In Part I on worldbuilding, we talked about the fans, now here's my take on the author's end of things.
Tolkien is often cited as the father of worldbuilding, and though he was hardly the first to develop an invented world in which to set fantastical stories, he did take the practice to new heights of complexity. Since then, many authors have followed in his footsteps, copying his length and complexity despite the fact that neither length nor complexity are desirable traits, in and of themselves. A good short story is not improved simply by the addition of more pages, nor, when we discover a scientific principle, do we tend to represent it in its most complex form--quite the opposite: art and science both benefit from elegance and focus. As Einstein said, a scientist begins to expect the world to be beautifully elegant, such that it is often considered a good sign for a theory if it is able to represent an idea fully with the interaction of a few simple variables.
|If some part of you doesn't weep in wonder to see this, I'm not sure there's much help for you|
|Mother and Child Divided by Damien Hirst|
This article points out the trend which can be found in the numerous notes, letters, and other papers left behind by Tolkien: though he began his career writing stories with regularity, he ended it painstakingly rereading his own work trying to ensure that distances, phases of the moon, Catholic theology, and locations of all and sundry dwarvish instruments were properly accounted for. Certainly, as authors, we should want to be accurate, to create worlds and stories that make sense, but there are sane limits on how far to extend this. We are human beings, it is inescapable that we will make errors, so trying to ferret out every one is, in the end, a losing proposition. A man's life is simply not long enough, and so a balance must be struck. To me, it is a terrible misalignment of priority to spend as many years altering small details as were spent on writing the book in the first place. If the story is already there, why go back and obsessively alter every part of it, except as a fit of pique?
|Scrimshander by Robert Weiss|
Its an obsession that has plagued many great writers throughout history, but rarely has the urge to tamper been to the benefit of the work. Milton's Paradise Regained and Tasso's Jerusalem Conquered are little more than footnotes to the great works they were intended to modify or replace. Petrarch's great poetic cycle starts off with lust for a teen girl he saw in church one day, and ends forty years later, reinterpreting a young man's eros as a dying man's hope for redemption in the savior. Aside from being brilliant and one of the most influential works in the history of Western literature, Petrarch's poetry demonstrates that in editing, the best the old artist can hope for is to completely subsume his former self. Why rewrite it when the result will be a completely different work?
As George Lucas famously said in his defense of film preservation during Ted Turner's project to remaster and color old films:
"It will soon be possible to create a new "original" negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires . . . Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten . . . The public's interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests."And perhaps if he had stuck to that ideal, he would not have tried to recreate something that was already good, but moved on to the next idea.
It can certainly be difficult to properly balance writing versus editing, particularly when we're in the midst of creating. There is a very strong, sometimes perverse urge to refine, detail, and explain, to answer questions that no one but us would ask. It was not necessary to reveal that the immortal sword-wielders of highlander were actually aliens from the planet Zeist, or that the reason Superman can pick up buildings without them crumbling is because he has 'tactile telekinesis', or that 'the force' of Star Wars is actually the result of superintelligent bacteria whose name I will not stoop to write. No one was clamoring for these explanations--they make the story no less artificial and convenient, so all they add is additional pointless complexity. Nothing is changed about the way the world in the story works--you could just as easily say that Highlanders, Kryptonians, and Jedi owe their powers to jellybeans and be done with it, for all the good such tampering achieves.
When I read, I am always looking for purpose: if there is a word there, a sentence, and idea, then why is it there? Without this reason, it were better left out. But there are so many possible reasons, and therein lies the great depth of critical analysis, of how and why we create. Besides the vague and arbitrary reimaginings in the examples above, there many books--especially sci fi works--which are built around very specific, enumerated details, yet these can be just as fraught with pointlessness.
|Nautiuls Model by Harper Goff|
In 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, I found long passages--or even whole chapters--which described the specific tonnage of the vessels, the chemical composition of the batteries, and long lists of plant and animal binomials. I struggled to find a reason for these inclusions, a way that they enriched Verne's world or the story. Surely, a prolonged thought-experiment about buoyancy might be interesting to an engineer, but while there may be many thought exercises we embark upon as writers, they generally end up in the cutting room with our outlines, and for the same reason: our writing has already delivered their gist without need for explicit review.
Ovid, too, had his lengthy lists, but his were poetic--paintings of timbre and sibilance--few of Verne's digressions can make a similar defense of contributing to tone. It certainly makes sense for the character, a biologist, to express such thoughts, but then, an author has their choice of characters, and if they choose one with certain habits, then it is up to them to make that choice interesting to the reader, as Wodehouse and Douglas Adams did with wondrously dull characters. What benefit was there to including lists that was superior to passing them over with an explanation of their lavishness and an admittance that the specific details could interest no one but a born classifier?
Certainly, details form a fundamental part of how every author delivers his world to us, but there's no reason to go on about them unless they are either vital to the situation at hand, interesting on their own, or aid in some artistic or philosophical exploration. In Ghostbusters, all of the references to the paranormal use real terms and concepts, Dan Ackroyd's Great-Grandfather having been a noted Spiritualist. Yet these details are written into the world realistically, so that they do not distract by way of overwrought exposition--indeed they would almost certainly go unnoticed (except as gags) to anyone not familiar with them. The details are given in relationship to characters, conversations, and events which are all immediately pertinent to the action. They are not dull, they do not detract because there are several narrative layers in effect at the same time, not just overwrought digressions.
|Ray's Occult Books|
That isn't to say aspects like detail, explanation, accuracy, length, and complexity are to be avoided--they are neither good or bad, in and of themselves, they can be used or misused, hence it is important for the creator to ensure that the amount of work he puts in is equal to the amount of value his readers will get out--or indeed, that he will get out of it. If it will take longer to correct an error than the time he put in creating it in the first place, it must be clear that he is now working in reverse: not making, but unmaking, at which point, it is better (and braver!) to take the imperfect experiment as it is, release it into the world, then move on to the next idea.
|'When I'm good and finished.'|
For some, the unbridled juvenilia will be superior to the stodgy dodderings of age--for others, age will bring invaluable wisdom and experience which early, half-formed pieces lacked. Some few, lucky authors even experience both periods: the style of age, while drastically different from that of youth, is equally powerful in its own idiom. But it makes little sense to take a work which was conceptualized and realized with one view in mind and try to make it match some completely different concept. That lifetime might better be spent completing several dozen books representing the many periods of life, each of which, while not perfect (nothing is), would make a far better gift to the world than a shedful of indecisive notes from an elderly man trying to alter the words of his passionate youth because they have ceased to make sense to him.
Next up: Part III, What Fiction Does Well