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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: 1984

Say it with me: world-building is fun.

Seriously! It’s the only way—aside from global domination—we will ever get to arrange the world exactly as we want. Don’t like green peppers on your supreme pizza? Banish them! Hate people who squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle? Declare them subversive enemies of the regime!

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Yet, some genres are trickier than others when it comes to creating backgrounds and context. Science fiction, ‘apocalit’ (zombies optional), horror, and dystopias all require as much if not more work than more mainstream genres like historical when it comes to world-building. Why?

Because unlike historical, where it is mostly a matter of doggedly researching established facts, speculative fiction forces us to create those facts.

What’s more, we must do all this while keeping an eye on opposite ends of the setting spectrum. We have to track the big picture logic and global structure as well as check for consistency and catch everyday details.

As if that weren’t enough, we have to embed all of this into prose that is designed to give momentum to the narrative, not serve as a expository guidebook for the Totalitarian-Regime-Next-Door.

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Worst of all, if we don’t get it right, the reader is the one who suffers. Our brains recognize hiccups in logic on a subconscious level. This can lead to reader attention wandering, which can easily become the dreaded…BOOKMARK MOMENT.

Burn the world with a burning reason

Good stories always have at their heart a burning reason. It’s the message, the theme, the desire to share a truth of life that drives us to write. I talk more about the burning reason in this post.

Speculative fiction has given us some of the most memorable burning reasons in all of literature. They incinerate our complacency and comfort zones, leaving only questions and ashes in its wake.

Can’t think of any speculative fiction books off the top of your head? How about:

Farenheit 451, The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Lorax, The Stand, Neuromancer, Ender’s Game, Divergent, World War Z, Underground Airlines, Brave New World, Ready Player One, A Clockwork Orange, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (just to name a few…)

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Now, imagine doing a lightning round of ‘Name the Theme’ for each of these books. You just started ticking off themes and messages in your head, didn’t you? I know I did. For a fraction of a second, I also relived the deep existential unease each book left me with.

Coming up with the burning reason can be uncomfortable because it means asking hard questions. We have to skate a little too close to the edge of moral insanity. It’s the double-dog dare to look through a mirror darkly and see some chilling truths about human nature.

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UN-Successories

However, if we do our job well in coming up with the burning reason and translating it into world-building, the reader will remember our story long after the thrill ride through post-apocalyptic totalitarianism (zombies optional) is over.

Means to an end (of the world as we know it)

The good news is that once we have come up with the burning reason, we have done the hardest part of the whole exercise. If we feel wrung-out, slightly distraught, and in major need of a glass of wine, then we know we’ve done it right.

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Now that we know why our world exists (i.e. the message), it’s time to figure out how we are going to convey that message. In other words, what are the tangible means that will give us the ability to show-not-tell when it comes to explaining this brave, new, freaky world?

Let’s take Fahrenheit 451 as an example. The burning reason of the story (pun FULLY intended) is to make us question censorship and the role of mass media in society. Bradbury then translates the qualms and questions into both physical objects (paper, books, written word, flame-throwers, the Wall) and social structures (‘firemen,’ the governing laws, the underground culture of dissent).

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In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Margaret Atwood uses color and clothing to deepen the impression of the politicization of women’s bodies. An old Scrabble game set becomes another tangible symbol of oppression, rebellion, and consequences.

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Women dressed as handmaids promoting the Hulu original series “The Handmaid’s Tale” stand along a public street during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Film Interactive Festival 2017 in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder – RTX30ML9

From the Barbaloot suits of ‘The Lorax’ to the spice and sands of ‘Dune,’ speculative fiction requires a blood sacrifice of something ordinary. We find the everyday things that best represent the burning reason. Then, we offer them up to be stretched, twisted, and torn until they become truly frightening.

Until they become perfect.

Twist and shout

The good news is that we are done with the really hard parts. Figuring out the burning reason behind our world involves uncomfortable questioning. Identifying the tangible symbols requires logic and hard choices. But turning the symbols into that freaky mix of familiar-and-yikes?

That’s fun.

Okay, so maybe you and I define ‘fun’ a little differently. Is it so wrong for a girl to enjoy daydreaming about turning the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse into Twitter handles that secretly hide the not-so-benevolent intentions of a multi-national cabal bent on eradicating our civil liberties in a post-nuclear-zombie-disaster era?

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This is why writers can’t have nice things.

In all seriousness, this is the part of world-building where we get to flex our imaginary muscles and muscular imaginations. Once we have a tangible symbol, we need to put it through an intellectual stress test.

Let’s look at ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card as an example. The burning reason behind the world-building is questioning how far we are prepared to go to survive as a species. The tangible symbol is a military academy (among other things). The stress test is that Card stretches the concept and purpose of a military academy to its most extreme limit.

While these academies have a goal of instilling loyalty and discipline, producing genocidal sociopaths isn’t in the brochure for West Point.

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We take the concept and purpose of each symbol and either stretch it to its limits…or compress it until it becomes oppressive. The books in Fahrenheit 451 are examples of compression. Books are compressed by fire and memory, leading the reader back up through pondering the concept and purpose of books, and eventually to the questioning of censorship and mass media.

Whoa, did I just bring that full circle? Boom, baby!

The whole world in our hands

World-building is the most fun a writer can have when it comes to distributing death, distruction, and dystopia for speculative fiction. (Legally. Whatever you do in your off-time is your business. *snerk*)

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When it comes to the down-and-dirty process of creating our worlds, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. While I like to nail down every detail I can, from toilet paper to totalitarianism, other writers prefer creation-on-the-fly. Both methods work. There are also problems with both methods. My way can be a bit too rigid and create unnecessary roadblocks. On-the-fly creation can lead to logical holes the size of the Grand Canyon.

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At the end of the day, both methods require a balance between flexibility and attention to detail. Both techniques work best when we grant ourselves the grace of time. Time to think. Time to imagine. Time for our brains to catch up and wave the red flag of contradicting details. Time to find deeper meanings and motives behinds the symbols and reasons.

Time to create the best dysFUNctional world we can.

What’s your favorite dysFUNctional world? Tell me in the comments!

Regularly scheduled mayhem

No surprise here, but I have SO much more to say about this. I am itching to talk about space operas, zombies, YA dystopias, and flavor-of-the-month apocalypses.

From limits to liminality, I have a LOT to say about world-building in general. Kristen is kind enough to occasionally remove my muzzle and allow me to spout off deconstructionist analyses of various books, shows, and movies. But then, the timer goes off, and the muzzle goes back on. *le sigh*

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…because SOMEONE (aka Supreme Emperor Denny Basenji, blessings upon his paws) is an a$$hole at the vet…

Still, she has found a way to channel my slightly manic musings (after we realized the electro-shock therapy just wasn’t working). Kristen and I are offering a Saturday workshop of three classes about speculative fiction. I’ll be teaching world-building (naturally). You’ll get a double-teaming treat of me and Kristen TOGETHER for the character class. Then, Kristen brings some sanity back to the proceedings (after using the tranquilizer gun on me) with a class on plotting for speculative fiction.

If you’re interested, check out the classes below! More classes listed here.

Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Speculative fiction may be a way of seeing the world ‘through a glass darkly,’ but it can also be one of the clearest, most pointed, and even most disturbing ways of seeing the truth about ourselves and our society.

It’s not just the weird stuff that makes the settings of speculative fiction so unnerving. It’s the way ‘Normal’ casually hangs out at the corner of ‘Weird’ and ‘Familiar.’

But it’s trickier than it seems to get readers to this intersection without letting them get bogged down in the ‘Swamp of Useless Detail’ or running them into the patch of ‘Here be Hippogriffs’ (when the story is clearly about zombies). How do we create a world that is easy to slip into, absorbingly immersive, yet not distracting from the character arcs and plots?

This class will cover:

  • Through the looking glass darkly: How to take a theme/issue/message and create a world that drives it home to the reader.
  • Ray guns and data chips: The art of showing vs. telling in world-building.
  • Fat mirror vs. skinny mirror: What is scarce in the world? Valuable? Forbidden? Illegal? What do people want vs. what they have vs. what they need?
  • Drawing a line in the sand: What are the laws, taboos, limits of this world? What is unacceptable to you/the reader/the character? How are they the same or different, and why it matters.
  • Is Soylent Green gluten-free and other vital questions: All the questions you need to ask about your world, but didn’t know…and how to keep track of all the answers.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

It’s a time-honored tradition in literature to take an ordinary person out of his or her normal life and throw them into a whirlwind of extraordinary circumstances (zombies/tyrants/elves/mean girls optional). After all, upsetting the Corellian apple cart is what great storytellers do best.

It’s also that very same ordinariness and normalcy that first gets the reader to identify then empathize with the characters and stick with them (and the book) through to the end.

But, what do we do when our ‘ordinary’ protagonist lives with a chip implant and barcode tattoo, and our antagonist happens to be a horde of flesh-eating aliens…or a quasi-fascist regime bent on enforcing social order, scientific progress above ethics, and strict backyard composting regulations (those MONSTERS!)?

How the heck is the reader supposed to identify with that? I mean, seriously. Regulating backyard composting? It would never happen in a free society.

This leaves us with two challenges in creating characters for speculative fiction: 1. How to use the speculative world-building to shape the backgrounds, histories, and personalities of characters, and 2. How to balance the speculative and the relatable to create powerful, complex character arcs.

This class will cover:

  • Resistance is futile: What does normal look like for the characters? What’s different or strange, and how to get readers to accept that retinal scans and Soylent Green are just par for the course.
  • These aren’t the droids you’re looking for: What are the discordant elements around the characters? What are their opinions about it? What are the accepted consequences or outcomes?
  • You gonna eat that?: Whether it’s running from brain-eating zombies or fighting over dehydrated space rations, what is important both physically and emotionally to the character? What is in short supply or forbidden?
  • We’re all human here (even the ones over there with tentacles): The basic principles and techniques of creating psychological touchpoints readers can identify with.
  • Digging out the implant with a grapefruit spoon: In a speculative world, what are the stakes for the character? The breaking point? The turning point?
  • And so much more!!!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

Gizmos, gadgets, magic, chainsaws, demons, fantastical worlds and creatures are not enough and never have been. Whether our story is set on Planet X, in the sixth dimension of hell, on a parallel world, or on Earth after Amazon Prime gained sentience and enslaved us all, we still must have a core human story that is compelling and relatable.

In this class we will cover:

  • Discovering the core human story problem.
  • How to plot these unique genres.
  • Ways to create dimensional and compelling characters.
  • How to harness the power of fear and use psychology to add depth and layers to our story.
  • How to use world-building to enhance the story, not distract from it.

***A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Recordings of all three classes is also included with purchase.

Image courtesy of Raymond Brown via Flickr Creative Commons
Image courtesy of Raymond Brown via Flickr Creative Commons

Today, we are going to take a bit of a sideline from our acrostic. Over the holiday weekend, I was resting up from a nasty bout of bronchitis and puttering around Facebook. I’ve been long frustrated with this new culture of “Everyone’s a Winner.” Back in 2005, my young nephew was in soccer. I recall being horrified that everyone received a trophy.

What was the point for working harder? What gain did it give my nephew that I ran extra drills with him after school and off the practice field? He “won” the same trophy as the kid who showed for one game out of the season.

Trying is all that matters.

Deep.
Deep. Never mind the TYPO. The person “tried.”

We see all over the news where schools are attempting to cancel Honors events because those kids who didn’t achieve honors “will be sad” because they are “left out.” We can’t honor the kids who traded video games or time with friends for extra work, far more difficult work.

We can’t reward those who sacrificed because those who didn’t might have their delicate sensitivities permanently bruised. We’re seeing flyers being sent home to parents that Field Day isn’t about winning, athleticism or competition and promising that “the urge to win will be kept to a minimum.”

In a world that lives and dies by competition, how is this healthy?

I can appreciate the desire to protect and shelter our young. I’m a mother. But life will not hand out trophies because of attendance. And this is all I’m going to say about that nonsense because it’s just the tip of the spear.

Sunday, I ran across something that chilled my blood. As writers we should be frightened of this new trend.

The Culture of “Special”

Yes, every person is a special unique snowflake. I wholeheartedly believe this. Every one of us is gifted with talents, drives, memories, passions that are uniquely ours. There will never be another YOU or another ME. WANA is dedicated to cultivating those gifts.

But, lately, this social disease of “Everyone is a Winner” has made me want to scream. Yes, everyone is given a set of gifts, but rewards are given based upon action. What do we DO with those gifts?

Showing up is the basest of requirements.

What I’m about to say might be unpopular, but I’m a writer not an Ad Man. Leave the propaganda to the bureaucrats and sheltered academics. Writers have always changed the world. Why? They were fearless enough to point out the unpopular. To shine a light on an ugly reality and maybe even extend some logic of how a social cancer might spread if left unchecked.

Something Wicked This Way Comes

There is a terrifying movement popping up in our universities. In my opinion, it’s the “shot across the bow,” the seed of the Thought Police.

If PC wasn’t bad enough, the new political flavor of “Everyone is so special they should never feel any discomfort” is Empathetic Correctness. According to a recent post in The Atlantic, Karen Swallow Prior explains:

While political correctness seeks to cultivate sensitivity outwardly on behalf of those historically marginalized and oppressed groups, empathetic correctness focuses inwardly toward the protection of individual sensitivities. Now, instead of challenging the status quo by demanding texts that question the comfort of the Western canon, students are demanding the status quo by refusing to read texts that challenge their own personal comfort.

I didn’t believe this when I read it and dug deeper and yes, this IS happening. Some of our most prestigious universities are calling for literature to be marked with “Trigger Warnings” to point out any areas a student might feel uncomfortable or traumatized.

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In a New York Times article, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and other literary staples are in the EC crosshairs. Issues like slavery, oppression, misogyny could be “traumatizing.” Such literature might make students and young minds “feel bad” and thus students should have the option of reading something less distressing.

*head desk*

I know The Diary of Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel’s NightThe Scarlet LetterThe Red Badge of Courage, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Brave New World, Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours, and even The Hunger Games changed me. These works disturbed me, made me weep, and most of them made me more than a little angry.

But isn’t that the point?

My fiction isn’t about rainbows and unicorns and the world holding hands. I don’t write My Little Pony. I strive to write about regular (often innocent) people thrust into the bowels of darkness who through sheer force of their humanity confront evil, grow into heroes and WIN.

I even write works that challenge what we believe about our world or ourselves. What are we capable of under the right circumstances? My short story Dandelion is raw, viscous and utterly heartbreaking.

It was meant to be.

The High Cost of “Higher” Education

Higher education is supposed to expose students to other people with differing beliefs, ideas, and opinions…and live to tell the tale. Perhaps they might even learn to think critically instead of parroting. Heck, maybe they’ll even realize they’re really blessed and that there are plenty of people on the planet who’d gladly trade places and not B%*$# that the wi-fi is slow.

That is a mark of becoming an ADULT.

When I attended TCU, one of my closest friends was a refugee from Uganda who fled to the US for asylum after her father (a teacher) was brutally executed during a regime change. My other best friend’s family lived in a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Syria (where I went to briefly live after college).

My university exposed me to the brutality of the “real world” and made me angry enough to want to change it. So this white girl with blonde hair and a big mouth hopped a plane to the Middle East instead of Cabo San Lucas the day after graduation.

I traded a tan on a beach for a hijab. I wanted to understand even when it scared me half to death. I wanted to see if someone like me might make even a little bit of difference. To at least try.

Maybe we are offended or traumatized, but maybe we should be. Perhaps that’s what is going so wrong.

And to add an increasing burden to teachers, exactly how are they suppose to thread the needle between PC and EC?

As Chester E. Finn, Jr. points out in a recent post in Politico Magazine:

Does the history professor refrain from mentioning that Hitler killed homosexuals as well as Jews? Does the English teacher shun James Baldwin and George Eliot because one was gay and the other was a woman using a man’s name? Avoid Toni Morrison because one of her books includes a rape scene? Not teach astronomy because just two of the 23 best-known constellations are recognizably female?

Writer Beware

I suspect why this is so disturbing to me is right now there is pushback. But what about in ten years or twenty?

Orwell predicted a world where thoughts would be controlled, and we laughed. Should we be laughing now? Alduous Huxley predicted we’d eventually live in a world driven by the Orgie Porgie Feelies of the Centrifugal Bumblepuppy. Pillars of truth would be buried under mountains of meaningless. All that would matter is “feeling good” even if there was no depth or substance. The human spark would snuff out since we only find our greatness in the crucible.

I’m not laughing.

And I suppose why I bring this up is what is the long-tail of this thinking? Years ago, I blogged about the dangers of Amazon and their strong-arm tactics. It was a level post praising Amazon but also cautioning what could happen if we failed to appreciate their past business behavior (and more than a few people called me a nut). Yet, lately it seems so many people are surprised that BUY Buttons can disappear. And this is Amazon’s business and not really my point.

My point is this: In a virtual world, books are “allowed” to exist.

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Let’s take Amazon out of this and let’s speculate that another business comes along and uses Amazon’s business model and improves upon it. Fluffy Fairy Dreams takes over and does it better…and embraces EC.

What “warning labels” would be on your books or mine? With enough political pressure, could our writing disappear? If universities press down this path of making everyone happy and comfortable, will there be generations who no longer remember works like Huckleberry Finn or The Merchant of Venice? Or find them so “distasteful” the BUY buttons vanish?

We no longer need to burn books when we can just “delete” them. 

I know today’s post is disturbing. It was meant to be. Maybe it should have come with a warning label 😉 . Yet, the duty of bloggers (who are a form of journalist) and writers is to start the conversation. This Brave New World scares me. Yes, The Digital Age of Publishing is wonderful. Works nearly driven to extinction by the print paradigm are springing back to life. Writers can reach new audiences and emerging markets abound.

But we must remain vigilant. Who would have thought in 1980 we’d take pictures with our phone? What was laughable then is now commonplace. If we scoff at the idea that books can vanish…?

What are your thoughts? By the way, I never mind anyone disagreeing with me so long as the disagreement is respectful. Maybe I do need a tin foil hat. I’ll own that. But, maybe I don’t.

What warning labels would be attached to your writing? Did you find healing from past trauma through literature? Maybe realizing you weren’t alone? Are you writing on a delicate subject hoping to encourage a dialogue, understanding or catharsis? What do you think about this trend of being “empathetically correct”?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

If you need help building a brand, social media platform, please check out my latest best-selling book, Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.