one of our goals as writers? If we are not convinced of the truth of our stories, then our readers won’t be, either, and they won’t want to read. Or if they do read, it’s unlikely they’ll finish or want to pick it up again or recommend it to other people.

Therefore, in order for my readers to believe the truth of my stories, I myself need to feel that my stories are “real.” At least I need to feel that way until the story is finished, anyhow.

How do you go about immersing yourself in your work? Do you find it easy or is it difficult? Do you do anything special to immerse yourself in your work or do you just let it happen naturally while you create?

-Tim

Are you writing a story or building a world?

Several years back, I tried my hand at writing what I planned to be a five book epic science-fantasy series (that I might still write some day, so I won’t share too many details here to avoid spoilers).

Because this was my first serious attempt at writing an original story (up until then I had written mostly fanfiction), I was determined not to go in blind. So I took a long time to worldbuild, crafting world after world, character after character, culture after culture, all with the intent of making the best imaginary universe I could for my series. It would be even better than the Star Wars universe or the Star Trek universe or any of the other countless detailed fictional universes out there. Okay, maybe not better than any of those, but it would certainly be great.

When I decided I had done enough worldbuilding, I sat down to write the first book in the series. And I did; I wrote a few drafts, changing details that didn’t make sense to me, doing what any writer does when working on a novel, the usual stuff, you know.

And then, after the third or fourth draft, I just lost interest in the series.

I still have the drafts, still have all the worldbuilding notes. I haven’t tossed any of it away and frankly I don’t want to because I might still return to it someday.

I just don’t want to write it. Even though I couldn’t wait to write it before, it has been years since I last wrote about any of the characters or worlds I made (although I have borrowed a few ideas and names because I liked them a lot). Why did this happen?

I believe this happened because I lost sight of the series’ heart. I got so caught up in worldbuilding that I forgot this very essential, basic fact: That I was writing a story, not building a world.

To be sure, worldbuilding is highly important in speculative fiction. I don’t disagree with that. It’s just that I forgot that I was creating a world for the story, not the world for its own sake. As fun as worldbuilding is, to the speculative fiction writer, one must always ask the question, “Does this help the story?”

Some people worldbuild for the sake of worldbuilding. And if that helps, sure, go ahead. Have fun. I have a lot of fun doing it, too, at least when I’m on a roll.

But not all of us find worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding so wonderful. Remember what we’re doing here; we’re writing speculative fiction. Not world guides. Not gaming manuals. Not Wikis. Not histories. Fiction. Stories. Adventures. Art. Life, even, if you want to go that far.

Worldbuilding is a tool and should be treated as such. In my inexperience, I lost sight of the story for the sake of making more and more detailed worldbuilding notes on subjects that weren’t even important to my story. I unconsciously treated worldbuilding as an end in itself. And it killed my series as a result. Or at least put it into a coma that it has yet to awaken from.

My advice to all speculative fiction writers out there, to beginners and veterans alike, is this: When you find yourself getting lost in worldbuilding, ask yourself, “Am I writing a story or building a world for its own sake?”

The answer will determine what you should do next.

What about you, my readers? What have your experiences been with worldbuilding? Do you like worldbuilding? How much worldbuilding is enough and how much is too little? Post your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim