A Universe in My Head (or: The Intricacies of World-Building)

All the world is a stage, And all the men and women merely players.

~Everyone’s favorite English bard

First, you must build a world.

There are several different camps out there, when it comes to world-building for a novel. And each camp will tell us something different, when we ask the questions we were always going to ask… the questions that pile up as we writers all sit down at our favorite writing desks, and open our notebooks/computers/etc. … when we try like hell to make sense of the places we’ve envisioned, the intricate worlds that thus far live only in our heads but yet are beautiful. Vibrant. Real.

  • Do I need to build a world?
  • How much of a world should I build?
  • Do I build the whole world before writing a word of the story, or do I make it up as I write along?
  • How much of my painstakingly-built-and-now-thoroughly-complex world needs to end up in my story?

To name a few. (There are so many questions!)

Where to start building?

The important thing to understand is that there is no right or wrong way to world-build, but if you gravitate toward the speculative fiction/science fiction/fantasy genres, chances are world-building will be a necessity for you at some point. Whether you design every aspect of the world, down to the smallest detail, before you write a word of the story; or create and pull pieces of the world in as you write along… your characters cannot exist in a vacuum.

I personally fall into the first category of world-builder. For me, creating the world where my characters will be born, grow up, meet each other, fight, go on adventures, suffer loss and find happiness, has to happen before I meet my characters. The world needs to have existed long before my characters’ stories begin, and could feasibly continue to exist long after my characters have departed from it.

Your characters cannot exist in a vacuum.

How much of the world should show up in your story? We are writers, descriptive people by nature, so of course if we had our way the worlds we’ve so painstakingly created would be captured on the page, in every last vibrant detail. But the reality is, not much of the world will actually show up in the story. World-building generally is more for you, the writer, than it is for the reader. Although we spend hours (days, months, years?) developing extensive historical, social and geographical complexities of the worlds we create, the story itself may contain only whispers of the detail we’ve meticulously planned.

We use world-building as metaphorical post-it notes, to highlight a cultural reference or a social norm, to provide a supportive context as for the reason our protagonist has to captain a sailing vessel instead of drive a car to the next town over. Our characters should be living, breathing, imperfect beings; they should screw up and feel losses and care about things (more on this in another post), but their choices and actions need to be grounded in the environment around them. However, it is a balancing act between providing the appropriate amount of context and over-explanation. Too much description and focus on the world, and not on the characters, will slow a story down and ultimately will prove distracting to a reader. You want to give your characters a place to travel, interact, grow and get into trouble, without sacrificing focus on key aspects of the plot or the characters themselves.

There are many, many resources and tools that can assist writers with world-building. I’ve linked a few here that I’ve used and found incredibly helpful:

The Ultimate Guide to World-Building – Writer’s Edit

World-Building for Every Genre: A Checklist – Writers Write

Fantasy World-Building Questions List – pcwrede.com

Additional Advice and Links to World-Building Tools – Fictorians.com

List of 42 World-Building Resources – The Dabbler

30 Days of World-Building Tool – Fantasy World-Builder Guide

Article continues on Patreon.com. To read more about Worldbuilding and the world of Stormriders, subscribe to my Patreon here!

 


This is the second post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).

Part 1: Spark

Coming soon:

Part 3: I Sometimes See You When I Look in the Mirror (or: The Complexities of Character)

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)

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Spark

This is the first in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).


Writing a novel is an intricate, complex machine of moving parts and pieces, tasks and goals. Of the entire complex machine, to my mind there are three tasks that stand out as extraordinarily important… the foundations, the tenets, of the entire process: Setting, Characters, and Plot. These three tenets appear deceptively simple on paper. First, you must build a world. Second, you must meet the people who exist in it. And last but certainly not least… you must learn how to tell their stories.

A larger tenet looms yet higher, almost obscured from view because of its all-encompassing enormity, seldom in the limelight, often taken for granted, rarely recognized for just how vital it is. I call it Spark. (NOT the Allspark, fellow geeks… although… now that I’ve said it…)

Before we can delve into any one of Big Three, it is important to think about what sparks the movement within the machine in the first place. Think of the setting/characters/plot combo as the How of your novel… the (All)Spark is the Why.

In other words… where do the ideas come from?

After that lead-in and build-up, I’m afraid right now I have a somewhat disappointing answer to this question. During a lunchtime conversation the other day, a colleague asked me (innocently) how I come up with ideas for the stories I write. Turns out, I had an obnoxiously difficult time answering. The experience was obnoxious for him, I’m sure. Emotionally harrowing for me, indeed. After a few rambling half-hearted expository vocal blerps from out of my brain-mouth connection, ultimately my coworker walked away from the conversation with… nothing resembling a true answer.

Since then, I’ve been wondering about my process, trying to pinpoint where they come from, those elusive little sparks that ignite ideas. Some are inspired from life experiences, sure. Some, less so (I’ve never been a post-apocalyptic pirate revolutionary, nor have I ever manipulated magnetic and kinetic forces via my hands, as two recent examples). As a fantasy/speculative fiction writer, I spend most of my extra time exercising my imagination. I’m drawn to the challenge of taking fantastical and impossible concepts and turning them into relatable, probable occurrences within the scope of their universes. In order to do so, context is everything. (More on this in Part 2.)  

The best I can come up with, to explain what happens in my head, is that once in awhile I see or hear something that clicks (connects, fires a neuron, sings a siren song… pick your preferred analogy). When it clicks, I am drawn to a weird little fuzzy place in my brain where I witness the idea materialize from the ether, and watch as it sort of crosses some sort of imagination bridge, growing more substantive along the way, and becomes a story.

Look it’s a magical idea bridge!

More questions remain: How do I coax those ideas forward? How do I pick and choose which idea to coax forward? Why do some cross over into Novel Land, where others stay in the gray and abstract Land of the Unrealized? (This analogy is getting weird.)

But along those lines, I can’t be sure I even know how I recognize them, when they’re little fledglings, forlorn half-formed storylings. I’ve spent So. Much. Time. trying to hash this out. With only a few paragraphs left in this post, you may yet be completely confused. I am, too. But as difficult as all of this has been to articulate, I’m hopeful the answers might emerge from this miniseries of blog posts, answers that could hopefully address how the Spark manifests itself in my process, within the context of the stories I’m writing right now. I’ll draw examples from those stories when relevant.

And so, this is an experiment of sorts, dear readers. A real-time study of one writer figuring out The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen, According to Herself. But what I’d love is to foster conversation (and further introspection) about what our own processes entail, what the Spark demands of each of us. So please, please, PLEASE sound off in the comments if you have anything to add!

Now, on to the Big Three: Setting, Characters, and Plot.


Part 2: A Universe in My Head (or: The Intricacies of World-Building)

Coming soon:

Part 3: I Sometimes See You When I Look in the Mirror (or: The Complexities of Character)

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)

(Links will be added to the titles above as they are published)


I Made a Book Trailer!

Today I discovered a magical little app called Adobe Spark.

I stayed there awhile, in the depths of Adobe Creative Cloud. At first I stayed on a whim, to learn, and then to play, and minutes turned to hours. At the end of it all, I came away with this:

Not bad for an amateur, hmmm?

I think book trailers are awesome, and let me explain why. Most of my followers who are also writers probably already know what a book trailer is… but for the folks who’d like that information, a book trailer is a simple way to bring your story (or even a mere snapshot of your story) to life, to have it jump off the page and delight the eyes of your audience through the use of a different medium.

Why make a book trailer, you ask? As a whole, in this Digital Age, we are more attracted to video and visual cues than ever before, as we are constantly bombarded by visual information whenever we hop on Google. As a marketer in this Digital Age, you cater to the needs of an increasingly visual audience; you gravitate toward bright and interesting photography and snappy video as effective means to market your product, because those media have higher consumption rates among audiences (compared to a page-long summary or written advertisement).

This concept very much applies to book marketing. Authors increasingly are relying on visual messaging to boost their work, and news of their work, to their readers. Many folks in all niches of the book community… authors, reviewers, publishers, etc. … have turned to vlogs (the video blog). It makes sense. If I, a reader, can click on links and see videos of my favorite authors talking about their upcoming projects, I get a sense of immediacy from seeing their faces and a greater connection to their words by hearing them spoken.

My Stormriders book trailer is really a teaser trailer, very much a snapshot. It’s a little rough (hey, I’m new at this!) but I’m excited to bring my heroine’s voice to you. My primary motivation for creating the trailer is because I haven’t yet given her voice a chance to be heard… she does not speak at all in the the first four chapters that are currently available to the public. Since Stormriders is quintessentially her story, I wanted to create something that hinted at the events to come, through her eyes.

Enjoy!

 

BLOG HOME

The art of being happily alone, a “Stormriders” update, and some other miscellany.

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No Internets mean much writings.

A solo weekend getaway would usually be considered an odd choice for me. I like people, generally. However, being bombarded with so many distractions (of political and sporting nature) this summer has not been conducive to fulfilling my commitments as a writer, and to myself. The distractions add up. With all the negativity and stress hanging around society lately, a weekend away from humans (physically and digitally) sounded like a phenomenal plan. An uncle owns a gorgeous piece of land on Little Alden Lake, a stone’s throw northwest of Duluth. And so, last weekend I ventured into the Great Northern Wild Pine Forests of Minnesota, with only my dog Layla (with the very real title of Bear Scarer bestowed upon her) in tow, and with the very real intention of disappearing from the rest of humanity for 72 hours. Minimum.

From my journal, the morning after I arrived:

Twenty-five minutes outside the city, and the pavement turns to dirt and gravel. The forest presses in on you as you take the winding road, which you begin to think is taking you into the bowels of a forest purgatory, or toward some hidden backwoods colony of survivalists; you try to ignore the banjos playing the theme from “Deliverance” in your head. You shouldn’t have started the journey after sunset… what were you thinking?
 
The moment when you are absolutely, hysterically certain you have lost your way and your fate is to be eaten by the bears, you are there. Ahead lies a little idyll of certainty in the heart of darkness. An A-frame cabin and a few outbuildings nestle between fully grown pines that soar into the black overhead. A precariously handmade stairway of stones create a path down a shaded slope to the lake. The property is surrounded by a thick ring of pine trees and underbrush, muffling the presence of the few neighbors who live there year round.

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Little Alden Lake, a.k.a. The Perfect Place On Earth

You turn off the ignition and are immediately aware of the utter absence of sound. The nocturnal creepy-crawlies, momentarily disturbed by the intrusion of bright car headlights, have fallen silent. You look up, and as your eyes adjust, you see the blackness has dissolved into a cacophony of the brightest stars you have ever seen. You could swear they are only a few inches from your face, for how bright and clear they are.

Your dog’s low, uneasy growl snaps you back to earth. She stares intently beyond the circle of light from your high beams, as if she can sense something out there, waiting beyond the trees. And, then out of nowhere, the unearthly shriek of a loon warbles up from the water, echoing through the trees. Your heart jumps into your throat. You run inside. You will unpack tomorrow.

You may be thinking I was thinking I’d made a big mistake. Nothing could be further from the truth. Being utterly alone for those three days was exactly what I needed.

Some people call it recharging their batteries. I call it an exercise in focus.

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Nature + wine = happy tingles. Thanks, Science.

Aside from the massive amounts of writing I was able to accomplish in the massive void left behind by the Internet, there are several moments from the weekend I can pinpoint, where I was not doing a whole lot. Waking with the morning and walking out onto the deck that faces the lake, watching Layla chase frogs in the grass, feeling the sun’s warm kiss on my skin, drinking in the scenery with my coffee, merely thinking about my novel… and I would feel this strange tingly buzz that started somewhere under my ribs and spread through my arms and legs, to my fingers and toes, flowing up my spine and prickling across my scalp.

I don’t know if there’s a word that can accurately explain that feeling (“Endorphins?” asks Science), but maybe I’ll call it the body’s reaction to the brain’s realization of pure and utter joy. Contentment. Confidence in the knowledge that when I did sit down to write, I would write and write and write. I was so happy I was tingly. Everyone should be able to feel that feeling.

So, I say, seek out the places that make you tingly. Take a break from the places that squeeze, that apply pressure, that weigh down, that pull apart. Unplug. Be by yourself for a weekend, a day, an hour even. Give yourself the space to rest, “recharge,” refocus. Let your senses take in the small things in those moments. The fluid sparkle of sunlight on the water. The surprising complexity of loon song. The squelch of mud between your toes. The hilarity of a hound dog learning what a frog feels like in her mouth (the frog survived). The late summer wind that already has a crisp bite to it, hinting of an early autumn. On a tree branch of a thousand green leaves, espying the one with a reddish tinge. How the wine in your glass tastes different as you breathe in the scent of fresh pine.

Allow yourself the pleasure of being alone.


STORMRIDERS UPDATE:

During my voluntary absence from human contact, I was able to complete the next chapter in “Stormriders.” For more information about the story, and to read the first 4 chapters free, you can visit my Stormriders page.

 NEW STUFF

While some of my other writing projects have taken a backseat to Stormriders (I’m only human, and just one!) I am still incrementally moving them forward. My Tanzania travel memoir survived its second edit, and I’m working on the specifics for getting that out into the world. Namely, to Amazon.com or not to Amazon.com. I would be appreciative of any feedback from my fellow indie authors, regarding alternative print-on-demand and e-book vendors. Which vendors are your favorites? What as worked for you, and what hasn’t?

I’ve also got a few short story ideas in my head that I will undoubtedly make available for free here, on my site, in the near future. More on that down the road!