Friday, October 10, 2008

A Unified World ( I promise, it's about writing )

Today we're going to talk about writing. My writing, to be specific, because I'm not an expert on anyone else's writing. And this blog is supposed to be about me and my writing, in the end. An author sharing himself with people. Or something noble like that. It hasn't turned out that way, but then that's par for the course.

Writers (fiction writers) are concerned with telling stories. But stories aren't the only consideration. The story is a stand alone project, to be sure, but as with all art, the frame is nearly as important as what's on the canvas. And so, a writer has to look at not just the story they're telling, but the frame in which their story is presented.

A story can be self-contained, but it still takes place in a world. A fantasy book has the plus of being able to define its own world. A more realistic piece of fiction has the plus of pulling on a world that we all know and love. But what about a world in between the two? A world that's recognizably ours but seen slightly askew? A world that's not just in service to the story, but is representative of how the author sees the world around him?

That's the kind of thought that created what I call my Unified World Theory. The idea of Unified World (UW, for now) is that all of the books (or most of them, anyway) take place within a world that's consistent and coherent. That unrelated stories are all taking place on solidly similar ground, a similar setting with a similar history.

For example. The heroine of my NaNo 2008 novel (Mandy, who you'll hear more about next week) originally showed up travelling through the country in NaNo 2007, Ways To Commit Suicide When You're Bored. She wasn't the main character, just a side character. She interacted with the main plot, then drifted out of it. And time passes, and her life gets interesting again, and I write another story that takes place in her life. It's not a sequel, it's not a spin-off. It's just another story that takes place in that world.

I don't like the idea of each story being isolated. Characters exist, they grow, they end their tale and ride off into the sunset. But what happens before that? What happens after? What effects are felt by actions, great and small, that echo throughout the world that they inhabit?

The only way of making such aspects of life known is to join all the books together. In doing so, I create a world that's close to ours, but different enough that I can meddle within the bounds of believability. Change how aspects work. Alter facts to fit stories just so and make it work. I can create cities to rival the greatest American cities, or use pre-existing ones, and it's all equally valid, so long as the universe the world takes place in makes sense.

So that's what I've done. And the arguement could be made that I'm counting my chickens before they hatch, planning sequels and characters that reappear in books that I haven't sold yet. But at the same time, if I'm going to do it, it would be best to do it from the start, so that the entirety of my work rests upon a consistent foundation. So that should it work out and I successfully sell books, I rest well knowing that the frames are set up. That there is a world I have created that will serve the body of my work well.

Now, here's the part where I admit an ulterior motive. There are plenty of authors who also do a unified world in their work. Three offhand are Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, and Elmore Leonard. All of them have recurring characters, actions that have repercussions throughout other novels, all the things that are hallmarks of linking some or all of an author's pieces together.

What this amounts to is a world that rewards further study. You read a book, and read another, and when they are linked together in some way there is a feeling that the author is making sure that the reader will get more out of the author's works the more they read them. I know that it's kind of ... clinical and business-like, but I'd like to think that as an author I'm looking out for my eventual readers.

Of course, this borders on the verge of either pretention or fan-service. If I do it without people enjoying it, I suppose that's pretention, thinking that all my works are so important that they deserve to be considered together. That's a high-demand thing on my readers, to expect them to explore all of my world and books. But at the same time, if I continually write about the favorite characters, and continually create connected works that people love, that totters close to fan-service.

The trick, of course, is to walk in the middle. To allow for stories to begin and end, to both provide for expectations that characters will return and fulfill unanswered questions and continue to provide new characters for first-time readers to cut their teeth with. To expand the universe so that ground isn't retread.

I personally find that authors who take this kind of time and thought to construct these compounded dividends are ones that tend to build strong, dedicated fanbases. That it keeps the back catalogue relevant, and once it's caught on that it's the practice of the author, keeps the expectation of the next story high. You never know who's going to show up or how they'll react. And that, of course, means that you're always looking towards the next story to provide those answers.

It's a business decision, sure, but it's also an artistic one. Part of my statement, of my message, is that all life is interconnected and what we do has repercussions that echo through time and space, affecting many we will never meet or understand. That life isn't just about the individual, but about the tapestry, each individual interweaving with others to add to the whole of human experience.

Unified world isn't just a writing technique, but it's a philosophy. And it's a frame for it's own philosophy. I being both an example and a vehicle for other examples, it's coherent in how the world works. It's a way to be both the lattice on which the rest of my stories and themes are hung, and as a theme and story in itself.

And I suppose, that's the point. In the end, it's what I always wanted to do when I decided to become a writer. The idea of stand alone stories doesn't appeal to me. I write a few, I suppose, but it's not something I'd want to make a career on. Anything that could take place in 'the real world' is typically folded into the unified world that represents my work. Maybe some day I'll have to be pickier about what I throw in there, but for now ...

For now it's fair game. And I'll keep connecting threads even as I expand into new territory.

A world-builder can do no less.

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