The Fandom Method of Worldbuilding

My friend author/editor Michelle L. Levigne is back to give advice on writing speculative fiction. Michelle has written books in almost every genre but her favorites are science fiction and fantasy. She writes about the fandom method of worldbuilding as a way for budding speculative fiction writers to learn the rules of the genre. Take it away , Michelle!

There is nothing new under the sun — no matter what world you’re talking about.

Our Lord is the Creator, but face it, gang, no matter how much effort we put into makin our brain children appear to be totally new, unique, fresh … writers are RE-creators. We take what we see around us and reweave, slap some paint on, cut a few new holes, patch holes, add material, whatever.  Bottom line: we’re recycling.

When it comes to the adventures of the starship Defender (shameless self-promotion of my book in print this month, FRIENDLY FIRE), I freely confess it’s all recycled material. To be specific: my worldbuilding is firmly based in fandom.

This is the AA part of the meeting:

Hi, My name is Michelle. And I am a recovering Trekker …

Many moons ago, I wanted to get my MA in filmmaking, focused on writing. (With a theater/English degree I could either continue my education or go work in a fast food restaurant until someone bought my Great American Science Fiction Novel.) I went to California to live with my aunt and apply to film school. I had a connection there with a fellow fan of the TV show The Phoenix. She invited me to her Star Trek club, the USS Defiance. One of the watershed moments of my life: More crazy people like me, who lived in their imaginations. They had stories in the monthly newsletter and a yearly fanzine. I hooked up with people who were constantly talking stories and it was glory

Writing for fandom is an incredibly useful, strength-building and skin-thickening exercise. You’re playing in someone else’s playground, and other fans will NOT let you get away with breaking the rules. They will let you know when your characters are being Too Stupid To Live and when you’ve violated the laws of that particular universe.

The important point here is that the foundations, the boundaries, the research and worldbuilding had already been done. I could concentrate on the characters, the dialog, the plot — learning to simply put stories together, with the scenery, the costumes, the props already provided by someone else. Like learning theater in summer camp, rather than starting your own theater from the ground up.

Fandom provides the answers to questions writers need to learn to ask in their own, original stories: WHY can’t the characters act that way? HOW are they going to get from A to B? WHAT happens if they do C instead of D? And when you violate the understood, unspoken rules of that story world, other fans let you know. They explain, with varying levels of kindness, why what you want the characters to do, or to have happen, won’t work.

Get slapped with, “Nuh uh, that would never happen,” often enough, you learn to think and figure out the rules for yourself. You learn consistency. You learn to come up with logical reasons WHY a character would violate his behavior patterns, how rules CAN be violated. Finding the guidelines, the foundation, is trained into you. You know to ask the plot-crucial questions before you start writing and to have the props, the scenery, the costumes, the special effects ready and on the set, to be used when needed. To paraphrase Chekov (Anton, not Pavel), if you want a gun to fire in Act III, it had better be on the table in Act I.

Fandom writing is like theatrical rehearsals. Actors learn their lines, then block the action on the stage someone else built, then rehearse with props, costumes and makeup provided by someone else. When you switch from fandom writing to writing your own stories, you transform from actor or crew to director/producer/set designer — and you know what to do because you’ve been watching others do it and following their rules.

As Kirk said to Saavik, “We learn by doing.”

*****

Captain Genys Arroyan has a problem with her shiny new command — the dregs of the universe are laughing.

While the Defender is in spacedock, getting upgrades, Genys has to deal with mind-hunters and farting fur balls, merchants-of-insanity and diplomatic intrigue. Her Chief of Talents is hiding from forced matrimony and her new crewmembers aren’t too happy to be transferred to the Nanny Ship. 

Then she finds out that the insectoid Hivers have a taste for the brains of the children of her crew. Falling through a Chute to another galaxy might turn out to be a good thing, even if dangerous.

A rescue mission turns into a battle to save a race of miniature dragons from genocide. They might just be sentient — but more important, dracs could turn out to be the defensive weapon the Alliance needs against the Hiver threat. Genys and her crew could end up breaking dozens of regulations in the quest to save dracs and maybe the Human race.  Just how much trouble could teleporting, fire-breathing creatures with the personalities of four-year-olds cause on board a military vessel?

The misfit luck of the AFV Defender might finally be running out.

Buy on Amazon.

*****

Michelle has 40+ fan stories in various SF and fantasy universes. She has a bunch of useless degrees in theater, English, film/communication, and writing. Even worse, she has over 100 books and novellas with multiple small presses, in SF and fantasy, YA, suspense, women’s fiction, and romance. Her training includes the Institute for Children’s Literature; proofreading at an advertising agency; and working at a community newspaper. She is a tea snob and freelance edits for a living, but only enough to give her time to write. Her crimes against the literary world include co-owning Mt. Zion Ridge Press and Ye Olde Dragon Books. Be afraid … be very afraid.  

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Writing Tip — Guest Blogger, Michelle Levigne

michelle-levigne-LR-2Because I am focusing this month on speculative fiction, I have asked several authors who specialize in that genre to guest blog. First up is my friend Michelle Levigne. Michelle writes in many genres, not just speculative fiction, but in that category she covers steampunk, fantasy, and science-fi.

Me: Which usually comes first when developing a story – characters, setting, or plot?

 Michelle : Plot — but even that isn’t right. Usually the story starts as an idea, an image that comes into my head, a spin-off from another idea, a chance remark someone makes, a joke, a “Hey, what if THIS happened instead of what happened in the movie/book?” or sometimes a reaction to a cool idea that was badly done and I think about how I could do it better — or at least differently. C.S. Lewis said the Narnia books started with just an image he had of a faun carrying parcels, walking through a snowy wood. Just yesterday, I remarked to my mother that all the Hallmark “royal wedding” stories are soooo cookie cutter, so I dreamed up an idea that was the opposite of the checklist they offer. For instance, my royal wedding (If I ever wrote it) would have a princess, not a prince. He breaks it off because he is a threat to the kingdom, not just to a bunch of social rules. She would abdicate her throne for him. Someone conniving is trying to throw them together instead of tear them apart. Someone wants to hurt her tiny kingdom, instead of allegedly “protect” it. See what I mean? 

Me: Since you write in multiple genres, do you have a favorite? Have you ever started a story in one genre and switched it to another?

 Michelle: I can’t say I have a favorite genre. The requirements of the story sometimes pick the genre. For instance, magic would work better than superhero/telepathic powers (although some might claim they are actually the same thing) or the social situation I need for my story works better in a past culture rather than futuristic, or vice versa.

And yes, that just happened to me. In fact, I’m still working on the switch. I wrote a book a few years ago that was the first in a planned 4-book series, science fiction, near-future, taking place on a farming colony set up on an alien world — Earth is starving and it’s worth the expense of setting up alien colonies to feed the planet. I am changing it to fantasy, where it’s not an alien world but a series of worlds on the other side of a magical doorway. Instead of rebel colonists and alien creatures, I have very angry denizens of Faerie who were driven from Earth and want their planet back. Even if they have to kill off all the nasty mortals. I had to gut large portions of the setup for the SF series to make it fantasy, but I think it’s a better book. And hopefully a better series someday.

 MeWhat are some unique challenges to writing speculative fiction?

 Michelle: The world-building — which is the fun part, sometimes — but it’s tricky because you’re building a WORLD. How much do you make like the modern, terrestrial biology, society, technology, politics, and how much do you change? How much science do you have to know, to keep people who know more in those areas from throwing the book against the wall because you broke all sorts of laws of science? How much can you get away with by having your characters either ignorant of the physical/scientific/magical laws, and how much do you have to explain, and where does vital information stop and info-dump begin?

There’s a little bit of a challenge to try to make it unique, and not follow trends that have gone on so long they’ve become cliché. Because as Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. You can work so hard creating a totally unique setting — you believe — and then just after you turn the book in to a publisher, a book is released to critical acclaim that makes you swear someone was hacking your computer every night, to steal your story.

This actually happened to me when the TV show “Beauty and the Beast” was on. I had just finished a script and had requested the release form, to send it to the production company. That week, an episode aired that had my general idea {drugs invading Down Below) and even some of my lines, starting with, “That’s not the Vincent we know.” Yeah, right, like Ron Koslow needed to spy on our writing group that met at McDonald’s every Tuesday night?

 Me: What do you do to renew your inspiration when you’re running low?

 Michelle: I take a break. I read. I watch movies. I go do chores, because usually the low point of inspiration is just a feeling of, “Okay, I thought I knew what happened next but I can’t find it,” and I give my brain a break. Usually when I’m busy doing something else, the solution shows up. I can’t count all the times I’ve been driving or sitting in church or doing something else and I get the “fix” for a problem in a story, or I get an idea for character background, or I get a new tangent for the plot that is a lot more fun than where I planned to go originally. I’ve learned to always have paper and pen ready. I feel sorry for my Sunday school teacher, who must think I’m taking notes all through class, but I’m actually replotting the current story, or brainstorming as I work through a new idea for a new project.

A good stimulus for creativity is to go watch a movie or TV show or read a book that is just ludicrous, and you have to wonder who wasted the money to produce the wretched thing and then inflict it on the watching/reading public. If the idea is good, but the execution stinks, naturally you start thinking about how it could have been changed and fixed. And sometimes come up with a completely new, original story. Or at least a bit of inspiration for a character or background or piece of technology or a side story or just a fun tangent to explore.

And when all else fails, chocolate lubricates the mental and creative gears.

 Me: What advice would you give to someone interested in writing speculative fiction?

 Michelle: #1: Have fun. Unless you have incredible luck and a faerie godmother or you’re disgustingly talented right off the bat, it’s going to take years to produce something someone will want to publish. So make sure you’re writing what makes you happy and feeds your soul, because that is what will keep you going until the day “the call” comes.

#2: Play in other people’s playgrounds, first. Meaning write fan fiction. There are hundreds of fandoms out there, for anything you can think of. Fan magazines. Online sites where people post bits of stories and artwork and homemade videos. Get into fandom and find people who will be honest and kind, and who will grant you the freedom and wiggle room to explore your own vision for the fandom you love. You want people who will give you feedback on your use of established characters, situations, settings, customs and technology. This is a place where you can practice writing stories without having to spend time and energy creating the worlds. Like walking into a theater full of costumes and a full set on the stage, and you’re free to make up a play that goes with the costumes and set.

Then when you’re ready to launch, and write in your own worlds, you might just have friends and followers who will cheer you on and come explore your playground with you.

Me: Thanks so much for stopping by! To learn more about Michelle and her books, check out her bio and links below.

 

 

On the road to publication, Michelle fell into fandom in college (she is a recovering Trekker, and adores “Warehouse 13,” “Stargate SG-1,” “The Dresden Files,” and “The Librarians.”), and has 40+ stories in various SF and fantasy universes. She has a BA in theater/English from Northwestern College and a MA focused on film and writing from Regent University. She has published 80+ books and novellas with multiple small presses, in science fiction and fantasy, YA, and sub-genres of romance. Her official launch into publishing came with winning first place in the Writers of the Future contest in 1990. She has been a finalist in the EPIC Awards competition multiple times, winning with Lorien in 2006 and The Meruk Episodes, I-V, in 2010. Her most recent claim to fame is being named a finalist in the SF category of the 2018 Realm Award competition, in conjunction with the Realm Makers conference. Her training includes the Institute for Children’s Literature; proofreading at an advertising agency; and working at a community newspaper. She is a tea snob and freelance edits for a living (MichelleLevigne@gmail.com for info/rates), but only enough to give her time to write.

www.Mlevigne.com

www.michellelevigne.blogspot.com

@MichelleLevigne

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