03 September 2005

World Building/World Breaking

I have written most of a novel. I guess. Let's see, it's 340 pages and 170K+ words (yes, sorry, the boasting and bragging will now ceast and desist...). So, I suppose, technically, that counts. Lengthwise: it's a bonefide, gorram novel.

It will never be published.

I'm OK with that. Because what I finally figured out, just this past week (I've been working on this frikkin' thing since March, I'm a bit slow sometimes) is that what I've really been doing is two things. One, is world building and the other, is learning to write.

Learning to write - more than likely, I will never stop doing that. But the world building thing... another story.

Prior to starting this 'project', I spent nine months - nine friggin' months - doing what I thought was world building, in a very classical, orderly sense. I mean, I had categories fercrissake. You know: Geography; Social Structure; Religion; Physical Characteristics; Weather. It was all very, very sterile. It had no life of its own - until I started the story and began to see how people reacted to the world I had in my head.

Here's an example: I knew the 'magic' in my world would allow for some form of mind speech. I knew that. What I didn't know was what its limits were. It's like I couldn't decide what the restraints on the system should be - I couldn't make myself sit there and even think about it. It was too abstract and too arbitrary. How could I even make a decision about how mind speech would work if I didn't understand the consequences of that decision for the characters in the story? For me, it was like buying clothes for someone I've never met. How can I make a decision about whether to purchase hot pink or flat black if I don't know what their reaction is going to be?

And I would never have found the limits of mind speech on my world unless I had started the book. Because until I started writing the story, the decisions I made didn't matter. They had no repercussions - until I created characters that those decisions mattered to.

A lot of things have been like that in my world. The magical creatures I created. Exceptions to the mind speech rules. I discovered so many things as I wrote. What I finally figured out this week is that it's the discover that's more than half the damn fun!!

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I also discovered another kind of world building this week - or, maybe I should call it "world breaking". I have a short story in the works. It's a post-apocalyptic, sci-fi thing about a guy, a girl and her mutations. I thought I had a pretty good (read: realistic) idea of what would happen if the world got ripped off its hinges and there was no food, no water and no hope of help on the way.

Enter Hurricane Katrina. Enter levees failing in New Orleans. Enter the Feds with ... ahem, ENTER THE FEDS... YO!! ENTER ... oh wait a minute, that's right - we have to wait FOUR FUCKING DAYS first ...

I'm as pissed and horrified as everyone else over that, but I'm not here to rage at anyone (today). The mayor of New Orleans and that little boy said it best, anyway ('Get off your asses' and 'It's pitiful'), so what can I really add?

What I'm getting at is that I didn't know SHIT. I would never have guessed that the destruction of natural disaster could so quickly cause order to fall into armed gangs and anarchy. Nor that its effects would ripple out so fast. Ripple out to me.

I live FIVE HUNDRED MILES from the ruins of New Orleans, and yet, in my town: The price of gas went up 60 cents in two days. Stations cordoned off their pumps because they had run out. There are refugees at the hotel just down the street from my house. There are more shelters set up all over town. They are filling up. They have airlifted patients to the hospital where I work.

For the first time in my life I donated money to the American Red Cross. For the first time in my life I will donate blood. For the first time in my life I will donate diapers and wipes and canned fruit and water and whatever else they say they need.

I didn't do any of these things for 9/11. I don't know why, but I didn't. I was pregnant then - and only just (we couldn't even take the test until 9/13). And we lived in Wyoming, which seemed like it was a long way from anywhere.

Five hundred miles doesn't feel like a long way at all. In fact, it seems like only a few, very small steps between me and my family and the chaos of death, starvation, abandonment, hopelessness and despair. And as much as I hate to admit it, that is somehow more shocking and more terrifying to me than 9/11. I don't remember looting and rape aftetr 9/11. I don't remember people shooting at helicopters that were evacuating people from hosiptals. I don't remember 220,000 refugees heading North with nothing at all.

I remember shaking so hard my teeth were chattering and I couldn't stop them. I remember looking up for months afterwards every time I heard an airplane in the sky. I remember the president standing beside the smoking pile of rubble that was all that was left of the World Trade Center.

It may just be the stretch of time between now and then. Or it may be because 9/11 was done to us by a group of outsiders whom we can blame. The suffering in New Orleans, on the other hand, we have done to ourselves. Because it wasn't the storm or even the failed levees, but the lack of help arriving afterwards.

That's what makes it so sad and frightening a lesson for me and my silly story - it's so easy to slip into anarchy. So much easier than I would ever have thought.

It would seem that it requires so little: take a stable system, remove food, remove water, add heat, remove hope, stir, let stand.

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