Worldbuilding: Why You Shouldn’t Put it All In The Novel

Speculative fiction writers spend a lot of time on worldbuilding.

Even imaginary worlds have to be realistic and internally consistent. Readers are happy to accept a story of the future with advanced science, if it doesn’t contradict known science without a good explanation. They are delighted to accept that there is a fantasy world with magic, as long as the world otherwise seems as if it could be real. As Diane Duane said, “There is a rule for fantasy writers: The more truth you mix in with a lie, the stronger it gets.”

A created world has many levels, and things depend upon each other, as they do in our own world. So worldbuilding involves everything from developing geography and social systems, to the environmental characteristics, money, the religion or lack of religion, the technology, and many other things.

You need to know how magic has influenced the social structure. Who’s in charge, and why? Who’s at the bottom of the social structure, and why? You need to know how long it’s going to take your protagonist to get from Castle Tall to the Black Pits. You need to know how she gets her supplies along the way — are there plains villages? Nomadic warriors who have a tradition of hospitality? Big cities perched on cliffs where she will have to steal food? Will she have to work for alien overlords to gain what she needs?  All of these choices require decisions about what kind of world your characters live in.

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There are guides to worldbuilding online. The SFWA site has one by Patricia C Wrede.  Holly Lisle has FAQ’s about her worldbuilding process, and io9 has a great list of Worldbuilding Sins.

It’s worth doing a workshop about the subject from someone knowledgeable — I did, at the Context Convention a few years ago, and learned a lot. Some nonfiction reading will inform your worldbuilding — books like Collapse, by Jared Diamond, that analyze the reasons societies fail, or histories of real civilizations. Some urban fantasy writers like Denise Verrico (The Immortyl Revolution series) base the cultures in their novels partly on real-world societies that they must research carefully.

But all that said: DON’T PUT IT ALL IN THE NOVEL. The worldbuilding is obviously important — but if you write about it in too much detail, your novel will read like an encyclopedia instead of a story.  Description of your created world should be used in moderation. The real story is about the characters. Their struggles, conflicts and flaws are what will draw your readers in. Your worldbuilding will show in what your characters say and think, in what their goals and obstacles are — in how they react to the world around them.

The Word Count Blues, Nanowrimo Edition

Last year, I blogged about daily word count, and how it doesn’t work for me as a motivational tool.

I also previously blogged about Nanowrimo, which I thought worked for me, as a one-time sprint of sorts, during which the normal rules of my own writing process did not apply.

I signed up for this year’s Nanowrimo in an effort to jumpstart my productivity. Numerous changes and events this year left me writing at less than my usual level, and — remembering 2011’s frantic yet successful sprint to finish a 50,300 word draft — I thought this would help.

I made one, critical, mistake. I let the contest rule me, instead of using the contest to help me.

After the first couple of relatively trouble-free days, things in my story vision took a new turn, as they do. That complicated things. Also, several interruptions from real life meant I would — horror of horrors — have to catch up later. I began to stress out.

When I saw that I had not reached my goal, I sat down with grim determination the next day — so motivated to pass that arbitrary finish line that my creativity died on the spot.

And it happened again, until I could not write at all.

I joked to my husband that I was in the basement on the computer typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” *

Several days into November, then, I changed my goal. I would not try to meet a target word count, nor would I look at others’ word counts as they sailed victoriously on. I would write to my own personal target — a certain dramatic scene, or a chapter, or plot development I was struggling with.

It’s all about the writing.

Now — half through November — I am way behind the word count for Nanowrimo, but I will not attempt to catch up. Since I stopped the obsessive counting, I recognize my writing again. I think I have a darn good story in the works.

Nanowrimo is a great idea. For those who respond to that kind of motivation, it can mean getting a novel on paper that otherwise would never have been written. It even worked for me once. But not this time.

And my Work in Progress is taking shape very well.

Wonder if I’ve learned my lesson this time?

*from The Shining


“Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.”  **


After the last two weeks of nose-to-the grindstone work, amid family emergencies and daily crises, the edits on Sword of Jashan are finally done and off to the publisher.

All the effort made me think about editing. Thus, the quote above. Though there is a lot more to editing than proofreading alone.

Editing is a craft, and an art, much like writing in the first place.

Copy-editing is important. Clunky grammar and bad punctuation are confusing. They can force the reader out of the story while she figures out what the writer meant. A good copy-edit can clear all that up and make the story shine.

Aside from errors, other fixes can be as much art as craft. Replacing a word with a better-nuanced one, or deleting an unnecessary sentence, can make the writing as true to the story and the author’s style as possible.

It’s all part of the rewriting process every author goes through. But when you’ve spent months or longer on a story, rewriting it many times through many versions, it’s sometimes hard to catch your own mistakes — especially subtle ones. So it was that I just spent two weeks drowning in my own words, but trying to read as if I had never seen those words before.

Fortunately I had other people’s input to guide me. An editor, a helpful family member, notes from the critique group I belong to.

And finally it’s done!

**Note: This quote was hard to attribute, since it seems as if it’s been around a while. Here is a link to Barry Popik’s site, where he traces its usage.

What I Learned from NaNoWriMo

Last year I completed NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), finishing the 50,300-word first draft of the novel I intend to work on next (after completing Book Two of Color Mage). This year I’m not participating, since I’m swamped with other things.

But I learned a lot from NaNoWriMo — in fact, it was a great experience.

What can you get by writing a novel in 30 days? Well, discipline, obviously — you have to force yourself to write daily, and that’s a key factor in being a writer all of the time.

But I found there was more to it than that.

The NaNoWriMo structure forces you to focus as you make the many choices involved during the writing of a novel.

Maybe you start with an outline, and figure all those plot and character choices are already made before you begin writing. But chances are, complications will pop up, characters will turn stubborn and want to go their own way, or new possibilities will present themselves — possibilities too awesome to be ignored.

NaNoWriMo forces you to make those choices right away. You have to, if you’re going to succeed. No dithering around for days while you work through your character’s psyche. No putting it away for a week — a month — a year — while you deliberate.

Instead, you have to choose. Now.

And that’s what’s involved in writing — choosing one story to tell from among the many available even after you do your character development and outline. Whittling away all the outer wood to expose the shape of this story.

Granted, in real life you don’t have to do it in one day. But the deadline makes for very good practice!

If you’re participating this year, don’t expect to come out with something highly-finished by November 30. Your novel will still need lots of work. But keep writing away — it’s worth it. And not just to display that “winner” badge at the end of the month! Though that is an accomplishment, all by itself.

The Word-Count Blues

Last fall I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. It was a fascinating and hectic experiment. I came out of the experience with a 50,000-word first draft of a new fantasy novel, and a lot of thoughts about how the emphasis on speed changes the writing process.

Soon after that, I noticed some other writers using daily word-count as a measure of progress in their normal writing lives. It seemed to work well for them — they were always meeting or exceeding their goals.

So I thought I would try it, too. At first, it helped. In the first rush of getting a story down on paper, I checked my daily word count and was filled with a sense of accomplishment.

Then, a change in plot happened — one of my characters decided the story I had planned for him wouldn’t work. I needed to re-write. Then the middle of the story seemed sluggish, and needed re-worked.

I noticed myself becoming kind of frantic when I didn’t meet my goal.

The more frantic I became, the less I produced.

Clearly, measuring progress by word count isn’t for me!

The real sense of accomplishment should come from the work itself. There is an intrinsic satisfaction in the work of writing — worldbuilding, character development, even making revisions. The actual day’s writing might consist of a first draft of a chapter, or just a scene. I always knew when I had a good writing day — I didn’t need a number to tell me.

I might participate in NaNoWriMo again; the experience taught me a lot. But NaNoWriMo is a sprint, where the objective is to “silence the inner editor” and go–go–go. The rest of the writing process is a marathon, or even a steeplechase, with complexity and obstacles. It’s hard work — but I enjoyed it more before I started rewarding myself with numbers.

I plan to forget the word count tool exists, at least until it matters. Perhaps then I’ll be able to put the analytical part of me away, and just write.

An in-between phase

I am in a phase of my writing process where I am not doing any writing.

The first draft is finished. My characters have taken my story in new directions, so my original outline is outdated. Sometimes the plot I envisioned just doesn’t suit how the character’s story has evolved.

This is the stage where I re-read everything and make notes about what’s missing. I already know I abandoned one character in the middle of the book, forever in prison while the rest of the characters (including her loving son) go on without her. I see places where I’ve jumped from one dramatic scene to another, without explaining what happened in between.  It’s kind of sad to see how many flaws there are. And that’s without getting into things like spelling and punctuation.

This will take a few days. If I’m smart I’ll even set everything aside for a week before I start writing again. Sometimes the subconscious mind works out story problems while the rest of me is busy with other things.

Published authors always emphasize that they rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I never really wanted to believe that, because it made writing too hard. Also, it’s difficult to throw out so much of my work that really seemed good when I first wrote it. But it’s true — and sometimes it can even be enjoyable.

We’ll see if I find it so enjoyable when I start to do that tomorrow.