Mar 11, 2015

Guest Post & #Giveaway: The Nethergrim by Matthew Jobin

On building worlds

   So, you want to make a universe, do you? So I had guessed—you have that Demiurge look about you. Step in, step in, but watch your head under the—oh, those? Just some little beasties I’ve been working up. No, not poisonous, but mind the beaks. Let me clear off some—aha! So that’s where I put those. Lovely, lovely, I’ll just file them later. Here, have a seat.

The first question to ask is “Why?”. By that I mean, beyond satisfying your urge to shape and create, what purpose will your world serve? Neither you nor I are clever enough to author the subtle majesties of the universe in which we both live—I intend no slight, I am merely stating a fact—so the question is really how much of a world do you need to create to make everything in it cast a shadow? Once you know that, once you know what purpose your creation serves, everything else you do will have its proper order and place.

Perhaps you do not know what I mean by casting shadows. Let me explain. When you or I make anything, being ourselves finite, our creations will thus also be finite. That is a fact, but at the same time a fact that can be dodged. If you know what your world is there to do, then you will know where to sculpt with a thin-bladed knife and where to just dump rocks in vaguely suggestive shapes at the horizon. Do it right, and the detail in front of your audience will suggest distant details that you never actually made. The good artist knows when to let his audience do the work. Leave what matters most to your purpose in full sun, and you might find your audience painting into the shadows surrounding.

A parlor trick? You defame a high art! Even if you could make a universe as grand, as infinitely detailed and yet elegantly simple, as crystalline in its order and yet so outwardly chaotic as the one we both inhabit, you would make something so total in its perfection that it would not appear to serve any purpose at all. We lack that power, lucky us, and so if we make something, we must make it for something. That is a limit, but there is loveliness in limits.

Let us then be more specific, and assume that you are making a world that tells some sort of story. With every aspect of this world you are to build, then, ask yourself how this aspect reflects on the sort of story you wish to tell. Let us use geography as an example. How far is it from Hogwarts to Buenos Aires? The answer: it does not matter. How far is it from Hobbiton to Rivendell? The answer: about four hundred miles, and it matters very much. You see? There are worlds you can make where the divisions between here and there are notional. There are other worlds where you might know that this land here is stony downland that supports a few flocks of sheep, while over there is a river delta full of rich alluvial soil, and so you know where to place your city and also what sort of trade might pass through it. You might then go so far as to draw a map, but a word of caution first—before you start drawing rivers, have a look at a real one.

Are there people in your world? Of course, but it was worth asking. By “people” I don’t necessarily mean humans—cats and rabbits have served their turn quite well, and I had the most fascinating young woman in here a week ago, talking about the life struggles of the cephalopod… I digress. Are some of those people meant to be the window through which your audience sees your world? Very good, so then we must next consider what sort of people they are. Here we have both promises and pitfalls. Allow me to summarize. If you are going to draw from life for your cultures, make sure to draw from the roots. Perhaps your people have a language—very well, which one? Where did it come from, and how did it get to be the way that it is? If the meaning of that question eludes you, then do go and look up the history of the language you yourself speak. You might find much to inspire your efforts.

Ask the same of culture and politics. If your world is governed by an evil empire, how then did that empire rise? If one man sits upon the darkling throne, what keeps him there? If a shadowy cabal pulls the strings of power, how do they do it, and what stops them turning against each other? Following that line, look back again to ask how the politics of your world serves your story. Do your heroes live in a dark age? If so, look into why the dark ages of our world occurred, why scholars think that kingdoms and empires fall. Here, I’ll show you—see this text? It argues that the Bronze Age of our world ended in chaos and strife because the widespread use of iron weapons made the old empires unstable, though of course this treatise over here argues vehemently to the contrary, and that—well, you get the idea, I am sure.

Perhaps, though, you wish to create things in your world that you cannot find in our own. Everywhere you make a change, go back and think of what other facets of your world this might affect. If, for example, there are beings of great power, how do they coexist with everything else you have made? Are they simply rare, or perhaps vulnerable, or are they governed by a ethical code? Why doesn’t Superman take over the world—just because of the Kryptonite? What do dragons eat? What matters, ever and again, is that you know the reasons behind what you show, and moreover that you know what sort of story you are telling by setting things up like that.

Two last things, for I must return to my feeding pits before—well, never mind that. First, don’t fall so in love with what you have made that you make it static. A world under change is thrilling in a way that a stable world can never be. If you set up the One True King upon the throne, get ready to knock him right off again. Second, look up what Tolkien said about allegory. Here, take one of these to get you started—it only bites when you tickle it, just there. Come back any time! I do so love to watch worlds being born.

Oh, and don’t use apostrophes for glottal stops. It’s been done.

Everyone in Moorvale believes the legend: The brave knight Tristan and the famed wizard Vithric, in an epic battle decades ago, had defeated the evil Nethergrim and his minions. To this day, songs are sung and festivals held in the heroes' honor. Yet now something dark has crept over the village. First animals disappear, their only remains a pile of bones licked clean. Then something worse: children disappear. The whispers begin quietly yet soon turn into a shout: The Nethergrim has returned!

Edmund’s brother is one of the missing, and Edmund knows he must do something to save his life. But what? Though a student of magic, he struggles to cast even the simplest spell. Still, he and his friends swallow their fear and set out to battle an ancient evil whose powers none of them can imagine. They will need to come together--and work apart--in ways that will test every ounce of resolve.

About Matthew Jobin:
When I was small, I often spent my free time playing in a little forested ravine near my house. I found names for places, climbed trees as high as they would bear me, watched the change of seasons – I even rafted down the creek that wound through it one flooded spring. Somewhere back in those days a place began to take shape in my mind that I have been exploring ever since. I loved to read, and loved to make up stories, using anything I could find in the world around me. The world of the Middle Ages enchanted me, with its colours, its bravely glittering thoughts and clarion spirit.

As I grew up I became fascinated with the story of humanity, with the weave of nature and culture that makes us what we are. I studied anthropology, drawn to investigate how we got here and what life means. The questions I considered there sharpened my thoughts and spurred me to set down my dreams in words. Since then I have found my own path, writing to help me see better the place in my mind I have known for so long, for in that place answers form to the questions I have asked.

A copy of THE NETHERGRIM for US residents only

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