Monday, March 2, 2009

On the third day, it didn't fall apart

One of my favorite quotes about writing instructs us "to build a universe that doesn't fall apart two days later". The quote belongs to Philip K. Dick, one of the most influential science fiction writers of the late twentieth century. His writing credits include the short stories "Paycheck" and "Minority Report", which inspired the movies of the same names. The speech in which he popularizes the above quote contains many instructive lessons about writing in general and the power of words:

"I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing ... The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words."

My motives are fairly simple, I believe: I want to create a universe that doesn't fall apart on the third day. I want to write a book that people will read once, and then again when they are finished, and then again and again because they simply like it that much. I want them to show it to their friends and family. After I've written a book like that, I want to write another that produces the same result. And then, I want to write another.

I've been writing stories, in one way or another, since I was about six or seven years old. My family had a big, loud, clunky electronic typewriter, with keys that made sounds like pistons cranking and a hum that could have been heard in the middle of a rainstorm. My first efforts at writing stories were ... not that bad for a six or seven-year old, I felt. I was an avid reader, and I always wanted to write stories like the ones I had read, or like the shows I watched on TV. My first completed stories were a little too much like the stories I had read, in fact; they were simply copies of those stories I loved with different names for the characters. Still, like I said, they weren't bad.

Over time, I realized how important it was to create an original world, or universe, with my own original characters and adventures. As I grew older and my taste in books became more sophisticated, so did the stories that I tried to write and the worlds they inhabited. I drew maps and charts of their homelands, and sometimes of their homeworlds. I created whole generations of peoples and families. In my science fiction efforts, I invented whole classes of starships and weaponry, constructing rough diagrams on my family's brand new (for that time) computer. I examined the possibilities for intergalactic politics, warfare, and intrigue, creating governments and shadow organizations, each vying for power. I even tried my hand at creating alien languages, alphabets, and mythologies of the different species. All this I did before I was even old enough to drive a car.

As I grew older, though, I started to suspect that I had bitten off more than I could chew. My project seemed too big to ever succeed, and in my teenage mind I decided it would be better to shelve it all than to try and fail. I finished my high school years and served a two-year mission for my church, trying to refocus on the world and universe in which I already lived. When I returned home, I looked into a job and higher education, looking to a future that I realistically could expect to create.

Those other worlds wouldn't let me forget about them, though. I picked up some of my old materials, stored in cardboard during my two years away, and reexamined the possibilities. I started just a little more simply than I had before, working on an adventure story set in a simpler time and place; my first epic fantasy adventure. I started reading books, magazines and journals on writing to learn more about the practical side of a writing career. I took creative writing courses to learn how to craft more than just a world, but the sort of dialogue and prose that would make that world come alive, and invite readers to explore it with my characters.

I have been home from my mission for almost seven years, now. I'm close to finishing what I hope will be my first novella. I've learned a great deal, I believe, and I'm writing this blog to share my ideas and lessons learned on how to create a universe that won't fall apart on the third day. I even hope to answer the question, "What happens on the fourth day?"

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