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Worldbuilding in a Nutshell: Martin & Dozois’s Rogues Anthology

Sipani, and most especially its moist and fragrant Old Quarter, was full of thieves. They were a constant annoyance, like midges in summer. Also muggers, robbers, burglars, cutpurses, cutthroats, thugs, murderers, strong-arm men, spivs, swindlers, gamblers, bookies, moneylenders, rakes, beggars, tricksters, pimps, pawnshop owners, crooked merchants, not to mention accountants and lawyers. Lawyers were the worst of the crowd, as far as Friendly was concerned. Sometimes it seemed that no one in Sipani made anything, exactly. They all seemed to be working their hardest to rip it from someone else. — From “Tough Times All Over,” by Joe Abercrombie, appearing in Rogues

Like many Internet-dwelling Song of Ice and Fire fans, I have at least a passing familiarity with George RR Martin’s blog, so I saw the many announcements about the release of his and Gardner Dozois’s new 2014 anthology Rogues. Although big multivolume epic novels are usually my format of choice, I sought out a copy of this anthology both because of the number of my favorite authors whose worlds made cameo appearances (most notably Patrick Rothfuss, Neil Gaiman and Martin himself), and because I’ve had a soft spot for rogues ever since building my first D&D character (3rd edition, 2001, a half-elven woman who stole 50 gold pieces from another PC in her first session. My geek roots run past sociology and novel-writing).

I’ll confess up front, I didn’t read every story in this anthology: if a story didn’t grab me in the first five pages, I was apt to skim it or skip it altogether. But even using that cherry-picking method (I probably read about half of the 21 tales), I found several stories here that impressed me, and not just those from authors whose names I recognized. I’ll be looking to read more from Joe Abercrombie, Gillian Flynn, Scott Lynch and Daniel Abraham based on the stories they contributed to this anthology. And by the time I got to the end of the book and GRRM’s 35-page historical account of Targaryen history (which I, as a history geek and amateur genealogist, thoroughly enjoyed), I’d noticed a common element to the secondary-world offerings that I liked: they all did a very good job of presenting a complete setting in a comparatively small space.

For me, Gaiman’s story was an example of how not to do this. He wrote in an existing universe (the underground world of London Below from Neverwhere) and although I’ve read the novel, it was too distant in my memory to allow me to link the faint bells the story was ringing with the larger context of the world. Rothfuss’s story, on the other hand, largely avoided attempted tie-ins to the larger world it was drawn from and kept its focus on a few characters and a self-contained plot.

The stories that particularly impressed me in this regard, though (even more than Abercrombie’s, despite the quote that starts this post) were Lynch’s “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” and Abraham’s “The Meaning of Love.” I felt that each author did a very good job of establishing a unique and interesting setting, and that Lynch was particularly skilled at doing this while also introducing us to some compelling characters. After rereading both stories with an eye to how they did it, I’ve come to the following conclusions for those who want to world-build on a limited scale:

  1. Keep it small. Both Lynch and Abraham tell stories set in a single metropolitan location, and for the most part in one or two spots within that location. There are allusions to the larger world in which the city sits, hints enough to make us believe that the authors could tell us more if we asked. I was particularly fond of this quote from Lynch’s story, where the roguish protagonist is laying out her credentials: “I stole the sound of the sunrise and the tears of a shark. I borrowed a book from the library of Hazar and didn’t return it. I crossed the Labyrinth of the Death Spiders in Moraska TWICE!” (p.248). I suspect Lynch could probably tell us more about these deeds, just like he could about the backstories of the rest of his crew of ex-thieves, but he chooses not to. In this anthology, he tells a story about a thieving crew in retirement, and about Theradane. Which brings me to my second point.
  2. Make your setting a protagonist. Both stories do this in spades. Abraham’s setting, the unincorporated Sovereign North Bank (with a relationship to the larger city around it a bit like Vatican City’s relationship to Rome, if Vatican City were a wretched hive of scum and villainy), gets the first two pages of a 30-page story all to itself; we don’t meet the human protagonist, Asa, until the top of Page 3, and further city description takes the first paragraph of almost every new scene. Even more important, both Abraham and Lynch tie the characters’ goals in with the aspects of the setting that they want readers to remember. In Abraham’s story, Asa’s goal is to free a young woman from being sold into a life of slavery; both her status as chattel and his freedom to use any methods available to hand come from the fact that the Sovereign North Bank is “an autonomous zone where the law protected and enforced lawlessness” (370). Lynch’s city, Theradane, is ruled by a loosely aligned wizard parliament and offers a unique sanctuary/citizen program for lawbreakers: “Pay a vast sum to the Parliament of Strife, retire to Theradane, and don’t practice any of the habits that got you in trouble outside the city. Ever.” (253) Unsurprisingly, the first thing we learn about Lynch’s heroes is that they’re retired criminals; the first thing to happen to them in the story forces them out of retirement. Thus, my third point.
  3. Hook us quickly. This almost goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. In a novel, especially a fat novel like the ones I typically read, I’m often willing to read for 50 pages before putting the book down. I usually give a short story 2 pages, maybe 3. In Theradane, the first thing we see is the main character pausing before the soul-bound statues of those who crossed the wizards’ parliament and weren’t able to gain sanctuary, paying her respects to an old comrade and possible love interest. In Sovereign North Bank, the first thing we learn about Asa is that he’s secretly in love with the fugitive prince who’s sharing his tiny room. These are characters with things to gain and things to lose, and I was eager to read on in both cases.

So, that’s what I learned from my sampling of the Rogues anthology. I’ll definitely keep these thoughts in mind as I return to the age-old question of Whether I Should Attempt to Write Short Stories In My Setting. I’d recommend the book, too, and particularly the stories above. With 21 stories, there’s bound to be something that catches your fancy.

Tiny Windows: My Uneasy Relationship with the Short Story

I have a short story problem.

In my reading queue right now, I have four unfinished short story anthologies. One is by HG Wells; another by LeGuin. A third, Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, has been widely touted as one of the most important anthologies to come out in the last few years. I recently ran across Charlie Jane Anders’ post on i09 titled “Essential Short Story Anthologies that Every Writer Should Read.” In response to that, plus a few other conversations I’ve been following recently, I’ve now requested precisely 7 anthologies from my local library.

Short stories are important for writers. I know that conventional wisdom states most authors, regardless of genre, get started with short stories, because they’re the way to get past the Catch-22 that blocks people from serious consideration with agents and editors (that you won’t be taken seriously without any publications, but you can’t get any publications unless someone takes you seriously). I know that the big genre-writing workshops, like Clarion (which I’ve seriously considered and rejected as a summer indulgence at least twice now) are all about honing the craft of the short story. I completely agree with the point Anders makes in her post, about why short stories are an essential component of the field:

Short stories are the lifeblood of science fiction and fantasy — novels get all the buzz and the parties, but short fiction is where the wildest ideas and coolest characters come out.

It’s the same principle as what I tell my sociology students about the difference between journal articles and monographs. Books take a long time to come out; in the time it takes a book to go through the publishing dance, its content might become less cutting-edge. There’s a bigger investment with books, so gatekeepers are less likely to take risks on them; conversely, when you get down to it, any schmo can get a book published, while short pieces dependent on publication in some moderated medium have more quality control. That’s the reason I subscribed to Fantasy and Science Fiction for years, the same reason I try to keep current with the American Journal of Sociology; because periodicals are where the cutting-edge stuff happens.

I know and understand all of that. And yet I still can’t find a big place in my heart for the short story. I’ve written a couple (including both of my technical publications to date); I have a few well-worn anthologies that I’ve kept through a dozen moves. But in the end, my love is the big story. My tastes in writing and reading run to thousands of pages, long elaborate stories with dozens of characters and massive plot arcs.

I increasingly suspect the main reason for this is that I’m a character person: whether as writer or reader, I like watching my protagonists grow and change, and especially go through multiple changes. In a short story, you’re frequently limited to one big change. There are other problems with the format for me, too. I tend to like my worldbuilding explicit; if you’re writing a short story in a world that isn’t this one, you either need to shorthand your setting or leave a lot of it in the hands of the reader to interpret. I’m also not someone who typically spends much time appreciating other authors’ prose: although I admire a beautiful sentence as much as the next person, I’m much more interested in bulldozing through the lavish descriptions of setting looking to find out what happens. Short stories, by virtue of their compactness, seem to rely a lot more on careful reading and reflection on each carefully chosen word.

There are a few authors whose stories I reliably enjoy, the most notable of whom is Stephen King (I continue to be envious of his ability to write good short stories, good novellas and good doorstops). But King’s short stories are different than LeGuin’s, or Wells’s. For the most part, a 15-page King story will be focused on a central gimmick. There might be a poor guy who’s confronted with a finger poking up out of his bathroom sink (“The Moving Finger,”) or a poor sap who’s trying to quit smoking (“Quitters, Inc.”), or a couple whose car breaks down in a strange town (“Children of the Corn”; “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band”; really, too many others to count ;)). But the picture is compact, and the story centers around a single concept.

Before I started this blog entry, I found a quote by Neil Gaiman that I think speaks to my short story dilemma: “Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” This is a lovely phrase, and I think it speaks exactly to what genre writers who go after short stories are looking to accomplish — but generally, it’s not what I want. I don’t want to be back in time for dinner; I want to disappear to Westeros or Southmarch or the Final Empire for a week at a time. Those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved, and the ones I’ve always wanted to tell. I want readers to feel they know my characters well enough to have conversations with them, and you can’t have a conversation through a tiny window.

I’m going to keep reading short stories; I’m going to make it through those long-ago purchased anthologies I’ve got sitting around my house, and I’ll try to read the ones I’ve collected from the library, too. Because they’re an important aspect of the genre I’m trying to write in, and because every now and again, I find one that speaks to me (to be uber-stereotypical for a moment, there’s very little out there more powerful than LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”).

But for better or worse, I’m coming to accept that my heart belongs to the doorstops.

For those who might be interested, some anthologies I’ve read and enjoyed:

  • Adams & Cohen, Oz Reimagined
  • Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother
  • Bradbury, Bradbury Stories
  • Card, Maps in a Mirror
  • Anything by King (he’s got 6 or 7 sets, I think)

…and the collection I’ve assembled from the benevolent local library system:

  • Beagle, The Secret History of Fantasy
  • Campbell & Hall, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond
  • Dillon, Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction
  • Griffith & Pagel, Bending the Landscape (Fantasy): an anthology that labels itself as “queer fantasy”, including stories by queer authors and about queer characters
  • Hayden, Starlight 1
  • Kelly & Kessel, The Secret History of Science Fiction
  • Van Gelder, The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction