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The New Serfdom — What it isn’t, What it Might Be

Index for all posts about developing The New Serfdom

I’m slowly plodding my way through Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, just one of many books that have taken me away from writing and editing for the last couple of weeks. Why am I plodding? The book has won numerous awards, and I’m assuming that it might have been a best seller, but I’m struggling with it. It’s very well-written and parts of it do draw me in, but overall, it’s not my kind of book. It has a huge cast of characters, many of whom are dropped in without any explanation, leaving me to hope that their presence will eventually be explained. Even with such a large cast, this is essentially about plot — highly detailed plot — not about characterization or character development. I’m halfway through and still haven’t found a single character interesting enough to make me care what happens to them. They seem to be nothing but a frame on which to hang politics and technology.

Realizing all that was one of those flashes that arrives suddenly, and turns out to be important. It turned my thoughts to The New Serfdom and how to shape it. Because The New Serfdom is about a major shift in social structure and borrows a lot of strands from our rather chaotic present and from past history, it could wind up looking a lot like The Windup Girl. And that is definitely not what I want. My writing is always character-based, so there’s no way I’m going to allow the setting to dominate.

But the setting is important, and I don’t want to just drop people into it without any explanation of how things came to be this way. So, one of the questions I’ve been wrestling with is how to do that without infodumps and/or flashbacks. How much information? How to fit it in in a natural way? There are no answers at the moment, because the answers will depend on the characters, on their status, and on their relationships. So far, they’re nameless, faceless place holders — husband, wife, Baron, secretary, children — with others added as the story demands.

One thing I can do is list the various threads that go into the setting, and determine their relative importance. There are a lot of them: gated communities, urban decay, medieval fiefdom, slavery and indenturehood, decentralized government, climate change, social classes, Janissaries, and much more. The more thoroughly any one of these can be worked into the actual structure of the novel, the less explanation will be required. For instance, in school, the boys are all enrolled in a program similar to ROTC. They start as cadets and the most successful ones, when they graduate, are given the opportunity to become Janissaries, part of the baron’s militia and personal guard. What are Janissaries? Only a brief explanation is needed, as part of their curriculum.

Is this putting the cart before the horse? Should the importance of each of these points hinge on the plot and the characters? Well, the file is open, and as I’m writing this post, I’m making notes. The father finds out that part of his son’s education is preparing him to be a soldier. He already feels guilty about his decision to put his family under the baron’s protection, at the cost of their freedom. I now have one source of conflict that can be a rich source of plot points. Conflict between the father and his wife, his son, and a possibly dangerous confrontation with the baron.

Not every thread will be this productive, but at least thinking about them is already proving to be one of many paths into the story.

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting to read how other writers develop their stories. My main characters and premise materialize pretty much simultaneously with the (initially vague) settings. As I work out the storyline, the setting crystallizes, and I go to Google, Wiki, MapQuest, etc, to fill in the details. But then again, I deliberately use non-fictional settings as a framework for my fiction. Highly fictional world-building is over my head.

    • I enjoy reading about others’ struggles with development. Sometimes it can be very useful. “My main characters and premise materialize pretty much simultaneously with the (initially vague) settings.” Me too. This one’s more difficult because I’m putting much more effort into the world building. But it’s already clear that world building, and plot are going to support each other in their development.

      Hmm, highly fictional vs. non-fictional. The story I’m working out for NaNo is complete fantasy, so I’m having a harder time building that world. The New Serfdom comes directly out of the real world, so it’s just a matter of combining the various threads and seeing how they would interact over time. *Just,* she says. Not easier, but at least it gives me something concrete to hold on to.

  2. Re How to do this without info dumps/FBs: Catana, I just lash out, use anything and everything in my first couple of drafts. Later, I see how much of what I needed to put it (which was for me, really, in order to write the damn thing) can come out.
    Not a propos of this, but of the homonyms you mentioned the other day: I fell over a new one yesterday in an Ecademy blog:

    Since we are no longer cow-toeing to China …

    I was confused for a while about the toeing, but later realised the writer must’ve read the original towing as the towing one does with trailers. Anyway, it’s the best I’ve seen this year, and just had to share. Hope you don’t mind.
    Danielle

    • Yes, cow-toeing might win an award for best of the year. And it’s certainly an original.

      It looks as if we work in opposite ways, Danielle. I really hate to take stuff out, so I’m pretty careful about what I put in. Maybe it was getting too caught up in my 2010 NaNo novel that cured me of of throwing stuff in and seeing whether it works. Wrote a gorgeous, detailed first chapter, and had to trash most of it later. That was just too painful.

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