Science Fiction Repair Shop: Magpie Mind Power

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-06-05 12:00:00 No comments

Earlier today I was helping someone with a novel they're working on, one with a certain amount of worldbuilding, and out popped a piece of advice gleaned from a few go-rounds on that particular wheel. When you create a world with some basic rules about how it behaves, one of the first things to do is write down as many "tidbits" as you can think of. Things like, how elements of the setting might manifest; how the rules can be bent or broken; things that might happen in that world because of things being the way they are, etc. You're not obliged to include any of them, you're just going to dump out as many as you can. Then, when you start working on the story in earnest, you have a pool of devices you can reach into and drawn from to make your story happen and to enrich it on a scene-by-scene basis.

I've done something like this for a long time now, and I find it works best with stories where the whole thing revolves around some single normative what-if. Flight Of The Vajra had a great deal of this; so did Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned; so did Fall Of The HammerUnmortal, and eventually Charisma (which is currently in the deep-planning stages). All of those had a big ol' bucket of things that might/could/should/ought to have happened based on the way the world worked. And while I didn't use everything in the bucket, I used the bucket as a way to power the story non-stop. A big reason to whomp together such material in advance of writing the story itself is to not let yourself starve during the writing process, so you always have something you can reach for to drive the story forward in interesting ways.

Another advantage of this approach is it gives you a way to make the most out of the space you have. You must all know by now I'm not a fan of multi-novel cycles, if only because I like to exhaust the possibilities of a given setting as thoroughly as I can in the span of a single book — use it up, toss it over the shoulder, and start anew with no strings. Not everyone shares this view, and I have to be realistic about that. So whatever the space you've allotted yourself for the stories you want to tell — one book, three, ten, whatever — you can, and should, build for yourself a pool of goodies to draw on to make it happen.

A major influence on my work was Alfred Bester, both for the sheer scope and vision of his work and its relentless pacing. There's something inventive and world-building on literally every page of his novels. I later found out he was a relentless packrat of a writer: he'd clip and salvage and note down everything that looked interesting in his travels, and drew on those notes for things to give his writing propulsion and texture. The "Magpie Mind", he called it. This I learned about him after I had already adopted such a strategy for myself, not knowing it was a time-honored one used to great effect elsewhere.

One thing I always get hung up about is whether my stories are going to turn into People Sitting In Featureless Rooms Talking At Each Other About Something. This is my least favorite kind of fiction to read, and so it only stands to reason I don't want to be caught dead writing it, either. I like giving them places to go and things to do, and storming up a whole bunch of stuff pre-emptively that revolves around what can happen in their world is a great way to fuel that.

Tags: creativity fantasy science fiction