Building a World in Your Books

(Continuing my series of blog posts about the Writer’s Digest Conference 2016 in New York City.)

I attended a panel about world building as my ante-penultimate session, mostly because my feet were too tired to go on and I saw a chair. *  It turned out to be worth it (and the audience was packed).  The participants were Debbie Dadey (a children’s SF writer), Jeff Somers (a noir SF writer who has published 9 books), Elizabeth Crowens (a pen name), Matthew Kressel (a Nebula nominee), David Mack (the prolific SF author), and the moderator Diana Gill, the editor.  Gill was very systematic, posing a question and working through the panel in order.The questions were:  How much “world-building” do you need?  What are your research tools?  What are the traps?  What is the weirdest fact you have used?

Dadey said your world should have something unique in it, but it should also be real or based in reality.  She suggested drawing a map, and brainstorming the characterics.  Assume this is the world.  Do research no matter what you’re writing about.

Somers suggested that less is more.  It shouldn’t be too stupid.  Take something that exists and brainstorm.  Resist the urge to overexplain.  ** He is a “plantser.”  That is, he plans and improvises.  But fantasy must have rules.  It can’t just have everything thrown in.  Something he found in his research was that “ramen” is a mispronunciation of “lo mein.”

Crowens likes historical references, steampunk, and time travel.  She suggests making it visual.  Use images to convey what the world is like. She is a seat-of-the-pants writer but suggests you come up with a canon (in other words, take enough notes so you don’t contradict yourself in your series).

Matthew Kressel said the world should be seen from the point of view of the character, and you can throw in something strange.  Make sure it’s internally consistent and serves the story,  That said, the oddest thing he did was something incorporating a mezuzah and Asmodei king of demons.

David Mack said it helps to understand some of the real science behind your science fiction world.  After a certain point, figure out what makes your system of magic realistic.  In the end, he said, leave most of it out.  The strangest thing he incorporated was a “common strategic rotary launcher.”

Takeaway:  Set a limit on your worldbuilding, and slap yourself on the wrist if you find yourself explaining too much.  Just because the books you read seem to be marvelous constructions with elaborate backgrounds does not mean their authors spent decades on it.  Take a cue from stage sets, which manage to be convincing while made of painted plywood and canvas.

*My opinion about worldbuilding, of which I did a considerable amount in my first two published novels, is that the world is not the point of the story, the characters are.  I don’t care how obsessive you got about Lord of the Rings (or for that matter, how obsessive JRR Tolkien himself got).  (I did read The Silmarillion, but it was awful.)  For most of your readers, world-building adds a nice flavor to the mix, and you get to say some interesting things about the contemporary world in the process.  As Jessica Strawser says, you don’t want to be saying, “I don’t have a book.  I have research.” +

** I really wish I could remember the name of the author who said that nobody in a science fiction novel explains what a ray gun is when he takes it out.  Everybody around the character already knows what a ray gun is.  It’s like taking out your cell phone and explaining how it works before you make a call or ask Siri to open your transit app.  No.  The character just takes the ray gun out and shoots it, and the bad guy falls over.  Someone in the panel referred to the “Willy Wonka black box” which is that most people have no idea how technology works.

***I didn’t do much research for my first novel.  Or my second.  I know authors do that, but generally I just depend on a capacious memory, my powers of invention, and my confidence that my own weird point of view lends enough foreignness to any narrative to make it seem as if it is some other world entirely.  Somebody told me I based my society on the Mayans.  No, I didn’t.  If anything, I based it on Mary Renault and The Bull from the Sea.  And The Wicker Man, maybe.  And a dream I had.  It was set in a school, but I wrote it before I started teaching and besides it was nothing like any reasonable school of wizardry.  It was more like a prison.  Don’t mind me.

+ My impatience with back-story is how I ended up getting published by accident:  A charming young neighbor had stopped by and was telling me about the enormous fantasy novel he was writing.  He insisted on telling me all about its background, government, and sociology.  I was increasingly desperate, because being bored is very hard for me to endure.  So I told him I had a novel written and he brightened up, said he worked for an agent, and got a commission on anything that sold.  I handed him the manuscript, which achieved the goal because he went away.  The agent called me.  I sold the book and a sequel.  ++

++ I taught middle school English for a very long time.  Some of my students wrote novels.  I gave permission to one awfully nice boy to spend his free-reading time on his writing instead.  I believe the book was called The Shadows of Karathongle.  Whenever I looked at what he was writing, he was world-building, foreshadowing, or introducing.  He never actually got to the plot.  Sixth grade boys really pay attention to the technique of their favorite books, and his favorite was, as I recall, Eragorn, which was itself written by young person, a 16-year-old boy.  My student grew up and went to film school, and has written another novel, which he shipped to me to read, and I don’t know where I put it because I retired.  The end.  +++

+++ I actually wish I still had it now that I have time to read, but our school was on Google Apps so when I retired, after a decent interval, all my email and all my documents were wiped from existence.

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