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 Healer’s College

A little more about the world of Color Mage and Sword of Jashan:

Cover art by Neal Seamus
Cover art by Neal Seamus

Kirian graduated from the Healer’s College. Here’s a little more about the school that saved Kirian’s life.

The Healer’s College is located in Sugetre, the capital city of Righar. It’s a treasured institution, teaching an advanced form of healing that depends upon the use of natural herbs and medicines. College-trained Healers never use amulets or other false magery in their work.

The Healer’s College has a close association with the noble righ — Kirian believes, too close.  Second and third sons of the righ frequently study at the College, and sometimes end up after graduation posted at their own family estates as a sort of private Healer.

Healer Jesel, who is posted to Lord Zelan’s estate,  said, “The College means well, but its healing is often diverted to those who can afford it, it is true.”

The founder of the College was a rich man, a brilliant righ with a hunger for knowledge, but he was far from the best of men. A late-life conversion to the worship of the Unknown God drove him to decree that the Healer’s College take on a charity student every five years. It is not known whether his charity affected the way he was treated in the afterlife.

So it was that when Kirian was ten, a man wearing Healer’s insignia swept into the filthy streets where she ran wild.

Clearly unwilling to wander around the slums of Sugetre, he planted himself at the bar at Mik’s tavern and grabbed Kirian when she ran in to deliver a message. She squirmed, but he kept a tight hold on her shoulder as he told her why he was there.

“This is a rare opportunity,” he told her, looking down at her from the bar stool. He took a sip of his beer and made a face. Kirian could have told him not to drink Mik’s sour beer.

She didn’t like his clammy grip or his disagreeable tone, but everyone in the slums revered the College and was grateful for the free clinic it provided every sennight. And she knew she was on borrowed time running messages for Mik; as soon as she grew a little older, she would be forced into servitude or prostitution. So she agreed. It would get her off the streets.

The Healer told her to get her things and come with him. He shoved the yellow beer away and threw a few coins on the bar. He never asked for her parents’ permission, and indeed Kirian had none any more. She wondered if he knew this, or if he just didn’t care.

Many years later, Kirian had become one of the finest Healers of the College. She was sent to Seagard Castle to work with old Healer Ruthan.

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

Context 26

Today I am returning to real life after a weekend at Context 26.  I’m reminded of how much I like this small convention.  It’s a place where you can actually talk to writers whose work you admire, and discuss writing with published and aspiring authors.

I’ve been attending Context for years. It seems to me it’s a little different every time.  Highlights from this weekend, apart from spending time with the wonderful people from my writers’ group in a non-critique environment, included of course seeing Sword of Jashan on the Loconeal table in the dealers’ room. They were also selling the LocoThology anthology in which I have a short story titled Retirees in Space.


I enjoyed participating in the signing session. Also got to say hello to Jack McDevitt, one of the Guests of Honor, and tell him I enjoyed his Alex Benedict mystery novels set in the distant future. And I got to say hi to a few people I usually only interact with on social media.

I was able to participate in two panels. The first was about Writers’ Groups — a great topic! It seems every Writer’s Group represented there functioned a little differently in important ways, yet every writer on the panel had benefited from them.

Sunday morning opened with a panel called “What do you Bring to your Word Processor?” with myself, Tim Waggoner, Ron Horsley and Gary Wedlund. That was a pretty fuzzy topic I thought, but it turned out very well.

It turns out — surprise! — that many things vary from writer to writer, everything from what physical writing location helps them be most productive, to how they handle writing opening chapters, to what they think about critique groups.

But for all the writers there, a few things are the same: 1) It is important to produce. Keep writing!  2) Feedback is valuable, but there are cautions about how much feedback you as a writer should seek, and how you should act upon the criticism you receive.

I am already looking forward to the next Context. Of course that hasn’t been planned yet, but I hope I’ll be able to be there.