World building part 2: Details matter. Precision, perhaps not so much.

Let me qualify this by "this is my opinion. There are many like (and probably more unlike) it. This one is mine."

Being human is a study in what some have termed as "beautiful mess". We often strive for perfection and usually fail to achieve it.

And to be completely honest, that's not all bad. "There is no art in perfection. There is no perfection in art." I am a firm believer in this statement. I find it borne out in many things, such as the fact that humans are not perfectly symmetrical. Anything that can be made perfect can be made perfect again. That is mass production, not art. There is nothing inherently WRONG with this either, but it is my take on it.

All of that said, I say this with all the care I can muster for writers as artists: The reader typically doesn't care about precision when it comes to numbers. All they need is reference or something close. Science fiction writers tend to be the worst offenders when it comes to an excessive amount of precision when it comes to numbers. It's almost as if the thought of a rough number when it comes to speed is considered a bad thing by some of them. I (as I'm certain others) find the overly precise numbers jarring and distracting.

This falls back to "being human". Precision is required in some things. Engines are built to thousandths of an inch. But the reality of it is, in the car, the gauge doesn't *really* need numbers because we know that it "should be about there". This kind of thing pervades life. We know when somethings "correct" when it sits inside of arbitrary tolerances that we find through observation. We know that when it gets outside that tolerance something's wrong. There's no precision there, but it works organically, and generally works well.

With that out of the way, let's look at an example that I found online.

I found this with StumbleUpon (and found it interesting enough to continue reading): http://www.cygnuswar.com/2009/10/episode-50-sky-of-memories.html

The paragraph that I'm going to excerpt here is the one that inspired this post. I will qualify all of this with a "I haven't read the rest of the story yet" so I don't know if the specifics really do play into story or not. If they do, I apologize in advance.

She swallowed in that moment, reflexively, and forced her eyes to focus on the Wallace class in the distance. Her rig’s PAT array had picked up Mac’s Slashdriver at 238 kilometers distant, closing in on a full burn of a few km/h over 1800 with the massive bulk of the starship hanging in blue nothingness another handful of kilometers behind him. Her own throttle was notched near half in conventional drive, 1522 km/h. 5, maybe 6 minutes out.

What struck me as strange in this is that the writer recognizes the entire idea behind human "fuzziness" when it comes to numbers. "5, maybe 6 minutes out" and "another handful of kilometers out" suggests this to me.

If the writer understands this, and gets it, why do they use specifics in other places: "238 kilometers distant", "1522 km/h". The blending of the two makes it especially jarring to me.

Were I to suggest a little bit of editing (and far be it from me to do so, as I, while I do write, often do so for my own pleasure, not for someone else to read), I would recommend the following:

She swallowed in that moment, reflexively, and forced her eyes to focus on the Wallace class in the distance. Her rig’s PAT array had picked up Mac’s Slashdriver at just under 250 klicks, closing in on a full burn around 1800 km/h with the massive bulk of the starship hanging in blue nothingness another handful of kilometers behind him. Her own throttle was notched near half in conventional drive, just over 1500 km/h. 5, maybe 6 minutes out.

It reads more organically. Everything flows in a fashion that doesn't jump from incredible precision to fuzziness. The numbers aren't distracting anymore, they're just indications that "one's moving slightly faster than the other, and they're not that far apart at those speeds", which I sincerely believe is what the author is trying to convey. Depending on the audience, the "5, maybe 6 minutes" thing could probably be left out, or replaces with "a handful of minutes at the most". This does get into the more subjective and style elements that are beyond the scope of this small post.

Fantasy writers aren't immune to this either, though they appear to be less inclined to fall into this trap. Age, however, seems to the area they are wont to use overly precise numbers.

When describing age, it is not necessary to use highly precise (or even loosely precise) numbers. Usually, you can get away without using a number at all. "Approaching middle age" is close enough for most people to get that "well, that one's in his thirties or so". "Just entering puberty". "Elderly". "Wizened". These are all great words and phrases that leaves the reader's imagination to work. And isn't that what we all want to do?


World building for fiction writers, part 1 in an ongoing series: An introduction

Let's get this out of the way right off: World building the correct way is hard(tm). Insanely hard. Just writing this series is looking insanely hard.

That said, so is writing anything longer than a short story. Which is what's brought us to here: if you are writing fantasy that's not based in a familiar environment (like, oh, say, documented historical or current Earth), or a pre-developed universe (Arda, Dragonlance, Forgotton Realms, etc), and longer than a novella, you are choosing to build your own world.

World building isn't a bad thing to do. Just understand that you *need* to do more work in one form or another for your writing to hang together well. Some people can hold all of the details of their created world in their head. I prefer a separate document that I can refer to, since my memory doesn't serve well due to the volume of stuff that's on my mind at any one time. Documenting it for me solidifies the concepts, and sometimes will help me develop parallel ideas that are related to the concept I'm working with at the time.

No matter what tracking method you choose to do, be certain you can track a volume of minutiae that can (read: will probably) grow very large, depending on how much detail you want to put into your world. I'm personally of the opinion that "details matter" (for reasons I will touch on later), so usually when I'm working on something like world building, I usually wind up with a large volume of stuff that never makes it into anything I'm writing, but does influence my writing both directly and indirectly.

Firstly, a well thought out world makes your future writing MUCH easier.

You know the rules, and what will work and what is improbable. You won't stomp on yourself in the future with stupid mistakes like Hollywood does all the time when it comes to computer technology, which those of us in the tech industry can find insanely distracting, because "It makes no sense". Which brings me to my second point.

A well constructed world helps us prevent distractions to the reader.

Let me be perfectly clear: You *NEVER* want a reader to say "that doesn't make sense". EVER. Keep this in mind as you write. If someone reading one of your works gets to the point of saying "That doesn't make sense", you, as a communicator, have failed to communicate something very important, or have transgressed something either stated or preconceived in your writing. Your story loses credibility, and as entertainers (yes, if we are writing fiction, we are entertainers, as well as communicators), if we break the suspension of disbelief, the reader will lose interest.

Details matter. Don't think otherwise.

Even if you don't use the details in your writing directly, you have them to refer back to. Details bring your writing alive. Knowing the minutiae of your world down to the shape of the average blade of grass may be a bit on the excessive side, but if you can do that, I encourage it. An example of where details come in handy:

Say that gravity on your new world is 1/6th Earth normal. This is roughly normal gravity on the moon for a reference.

Knowing this, we let the reader in on a few things without ever telling them "the gravity is 1/6 Earth normal", like the average human(oid) is close to 8' tall and very lanky, because vertical growth is less inhibited. They could bound with large leaps due to their long legs and light weight due to the lack of gravity. Flora would be the same: tall and lanky. The planet could either be very small, or be large and have very low density. If the planet is very small, it would rotate slower than the regular 24 hour day as to not sling off/tear the atmosphere. Perhaps it is a moon of a Earth sized planet, which brings up a whole NEW line of difficulties that I won't get into here. If you *do* have your new world as a moon of a larger planet, you can use photos of "Earthrise" as reference for describing the rise of the parent planet on your world.

Your planet's gravity is a detail. Not a huge detail (I say, tongue firmly planted in cheek), but a detail that can shape your writing. Details matter.