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WRITING A SF NOVEL: PART 3 — WORLDBUILDING

22 September 2011

Today brings us a guest post from fellow SF author, fellow Carina author, and all-around awesome guy Robert Appleton. You’ll want to check out his upcoming release Sparks in Cosmic Dust, which drops early next week (26 Sep 2011) — trust me on this one, folks.

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As much as I love designing worlds and speculative futures, sometimes it’s better for the story when you don’t have to build your universe from scratch. Essentially, Sparks in Cosmic Dust takes place in the same universe I created in Alien Velocity (Carina Press, 2012) and Claire de Lune (Amber Quill, 2010), albeit at a later date and in a completely new part of the galaxy. It’s a standalone story, but it’s also fair to say I had a head-start in terms of worldbuilding.

I always think of worldbuilding as the stuff that goes into a glossary — the nuts and bolts unique to your particular universe. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but for me those are the pieces that take up the most time. The SF slang, the names of planets and spaceships and alien food, the placement of apostrophes in those dang silly names (one of my pet dislikes in SFF). In other words, the details.

I think that’s why most authors love writing sequels and spin-offs based on their own work. Once you’ve used those details successfully in a narrative and then refamiliarized yourself with them, the resulting shorthand enables you to write faster, smoother, and with more confidence. You don’t grind to a halt every time you need to anatomize an alien octoped or figure out how someone pees in space; you’ve been there, done that. What it gives you is valuable freedom to concentrate more on the internal aspects of your characters and narrative.

I was pleasantly surprised how unobtrusive my worldbuilding seemed when I read through my first draft of Sparks. Especially in the first third, set on the grungy asteroid colony of Kappa Max, I did a lot of heavy lifting in terms of (re)introducing this speculative future. It was an aspect of the “society” I hadn’t touched on in my previous two stories—the lawless gutter colonies of deep space. But much of the slang and the references to Earth’s politics and the general terminology remained the same. They were already lived-in, and writing the characters’ dialogue felt, at times, like riffing on a jazz theme—the world they were talking about had a clear history, one that literally did exist in other books, and they weren’t self-conscious when referencing those details because I, the author, wasn’t.

Most of my dialogue scenes in Sparks were uninterrupted, one draft writes with just a little touching up come editing time. I love that raw spontaneity. Some authors rewrite the life out of their dialogue. I find it’s best, once you have the scene clear in your mind, to use your natural ear for speech. If it sounds right when read aloud and possesses the character and narrative propulsion you intended, leave it be, even if it’s a first draft.

Now, you can achieve that shorthand without having to write multiple stories, but it takes careful preparation. Coming up with a glossary before you start isn’t necessarily a huge time saver overall—you still have to write the bloody thing, right?—but it saves you time when it matters most, in the throes of storytelling. There’s nothing worse than having to stop-start an action scene because you can’t remember which planet orbits which binary suns in which frakking quadrant. This is where pantsers make me cringe. If they’re really making this stuff up on the fly, without any preparation, how can they possibly keep the details straight in their heads while writing a coherent narrative?

Answer: they stop-start like crazy, and then rewrite like crazy when they’re done to fill in all the gaps. I’ve read some amazing books written that way, but if I tried it, I’d quickly resemble that incorrectly beamed-up Vulcan mess from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I have a varied cast of characters in Sparks. The main heroine, Varinia Wilcox (featured in Part 2), represents the “lost paradise” of Earth and the inner colonies. She and her fellow drifters wound up on Kappa Max for various reasons, none of them by first or even tenth choice. The dregs of the outer colonies, those exiled from their previous lives for whatever reasons, gravitate to this dive because it’s ultimately better than nothing. Or is it?

DEEP SPACE PROSPECTING ON A BUDGET

One of my favourite worldbuilding tools (no pun intended) in Sparks was the idea of digging for untold riches on the cheap. The five partners can barely afford the food and basic supplies needed to live on, so instead of molecularized insta-meals served up by computer console, it’s beans and soup. Instead of droids and hi-tech drilling machines, it’s donkeys and pick-axes. Rather than putting up force-field defences around the camp, a la Forbidden Planet, they have to take turns standing watch all night.

This allowed me to sprinkle in the future as opposed to ladling it on with tech, which, again, gave me more chance to concentrate on the character dynamics. And finally, the secrets of the alien moon, which I won’t ruin here, are all the more intriguing because the reader hasn’t been constantly hit over the head with extravagant SF.

The best worldbuilding isn’t completed in the first few chapters. It’s an organic growth over the course of the story. Reading is discovery, something that keeps you turning the page. If a reader knows all there is to know about a character or a world in the first few paragraphs, that’s gazebo-building. But if that information is layered throughout the narrative, revealed gradually and for dramatic effect, that’s worldbuilding. Secrets are a writer’s best friend.

Welcome to my future.

To celebrate the upcoming release of Sparks in Cosmic Dust (September 26, 2011, Carina Press), I’m posting a five-part look at the book’s development, from initial concept to book launch. I’m also giving away one SF title from my back catalogue with each segment, ending with a special Sparks giveaway. The winners will be all announced on September 30th on my own blog: http://robertbappleton.blogspot.com

Here’s where you can find the other installments:

Part 1: Concept (Aug 31)—Contact: Infinite Futures Blog
Part 2: Character (Sep 13)—Mercurial Times (my blog)
Part 4: The Writing Process (Sep 26)—Cathy Pegau’s Blog
Part 5: Publication (Sep 28)—Carina Press Blog

With this third installment, I’m giving away an ebook copy of my erotic SF novel Claire de Lune (co-authored by Sloane Taylor, Amber Quill Press, 2010). To enter, either leave a comment here on Shawn’s blog or send me an email at sevenmercury7@aol.com with SPARKS GIVEAWAY THREE in the subject line. Don’t forget to give your name.

Thanks and good luck!

Robert

6 Comments leave one →
  1. robertappleton permalink
    23 September 2011 0331

    Thanks for the invite, Shawn. It’s a real treat to be here. Carina SF firing on all cylinders.

  2. 23 September 2011 0552

    I love reading sci-fi, but I don’t write it. Not sure If I could build a world from scratch at all! Great post, and best of luck on your release. Sparks in Cosmic Dust sounds like a great read, and I’m looking forward to it, Robert!

  3. robertappleton permalink
    23 September 2011 1211

    Thanks, Barbara! It is a daunting challenge, but so rewarding in the end.

  4. 25 September 2011 0854

    Excellent post, Robert! The layering aspect of worldbuilding is an art form you have mastered. Congrats on the release. Can’t wait to read it : )

  5. 29 September 2011 1022

    Pure Science Fiction reader here. Doubt if I could ever write well enough to build a whole world like you have. Guess it takes both types (writer and reader) to make a good story work though. :D

  6. robertappleton permalink
    30 September 2011 1050

    Here are the five winners in my ‘Writing a SF Novel’ contests. A huge thank you to everyone who entered. I hope you enjoyed reading about Sparks in Cosmic Dust.

    Without further ado, congratulations go to:

    Part One: Nels Wadycki
    Part Two: Ilona Fenton
    Part Three: Cathy Pegau
    Part Four: Jessa Slade
    Part Five: Natalie Damschroder

    I’ve already contacted the first three. Jessa and Natalie, please email me at sevenmercury7@aol.com and I’ll send you your prizes right away.

    Best,
    Robert Appleton

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