Monthly Archives: July 2019

BWS 10.07.19 report: “Worlds are Made of People” with Leah Bobet

Leah Bobet -- Headshot

Leah Bobet‘s most recent novel, An Inheritance of Ashes, won the Sunburst, Copper Cylinder, and Prix Aurora Awards; her short fiction appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies. She lives in Toronto, where she picks urban apple trees, builds civic engagement spaces, and pickles basically everything. Visit her at www.leahbobet.com.

 

“Anyone who’s fit somewhere—or notknows “worldbuilding” is a powerful word. We’ll get back to that,” said guest speaker Leah Bobet at our last event.

What is worldbuilding?

As Wikipedia has it, “the process of constructing an imaginary world“—one of the foundations of speculative fiction.

More simply, worldbuilding is your answer to: “How does your story’s universe work?”

Like most how questions, those answers can get really deep—and really cool—really quickly. In this space, we’ll think about what builds story worlds well in three layers, and with a guiding concept: worlds are made of people.

Simple worldbuilding: facts and figures

The first layer is that Wikipedia definition: maps and backstories, simple facts: “Developing an imaginary setting with coherent qualities such as a history, geography, and ecology worldbuilding often involves the creation of maps, a backstory, and people for the world.”

At the very basic level, we’re making decisions about a world’s physicality and starting conditions. The joy of speculative fiction is that anything is possible: with nothing out of reach, you build worlds from the ground up—oxygen, plant life, unicorns if you want.

This doesn’t mean making lists. We’ve set some starting conditions, but we worldbuild when we explore the implications of those choices.

Example: In Game of Thrones, summer and winter can each last years. But Westeros is full of people, plants, and food. Applying systemic worldbuilding awareness means if long summers and winters are true, seeds in Westeros work differently. They must hibernate for years, otherwise the first winter would have wiped plant life out.”

That’s doing the fundamental work of science fiction: taking an idea to its logical conclusions.

Basic worldbuilding isn’t just deciding facts; it’s analyzing and realizing how facts fit together and how, by both being true, those facts generate more facts.

This doesn’t mean putting miles of explanations about geography on the page. This worldbuilding is like an iceberg: 90% of the mass below water, holding up the visible parts and making them feel stable because there’s one well of agreed facts. That feels consistent, and a consistent fantasy world feels more real.

Worlds are made of people

Our basic facts generate more facts, but they also generate human reactions. Lots of decisions are made by characters because of their surroundings; how people react to their circumstances.

There’s a spaceship video game I like, Spacebase DF9. In it, sometimes a spaceship shows up with five people on board and one bed. I have questions.

Yes, that’s saucy, but also serious: characters will react to that situation. How does that one bed affect them? Do they sleep in shifts? Are the crew really cool with touch? What if someone gets sick? In short, how has this tiny society arranged itself to work with or around this limitation?

Societies arrange themselves, at the core, to work with—or transcend—their physical conditions. Societies are lifehacks, built with something to hack. How people react to our generated facts is what makes them more than an atlas for places we’ll never visit.

So step two is applying social awareness: reading our setting as made of systems and generating results for how those systems shape the characters living there.

Constructing everyday worlds

For layer three, we’ll consider how individuals interact with the societies we generate.

In her Brockton Writers Series post, JF Garrard pointed out: “[Worldbuilding] is actually something built into every story because the reader needs to be transported into a world which the writer has built.” I’m going to take that idea another way: Worldbuilding is built into every story, because people are always worldbuilding.

I like books set in Toronto, and when you read thirty stories set in the same place, you internalize how differently thirty authors see the same city block: different landmarks, different moods and memories associated with them. We live in societies, but we also live in subcultures, and for most of us, our societies are an uneasy fit. You can derive a character through finding their relationship to their society.

Carmen Maria Machado addresses this question well in her 2017 Atlantic interview: “Being queer, too, can feel surreal. There’s this sense that you’re seeing things that other people don’t, which I think is true of many groups of people who exist apart from the more culturally dominant perspective.”

We all live in constructed worlds every day. We’re not inventing ecologies and physics, but we walk through a world stuffed with information and, to make sense of it, we edit and explain. When writing a character’s perspective, how we edit and explain is worldbuilding: How does this person’s universe work? How do they, because of their intersectional identities, blind spots, geographies, habits, subcultures, moods, see and filter that objective world we laid down in steps one and two?

This is the worldbuilding that literary fiction does strongly: work like Austin Clarke’s “Four Stations in his Circle” or Emma Donoghue’s Room. How your protagonist sees and what their seeing says about them is worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is a powerful word

Building a world asks you to think in very specific ways:

-questioning your assumptions;

-thinking intersectionally, in systems;

-considering the implications of your choices;

-considering how surroundings shape people;

-taking others’ perspective.

For me, the most rewarding part of writing process is how we can apply it in our lives too, and we build worlds every time we interact with people.

I chose pronouns in this post; it built a world. I cited my queer authors, and authors of colour, crediting their intellectual work and underlining that these ideas are built in community; that builds a world. Having your reading series in a queer bookstore with accessible washrooms and gluten-free tags on the menu is a worldbuilding choice enacted in three-dimensional space.

Worlds are made of people: the reactions to our conditions. When we set good conditions, we can make worldbuilding choices that help more people fit well in the worlds we construct—and that’s a power we don’t need to write to realize.

 

Stay tuned for information about our next event and features on our upcoming writers! 

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BWS 10.07.19: SK Dyment

WriterPhotoNice

SK Dyment is a writer and visual artist. SK has an illustrated blog with The BuzzMag called Inking Quickly, and his humour and illustration work have appeared in Peace Magazine, This Magazine, Briarpatch, Open Road, The Activist, Kick It Over and Fireweed among others. Steel Animalsis is their debut novel.

 
Ahead of their July 10th appearance, SK Dyment opens up about their debut novel, Steel Animalsis, and their inspirations and journey as a writer.

 

There doesn’t ever seem to be a queer philosophical adventure fiction category, which is what my debut novel Steel Animals features, so even though people love it in their displays, because the cover design is evocative and pretty, on the shelf it becomes mysterious.

The book is based around a rag-tag group of welder friends, while two of the male friends grew up together and were intimate as teens and as young men. The book definitely has a hot relationship between a young dyke leaning to gender fluid or trans and a bisexual in it, but the plot is more widely around these other events as well. So besides the entertaining story of a bank robber who needs to learn forgiveness not to mention impulse control and not drag her new true love into a plot for revenge, there is a whole secondary event happening, as one of the teen boys has grown up to become a top man in a corrupt construction firm while the other one opposes him.

The issues of loyalty, ethics and moral issues also are themed into the plot, which weaves together with the building of a squirrel-shaped glider and a number of other playful devices and funny events of magical realism. Of course, redemption and salvation are there too, as well as the wildly terrifying and reportedly funny finale, but the loyalty theme is very catalytic and it revolves around a male love relationship while a female love relationship powers a rebuilt vintage motorcycle through the middle. To me, this is queer fiction. The book contains queer people, bisexuals, a straight couple who stray, a gay couple who bring a baby to the New York MOMA, the two hot dykes with their motorcycle romance, and it is really written for readers who are interested in the deeper contemporary questions around relationships and around the problem of corruption as well as those readers simply interested in reading something fun.

My first experiences with publishing things was in the form of cartooning, and editorial-type drawings for magazines. I decided to tackle the novel-length form a few years ago, after I had written smaller articles for student newspapers and had short stories published here and there. I approached it in a different way than some novelists, really like I was going to war at first with the prose. I forced myself to write a set amount every day and to not leave my space until I had produced tangible results and had met my required word count. I used to write with my rollerblades on, and skate around my carpeted apartment, descending the stairs finally sideways at night, one frazzled step at a time, to go rollerblading alone for miles under the moon. So the bare bones of the manuscript was developed in that way.

The influence and purpose behind my narrative voice however, was formed, as mentioned on my website www.skdyment.ca to a very large extent from my experience growing up working in the family bookshop, which I had to do after school. The shop had a massive collection of Western philosophy among other features which speaks about purpose. It was from the philosophy that I developed a sense that people abstracted intellectually on the “art of living a good life” and that the “love of wisdom” was a pursuit, but as I came of age in the 1980’s, I was aware that it was a sexist, racist society that excluded the good life based on arbitrary categories and required LGBT people to be in the closet or be fired and excluded from Canadian government jobs.

As a teenager I had another job as a night cleaner at the Department of Defence, pushing a little cleaning cart from office to office, and so I had actually seen lying next to an eighties-era shredder a list of names of Defence employees who had been reprimanded for overly-out behaviour. This was not fiction. This was a reality that was playing itself out around me while I tried to focus on my own life, and my own sprawling existential questions surrounded by Camus, Foucault, Hegel, Socrates and Plato. So besides the philosophy tomes, which had more questions than answers, I was required to evaluate boxes from people downsizing their libraries of those quickly-devoured paperback books that truly reached out by authors such as Tom Wolfe or Nora Ephron, and in the midst of this I discovered Robert Pirsig who blew my mind.

So I developed a sense, in a true tactile way, of the type of writing that people actually loved-up and grimed-up and shared with friends and that ultimately arrived in boxes for someone unknown stranger to discover, and it wasn’t the dusty philosophy books, the vast collection of military history or even the well-meaning pop-psych books that populated the shop. I told myself that I would some day write a snappy little book that ended up with that grunge effect like that, or at the very least, a debut novel that showed I knew how to write. People are telling me they find it an entertaining romp, which encourages me to write another one.

When I moved to Toronto just a few years ago, I saw the beautiful motorcycles lined up in front of Ryerson University as I sat in a coffee-shop composing essays for an art director in Canadian film who was teaching a course. I saw Ducatis and Harley-Davidson and even a Norton. Cafe racers. And I thought, this is it, if I want people to know I can write things, I’ve got to take that incredible restrained energy from that row of bikes and create a fast-paced novel that could be on the screen. And although I’ve only owned one and only had it for a little while I fancy motorcycles, they are proletarian, use very little fuel and are easily converted, they roar with energy and thrum with animal excitement.

So the next semester I took a course in publishing, and stayed up late in the Ryerson Library self-publishing the first version, which ultimately was re-edited by Inanna. I am very grateful to Inanna Press. And as I write the screenplay, I realize that the sound of a grunge music band such as the Riot Grrls might quite fit nicely as a sort melodic background growl. I did live that era, roamed Seattle and San Francisco and the West Coast as a hitchhiker. So the rebellious power chord strum of grunge and punk rock has a mood-music place in the writing. I’ve recently written a Coles notes style study guide for the book so that it can be taught in an academic setting, because there’s a helluva lot in there, hidden things, secret meanings, little poems, an encrypted code. I wanted my readers to be able to identify cultural references along the way.

Hopefully through the book people sense they  have looked into the interworkings of human relationships and found relevance, and have visited the world of poetic and philosophical abstractions while enjoying an adventure.

So now I continue to write and spend time developing fresh ideas in different forms, and I always come back to these philosophical questions. Why are we here? To cynically damage our beautiful planet, I think not. To enhance the current ways we have to tear down corruption and in the same stroke nurture an egalitarian society? That sounds like the right message to me. Without being a spoiler, the book tries to land in this optimistic place, using magic realism to take things a little past normal but also using the basic magic everyone has in them to shift culture and save everyday lives.

 

SK Dyment visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 10, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Teddy Syrette, Jenny Yuen, Terri Favro, and guest speaker Leah Bobet who will be exploring word building with a focus on character in her talk, “Worlds are Made of People.”

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