World Building and the Brink of Novel Writing

After a false start or two (or was it three?), I’m poised to take the plunge into the first draft of a science fiction novel.

I’ve been trying to sort out how much world building is really necessary before I start.  I’ve got an entire personal wiki and a moleskin notebook or two filled with info about this world of mine.  But it’s not well-organized, or even well thought out, and it’s daunting to burst out onto an unknown plain, bare sun bright overhead, and populate it with every geological feature, weather system, religious artefact, industrial process, scientific advance and weirdly consistent culture it should have.

I keep telling myself, this is the first draft.  It’s supposed to be exploratory and not fully formed in some ways.  I will be discovering much in the process of writing it.  I don’t have to know everything about the novel world before I start. In the immortal words of terriblemind’s Chuck Wendig, “you’re not writing a fucking encyclopedia.”

(He also goes on to say in a post on “25 Things You Should Know About Worldbuilding”: “If you’re lazy (like me!) and don’t feel like you can commit to writing a glacier-sized world bible, hey, you know what? Build it as you go. As you write, introduce details relevant to the story, the plot, the characters, the theme, and to the chapter at hand. This’ll probably require work on the back-end….”)

worldbuildingI’ve even made notes of counsel to myself in the same vein:

“Write just enough setting detail to get in the scene with the character.”

“Describing one thing vividly can be more effective than describing an entire room.  Or civilization.”

How Much World Building is Enough?

But I am yet filled with trepidation about how much world building preparation is enough.  It is another way I use to procrastinate, I’m sure, these fears about starting the writing.  (There’s an interesting aspect of these fears that I will touch on at the end of this.)

But as a way to calm and reassure myself, or alternatively, cause myself much anxiety at how much I haven’t done in preparation, I thought I would look at some of the more useful links on world building that I’ve found.

Some of them are of the school that you need to have every detail of your world thought-out before you start, but there are some thoughtful recommendations never the less.  I think to myself, I have to find a way to make the world-building fun and creative, or I’m really barking up the wrong tree with this science fiction ambition.

And also I realize that I’m unbelievably fortunate to live in the time of the Internet, where I can research almost anything with the touch of a few keys.  The possibilities for creative combination and variation of what’s out there are many.

Some World Building Links

World-Building_concept1. Writer Ava Jae in a blog post on Writability lists 15 details to remember.  She lists climate, social structure, measurements (I hadn’t thought of that one but of course), food, and ethnicities among them.  For instance, on ethnicities, she asks:

Is your world monoethnic? Are there several ethnicities, and if so, where did they come from? Is it location-based? Are certain ethnicities considered more desirable than others? Are any ethnicities persecuted or worshipped?”

2. Prolific author S. Andrew Swann provides a post/essay on “Worldbuilding: Constructing a SF Universe.” He counsels us to understand how the fictional world is different from our own.  Your world must have its own rules.

“… A reader will allow a writer to alter anything about the universe, as long as the writer explains why what we thought we knew is wrong. You’re job is to convince the reader that you know what you’re doing, and to never allow the reader to believe you wrote something out of ignorance or carelessness.”

I liked these thoughts on the necessary historicity to imply the complexity of your invented world:

“Every fictional universe has a past, if only an implied one. You, as the universe’s creator, need to know enough of this past to give the reader a sense that this world existed before the story began, and will continue to exist (barring catastrophe) long afterwards. Also, remember that the past is different things to different people. You’re in a position to know the “real” historical events of your world, but your characters are at the whim of memory, historians, propaganda, and official records. When someone in a story has a different view of history than the reader does, the reader will gain some insight into that character’s personality and culture.”

3. Young Adult sci-fi author Shallee McArthur provides a framework to think about the culture of your made-up world in a post “Worldbuilding — How to Develop the Culture of Your Novel.”

She offers a diagram to think about what makes up a culture — values, rituals, heroes, symbols, and the practices that bind together the latter three.  Practices could include gender roles and politics for instance.

Of rituals, for example, she writes:

“Maybe your high school crowd has a hazing ceremony for kids coming into a certain club. Maybe there’s a certain greeting people exchange, like the hand-shake-while-snapping-fingers-together that I learned in Ghana.”

4. Author Berley Kerr gives guidance on science fiction and fantasy in the post “Berley’s Top 10 World Building Tips for Sci-Fi and/or Fantasy.”

He writes about factors such as Dominant Technology, Transportation, and Currency.  About currency he writes:

“Money tells the reader what kind of world it is. If they’re bartering, chances are the place your character lives in is poor or the population is scattered with no centralized government.”

Of course, if we could make a bartering society high-tech somehow, that could be an interesting take….

5. In quite a thoughtful post, sci-fi author Malinda Lo writes about “Five Foundations of World-building.”

She says things I like about how much world building to do:

“But I don’t think you need to get bogged down in answering 100 questions about the economics and politics and plant life of your world. I suggest you focus on five main issues that will serve as the foundation for your world. All those other details — even the shape of eating tables — can emerge after you’ve established this foundation. Often those details emerge right out of the writing itself.”

WbMLThe five main issues she lists are: 1) Rules, 2) Rituals, 3) Power, 4) Place and 5) Food.

About food:

“This is one of my very favorite elements of world building because I love to eat! But food does more than just taste good. In fiction, it can tell a complicated story involving ritual, power, and place, which makes food an excellent short-hand for world building.”

6. Charlie Jane Anders posted on io9 an essay on “The Difference Between Good Worldbuilding and Great Worldbuilding.”
After obsessing, she says, about world building for quite a while, she concludes that:

Good world building shows you the stuff your characters see every day, and the things that they notice about their environment.

Great world building shows you the stuff your characters don’t see, either because they take it for granted, or because they’ve trained themselves not to notice something unpleasant.”

She goes on:

“Because when it comes to a rich, complicated world, a lot of the most important or telling details are going to be the things that people overlook.”

She mentions George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame as a master of allowing the reader to see what the character fails to notice.

7. And finally for the world building links there is this advice from author CJ Lyons, “World Building: Don’t Do It.”

It starts from the understanding that every novel, of whatever genre, is an exercise in world building.  She advises to create the world through the point of view of our characters:

worldbuilding-2“Talk their talk, walk their walk. Live their world through their eyes and your reader will feel transported. Every choice your characters make, from what clothes they wear to the car they drive, helps to create this alternative universe for your readers.”

Since I’m on the starting-to-write-the-novel topic, here’s one more link, to the effectively crude Chuck Wendig: “How to Push Past the Bullshit and Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan to Get Shit Done.”

Use Fear to Connect

And finally, I’d like to mention a great way to creatively use all one’s fears about writing which I found in the book The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt.

He calls it The Fear Exercise.  You must write as quickly as possible for five or so minutes completing the sentence “I’m afraid to write this story because….”  Make a list of every fear from the trivial to the forbidden.  Then use all these fears to connect to your main character.  He or she has many of the same fears, of failure, of ridiculousness.

Watt writes: “I encourage you to get excited by your fears.  Make friends with them.  They offer clues, and direct access to your story.”

[Home]

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Notes on image sources, from top down.

1) From yet another page on world building by Veronica Sicoe.
2) From a post by author J.S. Morin also on worldbuilding.
3) From a University of Southern California site on interactive media.
4) From a column by Rajan Khanna on Lit Reactor, which is interesting on the styles of worldbuilding.

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2 Comments on “World Building and the Brink of Novel Writing”

  1. D.I. Ozier Says:

    While I definitely think it’s good to have ideas about an SF/fantasy world in mind before you start writing, I don’t think it’s necessary to be overly detailed to begin with. Just as with any other genre, the best world-building is done “on the ground”; like Lyons said, it’s only important to flesh out things that relevant to your characters and your plot.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi D.I. Ozier,

    That’s the only approach I’m going to be able to make! I know the rough sketch of where I’ll be — I’ll have to trust in the process of making it come to life as I write it….

    Thanks for your comment.

    Regards


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