Worldbuilding 101

This is a post I’ve been meaning to upload for a long time. World building is an important aspect of all writing.  Fantasy usually involves maps, and I’m sure we’ve all done plenty of those.  It’s important to have a basic understanding of geography and climate so you don’t make a mistake and have two things together that wouldn’t be possible in the real world. We all suspend our disbelief for some things (eg the possibility of space travel, or indeed, existence of magic), but there’s only so far you can push this. Best to reserve your reader’s goodwill for the big stuff.  I would recommend reading a textbook on it aimed at the primary school level – easy to understand and hopefully not too dense!

Think about aspects of your world such as landscape features, food sources, trade and technology, and resources that might become a basis for trade or war. Other aspects include political structure, spiritual framework and social class. All of these things will impact on the people who live there, will shape who they are and influence who they will become.

How your protagonist and antagonist are placed in terms of these things will determine how they act, what they say, even what values they have. And you’ve probably spotted it already – they can yield the conflict that will move your story forward and make it compelling.

Of course, there’s a trap too. I have to carefully time limit my world building phase, as it’s a really lovely way of putting off writing! How much of it you need depends on the writer, but I would argue you don’t need much to start your first draft. You can always drop the detail in later, and it’s just so satisfying seeing that word count go up, isn’t it?

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Sometimes, you gotta do boring things

I’ve read a lot of writing advice over the years, and this weekend I decided to ditch a tenet that I’d previously thought was hard and fast.  You know that philosophy of ‘if you don’t want to write it, then others don’t want to read it’?  That’s the bit I’m talking about.

Let me set the picture.  There are some aspects of my novel that are powering ahead.  They’re mainly about my two protagonists and how they relate to each other, which I find really exciting.  And then there’s the other aspects, otherwise known as the bigger plot.  These are not quite so interesting to me, but are essential vehicles for setting the scene for the emotional life of my protagonists. 

Now, if I followed the ‘if I find it boring to write, readers find it boring to read’ thing, then I wouldn’t write the bits I don’t find as interesting.  But in reality, if I did that, I’d have a book only I’d be interested in!  That would be fine, if I was writing a book just for me.  Which I’m not.

The fact is, sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do and you have to do them well.  This is with writing, as it is with life.  We as writers have to sit down and hone our craft until we can write the things that don’t interest us personally, but are essential for the bigger picture of our book.  If we don’t, then we stall and tread water in one place, without getting anywhere.  Ultimately, everything we write will be much better for it.

So I sat down this weekend and after a couple of false starts and getting thoroughly discouraged by the ‘boring’ chapter I had to write,  I hit my stride.  I feel much better about the chapter now, and have found it wasn’t so boring after all!

J-A’s Writing Process – Step 3 – The Story Arc

This is where it will become obvious that I’m a planner (ie I plan before I start to write), not a freefaller (ie someone who just sits down and writes without any idea of where it’s going to go).  However, this is something that I think would be helpful for freefallers as well, so give it a go.

After I’ve done my characters, I’ve usually got some thoughts about how the idea I’ve had is going to develop.  At this stage, I’ll sit down and do some brainstorming about possible outcomes for the story.  Nothing too detailed, just general thoughts.  Who’s going to win?  What growth is my main character going to go through?  What’s going to propel them forward in search of whatever it is they’re looking for (and therefore, propel the book forward)?  What will they have to overcome and why?  I may not have a very specific idea of what will actually happen, but I’ll have a general feeling for what kind of resolution there’ll be.

You can see from the above that my stories are character driven, but the same works for plot driven books too.  In fact, maybe you have an even clearer idea of where things are going to end and how. 

Once I’ve got my end of the story, I then think about where my character is at the beginning of the story.  Are they happy or are they restless?  Why?  What do they value in life?  What have they got to lose?   This gives me the two ends of the story. 

The next question I think about is:  how does my character get from the beginning to the end?  My character details will help with this, because some of the key events will fall out of who they are.  I tend to think of story developing in a ‘things get worse’ way, that the protagonist has to go through the wringer before coming out at the end.  Each key event is followed by a lull before the next event to give everyone a rest, but each event is followed by another that makes things more difficult for the protagonist. 

And that gives me the main plot events.  These aren’t very detailed at this stage, just a sentence long.  I like to keep them brief, because then I can maintain maximum flexibility for my writing.  It also doesn’t mean that I’m locked into this structure.  It just means that I don’t panic about drifting and not having a story.  When I actually start writing, I tend to put this away and only look at it every now and then.  Sometimes I find I’ve missed something important but I’ve discovered it just in time to redirect.  Sometimes I decide whatever it is I’ve missed isn’t important or the story has led me to something better, and I may redo my story arc.  I can have flexibility provided I don’t tie myself into my plan too much.  I still get that edge from the unexpected and the unknown.

J-A’s Writing Process – Step 2 – Characters

OK.  I’ve got an idea, so it’s time to go on to getting the characters.  I tend to write stories that are character driven, so this step is important. 

I need to understand my characters in order to write them, and I often find that in doing a character interview or profile, I end up with important plot points or events as well.  There are no doubt lots of books out there that will help with character, but the one I found really useful was Write Away by Elizabeth George.  She has a list of character aspects that she uses as a guide, and gives an example of how she uses it.

Anyhow, this step is an essential part of my writing process.  Above all else, I need to know what the character wants in the book and who/what is working against them.    I also need to know why they want it – what psychological factors are driving them.  You can see how this leads to plot.

I am also interested in psychology, and read about it / watch documentaries about it often.  Biographies are also helpful here, particularly if they have that psychological analysis slant.  This is what allows my characters to ‘drive themselves’, so to speak.  I’ll start writing thinking they’re going in one direction, but next thing you know, they take me in another.  If you’ve done the work to understand them and keep that in mind when you’re writing them, it really can be that effortless.  The story almost writes itself, at least for a few pages.

Your Writing Implement

When thinking about the actual writing implement you need to do your best work, don’t throw away the idea of writing longhand. It might be tempting to tap into your computer and end up with a finished product much faster, but there’s a certain beauty to the mechanical process of longhand. Something of the craftsman comes out.

I bought myself a new pen the other day, and thrilled I couldn’t wait to get home to try it out. It’s a fountain pen, which I didn’t know comes in a broad nib – that’s my pre-requisite for a pen. None of that scratchy, fine-line rubbish for me. When I want to make a mark, I want to make a MARK! The advantage is it just flows across the page, like a gel ink pen only cheaper to run (I go through a broad gel ink pen in a day when things are hotting up). This means my hand doesn’t cramp up as fast as when using a ball point. When you’re writing manuscripts of around 100,000 to 150,000 words, you have to think of these things.

If you do use a computer, my advice is to learn to touch type. It’s a skill I learned a long time ago, and I’m so glad I did, even though I had to brave my mother’s protests about it. My telling her I needed to learn to type because I wanted to be a writer didn’t really help me persuade her it was a worthwhile subject to study when there were physics and chemistry to learn. Oh joy. I can learn about forces and angles. That’ll be good for playing pool down the pub on Friday nights.

But if you don’t know how to touch type, and you don’t want to write longhand, you can always check out voice operated software.  It translates your spoken word into written text, so you can type as fast as you can speak.