July 29th, 2006

Steven Brust

How I work, part 2

In a previous discussion, lollardfish said the following:

But my question about systems I am still curious about. Whether SKZB tries to make systems that work, or just makes up stuff that sounds cool and handwaves the details.

There are many answers. There is how I wish I worked. There is how I believe I work. There is how I want you to think I work. There is how I actually work (which will vary from book to book, and system to system).

I think I will answer "How I want you to think I work" because that sounds like the most fun and will make me appear more impressive than the others.

My goal when creating systems -- weather a magic system, a system of civil engineering, a social system, an economic system, or a political system -- is to do three things: 1) Encourage the reader to buy into it sufficiently that it won't detract from his enjoyment of the story, B) provide a nice backdrop against which the story can take place, and, iii) insofar as possible without messing up 1) or B), create a vehicle to explore such systems in our world, or the attitude toward such systems, or (in the case of magic especially) the thing for which the system is a metaphor.

I think pretty much every writer knows how to achieve the first of these: you do it through feel. In the case of a magic system, through sensuousness: the reader will buy into it because he can smell the incense, or see the look on the wizard's face, or hear the crackle of the lightning, or feel the euphoria or exhaustion the working produces. Sometimes the reader will buy into it because it is poetically appropriate--it is just right that this happens right now. Gandalf driving away the Nazgul in The Return of the King is the classic case. In creating other sorts of systems, one does it by carefully introducing the appropriately irrational: the exact right kind of, "it makes no sense that they did it that way" reaction will immediately produce a, "but that's just the sort of thing they do," and it will become real. At least, that is how I react, and I have no choice but to assume the reader will react the same way. A misfire on this sort of detail will have the opposite effect: pulling the reader out of the story, and even ruining his suspension of disbelief.

It seems to work best for me, by the way, when I know why a certain irrationality is there, even if I never tell the reader. That is, when I mention certain irrationalities in the layout of Adrilankha, I have in my head why the city developed as it did. I might come up with these before or after the moment I actually write the detail. I will most likely forget the explanation later. But at some point, I want to have it. And many of these details seem to introduce themselves spontaneously during the writing process. When that happens, I always feel that this is a healthy sign; but I might be kidding myself.

The understanding of real systems becomes important for the second goal--for providing the backdrop. In order to make the story flow (and, to be honest, to provide little bits of business that often help get me unstuck), there is nothing like having a clear understanding of how a system truly works. As a sop to those of you who hate the idea of a quasi-Marxist really understanding social and political systems, I'll say that the understanding the writer has can be completely wrong, so long as it is sufficiently internalized that he can flow with it automatically. Ideally, this should play back into the first goal as well: when the writer understands and believes in the system he has created, this will communicate itself to the reader and (I hope) keep him from being pulled out of the story the way the economic systems in cyberpunk novels always pull me out, with a muttered, "bullshit."

So, having gotten that far (introducing appropriate irrationalities, sensuous detail, and having the background of understanding similar systems in the real world), the hope is that the last goal will take care of itself. Sometimes it does, at least to my satisfaction. Brokedown Palace worked well that way, for me; and I'm rather pleased with Orca in the same regard.

Okay, now that I've explained all of this, does it bear any relationship to how I actually work? Ummm...I think so. But, even if it doesn't, I think I've accomplished 1) by giving you the feel of my thought process, B) by creating a self-consistent explanation that is similar to the ways many writers approach many questions, and iii) by adding on this last paragraph, to make the whole thing recursive.