Monthly Archives: November 2011

World Building – A writer’s foray into godhood

At a casual glance, world-building would appear to belong exclusively to the science fiction and fantasy genres. It doesn’t. Successful writers of every genre are concerned with world-building.

  • Historical romance demands not only believable chemistry between the would-be lovers, but also accuracy in the details of world they inhabit.
  • How successful would a detective story be if the author bungled the descriptions of police procedure?
  • Even contemporary literary fiction depends on the often unconscious world building of its author.

What is world-building? It is the details of setting that an author chooses to include which flavor the narrative and make it possible for the reader to understand the place and time in which the story takes place.

If you’re writing a story in contemporary America, you may not think you are world-building, but you are. You are making conscious and unconscious decisions regarding your setting. Choosing which details to reveal and which to ignore, relying instead on your common experience with your assumed reader.

Think about it. How does your reader know your story is set in the Pacific Northwest and not smack in the middle of the Great Plains? What setting details do you write automatically which place your characters in the United States rather than in China, Russia, or even Canada?

World-building is the concern of every writer. It’s just that some of us have a head start because we’re relying on the common understanding of our readers when we write in a contemporary American setting.

Now, when we set that common understanding aside, world-building becomes not only necessary, but exciting…your opportunity to be the god/dess of a new world!

Before I get into the specifics of world-building, I’d like to take a minute to discuss record keeping. Once you decide on elements of your world, how will you keep track of them? And you must keep track in order to maintain consistency, especially if you end up writing more than one book in a given world. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Spreadsheets: great if you’re a spreadsheet kind of person, I know many who aren’t.
  • Looseleaf notebook: wonderful if you write by hand; I don’t.
  • Jeannie Ruesch’s WIP NoteBook
  • Liquid Story Binder
  • Scrivener: My personal favorite! (LOVE this program :D)

All right. Now that you know where you’re going to keep track of your ideas, what are the elements of world-building that need to be addressed when you set out to create a unique and new universe for your characters to inhabit?

SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) has an excellent article on the subject by Patricia Wrede. She breaks her article down into the following segments:

  • The world: basics like laws of nature and physics, whether the planet is earth-like or not
  • Physical and historical features:
    • Climate & geography (terrain and map)
    • Natural resources
    • World history
    • Specific history of the country
  • Peoples and customs:
    • Customs
    • Eating
    • Greeting and meeting
    • Gestures
    • Visits (rules of hospitality and what they entail)
    • Language
    • Ethics and values
    • Religion and gods
    • Population
  • Social organization:
    • Government
    • Politics
    • Crime and legal system
    • Foreign relations
    • Systems of war
    • Weapons
  • Commerce, Trade, and Public Life:
    • Business & industry
    • Science & technology
    • Medicine
    • Arts & entertainment
    • Architecture
    • Urban factors
    • Rural factors
  • Daily life:
    • Fashion & dress
    • Manners
    • Diet
    • Education
    • Calendar

Finally, if you’re writing fantasy, you have an extra dimension of world-building to explore—magic. Stephanie Cottrell Bryant has posted an excellent article, Magical World Builder’s Guide on her website. I recommend reading it.

As you’re designing your world, you’ll need to consider the source of magic, the system that supports it—does it require an education in spells and potions ala Harry Potter, or is it an inborn gift that each user must learn to control individually? What is the cost of the magic? Are there species of magical creatures? Decide on your rules—they can be anything—and be internally consistent.

Consistency is key with all world-building elements.

Now, when you start thinking about all of these areas, you might have a tendency to throw up your hands and say, “But I’m just writing a love story here! A simple boy-meets-girl tale that happens to take place on a spaceship. Surely I don’t need to explain the technology and political climate that allowed that ship to exist!”

And you’d be right…to a certain extent. You won’t put all your world-building in your story—that would be an info dump of gigantic proportions! But the fact that you’ve taken the time to think about these issues and make some rudimentary decisions will influence the details you do choose to include. Your world-building will inform your word choices and will give your work a solidity that will pull your reader in and allow them to settle in your world.

So, the next question is one that Holly Lisle asks, “How Much of My World Do I Build?” Holly’s answer is, “Build only what you need; imply the rest.” Her summation is a great close to this conversation:

“Do the best you can with it, research when you have to, but remember that the point of worldbuilding is not to build a world — it’s to create interesting, consistent backdrops in front of which your characters can play out their tale. Your aim is primarily to entertain, secondarily (and not always) to instruct, and as long as you can do that without your readers stumbling over gross inconsistencies or errors of fact, you’ll be okay. So have some fun with it, and don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Enjoy your foray into godhood! Create an intriguing, internally consistent world and we’ll all be reading your novels.

What is a Review Worth?

So, What is a Review Worth?

Recently I’ve seen many comments about reviews and whether they really reflect whether a book is worth reading or not.  When I read a reviewer’s comments about how he or she never gives 5-star reviews, I am reminded of some teachers I used to know that bragged about how students rarely made an A in their classes.  Their excuses were usually along the lines that A’s meant the student was perfect, or as good as the teacher, that their (the teacher) standards were set higher than other teachers, or some other inane reason for justifying their position.

Is it being in a position of power that allows people to look down on others whom they see as having lower standards?

Some reviewers state that all 5-star reviews are bogus, that any book can be improved. Of course, any book can be improved, but a 5-star review doesn’t imply that a book is perfect.  If you check on the meaning of Amazon’s five stars, one star means I hate it. Two stars mean I don’t like it.  Three stars mean It’s okay.  Four stars is I like it and five stars mean I love it.  I don’t know about you, but I read many books that I like, even books that I love, that I can see ways in which the story could be improved.  So what?  I liked it the way it was.

I am a writer, but long before I was a writer, I was a reader.  I still am a reader. On an average, I read several books a week.  I just don’t do reviews for all of the books I read.  Perhaps if I had to, I’d become jaded about reviews too.  Thank God, I’m not.  I still enjoy reading a good book and I do leave reviews for some books.  I leave a 4 or 5-star if I enjoyed the book.  I leave a 3 if the book was okay, but had problems.  I leave a 2 or 1 if I did not like the book.  When I buy books, if I haven’t read anything by the author before, I always read the reviews.  Sometimes the two or three star reviews convince me to read the book, simply because I have a different world view than the person who wrote the review. My personal opinion is that all reviews should have reasons for their placement.

Sometimes writers are devastated by a bad review of their book.  If that writer is you, don’t take that review personally.  Maybe the reviewer was merely having a bad day?  Who knows?  Maybe he/she should never have read that book?  Since reviews are only opinions, then we should take all reviews with a grain of salt.  One person’s hot chocolate may be another person’s cup of hemlock juice.

What is your opinion on reviews?

TMI? Already!?

I can easily understand it in “real life”. Someone asks me a question they should never have asked in the first place- maybe having to do with a bathroom or a bedroom- they’re grinning, I’m grinning, and I just get started on explaining. The hands go up, the call rings out- “too much information, Will!”. I understand- I smile, stop and am content.

Because this is OUR world. I know you get it. Some jokes don’t have to be told to be funny.

Not so in the writing of course, and never less so than in epic fantasy. Once again, I’ll remind you patient readers that I do not write– I make up nothing, like those marvelous minds here at IB that I am privileged to call colleagues. My world is only mine because I have been watching and listening to it longer than you, or anyone. But it IS a world, a complete world, and you folks know- seriously- nothing about it. Even I only have a few of its barest details, felt a thread here and there of this barn-sized tapestry beneath my fingers. I’ve chronicled just a fraction of what I’ve seen and heard.

How can anyone yell TMI about that! How dare they? And what’s a poor chronicler to respond when they do?

I’m polishing up “Judgement’s Tale” these days (very slowly, I admit- DAMN the need to earn a paycheck and WHY can’t these Powerball tickets pay off). Several folks signed on to give me feedback on the “monsterpiece” that has not yet- may never?- see the light of cyber-day. This story is EPIC fantasy, you get me? The world is at stake, for crying out loud- the plot of centuries is in motion, the fate of millions hangs in… well, you know all the cliches. My guy is taller than Frodo, both younger and older, and instead of a ring… never mind, some of you have already lost interest. Haven’t you?

These folks, these wonderful patient people who are reading my early chapters and giving me their best feedback, have all said different things. With one exception- every man-jack/jane of the group, without fail, has flagged times I’ve tried to slip in a little info about my world. The history- “so LONG, this really slowed it down”; the stars and astrology- “can this go later on, somewhere?”; the nature of magic- “wow, heavy sledding, had to read it four times”.

It’s like NIMBY in this world- everyone agrees there needs to be a home for the mentally disabled, or a half-way house for recovering addicts, sure. But Not In My Backyard!

OK, but this book is not your backyard. I get resentful, and need to take a break sometimes. It’s a WORLD, dear readers- if you never read about these things, you can’t enjoy or understand it. I struggle with ways to hide the information, like a pill-pocket for a reluctant cat, hoping the medication will slip past you while you’re not paying attention. The reader HAS to have this information- what’s the point otherwise, why not just write about our world if there’s no need to hear about the others?

Only verrrrry grudgingly do I much later admit that the need to do this has made me a better writer. The only key I’ve come up with so far is that you must always have something else going on- two things accomplished by the one conversation- as often as possible. But keep it short? Move it to later? I must say, almost useless advice.

I’d be very interested to hear what other readers find good or bad about the infamous subject of world-building. If you’ve taken the time to look at the Compendium of the Lands right here on the site, has that sort of material interested you at all? Is it a good way to build a world without putting it directly into the story? What works for you? Believe me, I’ll never shout “TMI” about this.

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