I read The Farwalker's Quest by Joni Sensel. It’s been on my list for a while; couldn’t tell you why anymore. I put books on The List anytime someone suggests it for any reason. (I used to lose The List but then I moved it to Amazon. And GoodReads.)
In this instance, Joni (pronounced Johnny) herself bumped the book to the top of the list. We had a gap in our writing/critique group so we sent out a call to our local chapter of SCBWI (pronounced skib-wee; really. Ask Jon Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca)) to help us fill it.
Joni asked to sit in on a meeting to see if we’re a good fit. (Critique groups can sometimes act as therapist/spouse/best friend so you want that relationship to be nurturing/kind/ass-kicking as appropriate. It’s good to visit a few different groups a few different times to see how they work before committing.)
Anyway, I squee’d with joy and fear (writer’s self-esteem kicking in. How can we help a real live published author?!) then gave her our standard introduction and thought maybe I better go read her book!
Just so you don’t think I’m gushing (tho I sort of am; I enjoyed this book considerably), I had not met Joni nor read any of her work before I started reading FARWALKER.
And I learned...
Worldbuilding. I harp on it because it is so very important (and because it’s one of my favorite things). When a reader cracks open a book, especially if they’ve pulled it from the Fantasy/Science Fiction shelf, they have no idea what they’ve opened up.
There are the basic questions: who is the book about? Age, name, gender?
Then there are the more complicated questions: what is this world like, how does it differ from our own, and how does it affect the main character?
When I was a youngster working for $3.35 an hour (that was minimum wage in Missouri. You can do the research to find out just how old that makes me), I had two strict rules:
1) I would not pay more than a penny a page for a book. If the book cost $3.99 and was less than 350 pages, it was a no-go.
2) I would give every book 50 pages to suck me in and teach me about its world before I gave up on it. I read fantasy pretty exclusively back then, so it was like jumping into a whole new world every time I switched series.
Given that 50 page rule, let me show you what Joni shows us of her world in her first few pages.
When I critique or edit your writing, I often ask for adjectives to help set us in a certain time and place. In her first chapter, Joni uses a few well-placed adjectives to set up a preindustrial, possibly subsistence-living, village.
“Their catch wiggled in the wood bucket…” [emphasis added]
Wood buckets tell us this society does not have a supply of cheap metal. Wood is more plentiful and cheaper to shape than metal for these people.
“Zeke watched his goat-leather boots…”
Goat-leather boots tell us this group is on marginal land—not enough pasturage for raising cattle. Goats imply a rocky area.
And given a child (Zeke is 12) is wearing leather, that implies the goats are relatively cheap/plentiful (as opposed to today where real leather goods tend to be expensive compared to synthetic counterparts).
“Together they’d trapped classmates in the outhouse…”
“lowered each other into the village well”
Outhouse and well imply no indoor plumbing. (Classmates indicates some sort of formal schooling.)
“Her mother had given up on insisting on skirts…Ariel wore mostly wool trousers and sweaters.”
Skirts shows us girls are expected to dress differently than boys. That Ariel doesn’t shows us it’s not horrific if she goes against the culture.
Wool trousers and sweaters can come from the already mentioned goats. Each piece of clothing can be handmade, which keeps in line with the preindustrial/subsistence theme.
“beyond that were thatched and tiled roofs”
Thatch for poorer homes; tile for the more well-off ones. Shows multiple classes within the society.
Worldbuilding in a character's name
Sometimes a name is just a name, but sometimes it tells us about a world’s culture.
In Joni’s first chapter, we learn of Luna Healtouch, Ariel Healtouch, Fisher, Reaper, and Tree-Singer. We also learn a bit about how those names are given:
“’But Namingfest is only three days away!’”
“He couldn’t say he might fail.”
“both of Zeke’s brothers had settled for more ordinary trades”
“She would turn thirteen later that summer, so at Namingfest in a few days she could apprentice herself to a Fisher or Reaper. But the easiest course would simply be to learn from her mother [Luna Healtouch]”
“Several [symbols] she recognized as the signs of a trade: the Windmaster’s, the Tree-Singer’s, and of course the xx that marked the home of a Healtouch
With these phrases, we learn that a person’s last name is also their occupation, their trade. We learn that when children are about to turn 13, they are apprenticed in a particular trade and that is when they are given their last names.
Through some of Zeke’s comments, we also learn there is some anxiety and uncertainty, and perhaps some kind of test, involved in choosing a trade.
This all shows us the entire culture is involved in training up the next generation to work. Children are not given the opportunity to continue their broad education, nor do they seem to choose a craft for the sake of the craft itself (art or music).
Children are apprenticed to something that will earn them a place in the village, and while they have some say in what they are apprenticed to, not all of them succeed in their first choice.
Worldbuilding with magic
Some fantasy has magic, some doesn’t. Which story are you reading? Unless it explicitly says on the blurb you happened to read, you won’t know until the author shows it to you. Joni sets up magic in the very first sentence and runs from there.
“Zeke’s tree wouldn’t speak to him.”
“A Tree-Singer could be the most important person in the village. Hearing the voices of trees and coaxing them to share their great wisdom took special talent”
“Unlike tree-singing and the more mystical trades, most of the healing skills could be taught.”
“She’d envied his talent [Zeke’s ability to talk with trees], since she seemed to have none of her own.”
“In fact, Ariel had the strangest sense that the tree wanted to be climbed.”
“’I thought telling darts were supposed to find the people they were sent to, [Ariel says]’”
“Before her eyes, the tree reached to catch him”
From all these bits and pieces, we learn that there is a kind of magic in this world and that some of it relates to talking to trees (and hearing what they have to say back). We learn that magic may be an inherited trait (it cannot be taught). That the darts (inanimate objects) are supposed to find a particular person also smacks of magic.
Adding depth to your world with history
And finally, let’s talk about history. Unless your world is new-minted (like Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew) it will have a history. (Altho, come to think of it, even new-minted Narnia has a history.)
That history can give your world a richer feel, less made up/more real, or it can provide conflict for your current characters (those who don’t learn their own history will continue to step in it…).
In the first chapter, Joni already starts laying in her world’s history.
“Maybe Zeke’s tree, grateful, would share an old secret, like where to find gemstones or the legendary treasures locked away in the Vault.”
“Ariel had never seen a telling dart, but she had heard plenty of stories.”
“’I didn’t think you could still find stuff like this anymore,’ she [Ariel] said. Darts that could talk were only one of the marvels lost after the Blind War and now known only in legend.”
Already we learn of some type of major historical event that changed this world and that something from before that event has come to affect Ariel and Zeke. Conflict set up through worldbuilding.
This worldbuilding stuff is really important. It fixes the reader in a particular world: time, place, and technology/science/magic level. It provides interest in your story, like frosting on a cake, making the story-cake that much more interesting/tasty. (My metaphor is only kind of working here.)
Good worldbuilding can provide the conflict for your story. Once you've taken the time to develop two wildly different cultures, it can be easy to see how they'd disagree and how they'd handle those disagreements.
And, finally, worldbuilding can help create your story. I once took an online class with Holly Lisle who created a three-book fantasy series after drawing a map and creating the world that created the map. Worldbuilding in a very literal way.
Read 1000 books
Reading widely changes your writing. For the better. Many published writers credit their success to having read voraciously, both in and out of their chosen genres. But most people don't read like editors; they read for enjoyment, not to learn a new writing technique.
I read for a zillion reasons, and one IS to learn writing and story-telling techniques. Occasionally, I'll write about what I learn and share it with you here.
Read 1000 books. Then write one.
A little background
I first wrote this piece approximately a thousand years ago (or nine. Nine years ago) and posted it to my blog, but that blog has since disappeared into the ether. So, here it is again.
I read, and then I tell you about what I've read. Whether you want to hear about it or not...