This is a post that’s been sitting around in draft form for some weeks now, but I think worldbuilding is an important enough subject that it’s been worth dusting the article off and completing it.
What is worldbuilding? Well if you play videogames, it’s your sandbox. It’s the fixtures and fittings of your world from houses to clothing. It’s also a lot more, including the ‘rules’ for your world, but we’ll get to that in due course.
Fantasy worldbuilding riffs off history quite a lot. From a lot of Western fantasy heavily influenced by medieval Europe right through to how the Tauren race in World of Warcraft borrows a lot artistically from native American Indians.
Good worldbuilding goes way beyond just the aesthetics. It looks at the how. And that’s where the real skill lies. It’s one thing to say a location is a vertical city on a huge cliff face and home to a million people, but how are heavy goods moved, where is enough food to feed the populace grown?
Writers want your readers to get lost in that world, for it all to seem so natural that the reader can visualize the world as clearly as their last summer holiday.
The real danger, though, is that the worldbuilding becomes so all consuming for the writer than the story and characters come second place. Tolkien was really guilty of this, and whilst I maintain he’s the greatest ever worldbuilder, some of the early chapters of Fellowship do read like a Hobbit tour guide.
Remember the act of worldbuilding is to cause the reader to suspend enough disbelief to invest emotionally in the world and the characters. Yes, Evil Lord Bob might be about to destroy the land of somewhereshire, but why does the reader care?
This is where Tolkien was the real master of worldbuilding (and his position has never been usurped). What he does is make those who wade through the Fellowship of the Ring invest in The Shire. And so as we follow Frodo and Sam and the landscape becomes bleaker and bleaker, we know this quest is worthwhile, because, just like Sam, we want The Shire to be protected. We share the beliefs of the main characters even if we do not possess the courage they do.
And this comes to a very important point about worldbuilding, and one of those points where I roll my eyes when this comes as a revelation to someone: Character always trumps worldbuilding. Now some will say a world is a character in it’s own right. I don’t strictly agree with that. Worldbuilding is worldbuilding, making comparisons to character just confuses the matter. But just like the words on the page, it’s there to serve the story, not the writer’s ego.
What I love about worldbuilding is that it is, in my honest opinion, the ultimate imaginative skill. There are so many things to consider, so many bits to slot together like some infinite jigsaw puzzle, that if you do it well, it can give you a headache.
So a writer goes and creates their world, considering the economy, the trade between different civilizations, the politics, the technology, the ecology, the history and a million and one other things. And then they try and make it so it all hangs together. The trick here is simply to make the world seem believable.
And this is where a lot of writers go wrong. Because Worldbuilding is not a side-dish, it’s a marinade. Long passages detailing the history of that castle over there might show off the worldbuilding, but they rarely really help the story. So a good writer builds a world, learns everything about it, and then leaves 99% of it out. In short, good worldbuilding is not about what goes into a story but what gets left out.
Now, you might think this is crazy, that after all that work building worlds, they need to be shown, but in truth it’s not wasted. It’ll seep through in the story. Description will be so much richer, because no longer will you have just “market stalls selling goods” but “market stalls selling spices from the Northern Plains, silks from the eastern coast, and monkeys from the jungles of the south”. The writer doesn’t need to explain all the trade routes, or give a detailed history of the trading between the North and the South, they just need enough to paint a picture and start the reader’s mind wondering. Serve only the story and nothing else.
Because when readers start losing themselves in worlds, a writer knows that the worldbuilding has done its job.
You’ve heard it a hundred times before, and yes you know that you need to finish the novel, but it’s not like you don’t know how it ends, or haven’t written the actual end. You just have some work to be done, and in time it will be done.
I used to think like that as well. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s wrong to take the time to get a novel right. There’s nothing wrong with a novel being “in-progress”.
But what amazed me last week when I announced that the draft of the novel that was complete, was the sheer amount of people who said they wished they could complete their’s.
Now, I’m sure in time, they’ll get there. The people in my immediate circle are quite determined people, some of whom are ahead of me on this writing journey, some who are behind. It’s not a race. But what struck me was that completing a draft of the novel is a similar hurdle to the difference between those who say “I’d like to write a book” and those who say “I am writing a book”.
Now, I suspect I have another hurdle in front of me, the one that separates the “have completed a draft” and “have a polished completed manuscript”. And there’s possibly further hurdles after that. It’s all about progressing to the next stage.
But from this side of the hurdle, I can see why completing the draft is now so important. With so much contradictory writing advice out there, it’s so difficult to find the ones that really apply. But as simple and eye-rolling as “finish the novel” is, I actually think there’s more to it than the obvious.
So a short time ago, I completed the latest major draft of my novel with no name. Technically according to the Stephen Deas scale, it’s ‘sorted’.
This isn’t the first novel I’ve written to completion, but this one has spent a hell of a long time working it’s way towards a completed draft, not aided by the last minute decision to split book one into two. This one has had a long and difficult birth, mostly caused by me ‘not doing things right’. So long has this one been ‘being written’ that I suspect that it will be treated with the same surprise by friends as if I said I was getting married or leaving the country. There will be jokes about signs of the coming apocalypse tomorrow.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. I’ve got some time off from it, before I head into edits. This is where I attempt to make the prose shine, and fix all those things I’ve labelled as “shit” in the notes. Some chapters (particularly the news ones that got added in this draft), might need ‘rejigging’ (which is my way of not saying ‘re-writing’ as that word strikes fear into the hearts of my friends).
So how do I feel about it right now? Well, as always my focus is on the faults. So many faults. I’m worried characters are flat, dialogue is monotone, and the prose is flat. But then I always worry about that and those are things that the editing stage is there for. I like the story. I think it’s really original, yet still pretty commercial. As stupid as this might sound, it feels like the type of novel I’d want to read. Whether anyone else will want to read it, remains to be seen.
It’s still got an awful long way to go before there’s any chance of it seeing publication. This is just the start, and frankly the amount of work I’ve got ahead of me in the coming weeks and months, almost makes me question why I’d ever want to write a novel. It currently stands at around 106k words, but I think I write short, especially when it comes to description, so even allowing for all those adverbs I’ll need to delete, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this push to 110k.
The last few days have been frantic, and the weirdest thing is that I don’t feel like I’ve been doing anything productive, instead feeling like I’ve wasted this week off work doing nothing. I guess time will tell how wasted this week will be, but it’s going to feel a little odd waking in the morning and telling myself that I can play World of Warcraft all day long if I want. Now, that would be gloriously wasting my day!
I… have… one… chapter… to… go.
So the end is near. Really near. A story I’ve been working on for years is just a single chapter away from completion – and not the novel’s final chapter, just one of those ones between the big set pieces that set things up.
I’ll talk more about the process in another blog post, but for this one I want to talk about titles. Well, I would… if I was any good at coming up with them.
I suck frankly! Come to a title, and all imagination and flair leaves me. Back when I did magazines I always used to amaze my editor by the way I would turn in a half-decent article, but really, really crappy titles.
This book was originally going to be called The Thieving King, which only took me about 5 years to come up with. But when the book split into two back at the beginning of the summer, it made sense that the title went with the second part.
Which means I am working on a book that has no title. And here’s me wanting to make some grandiose statement on my social networks when I get that final chapter done, and I don’t even know what the damned book is called.
I think it’s The ‘something’ Gatekeeper, although I’m not sure of the adjective just yet. I thought about “Death of a Wizard” or “The Wizard’s Notebook” but I thought one sounded too crime, the other too YA. Plus, I like the idea of the books having a similar format to their names. I’d still prefer the classic “The
I envy writers who know the name of their book before they even start writing it. I also envy those who ignore format so that every book title is unique. Heck, I envy anyone who is able to come up with decent titles for their work.
Cos my mind is blank… literally!
I quite infamously went to my first Fantasycon two years ago and went nearly the entire weekend without a person speaking to me.
It’s tough if you’re a newbie. Fantasycon is such a tight-knit group that even though they are genuinely very welcoming, they are always huddled in little groups, making it impossible to just join in.
My second year was better (to be fair they did respond to my criticism) but it was still quite a lonely experience.
However twitter has been a real life-saver this year. Through it I’ve met and got to know some lovely new ‘genre friends’ who made this Fantasycon the best yet.
Of course it didn’t start that great. After assuring my disease-ridden friend on Monday that he shouldn’t worry “as I have an over-active immune system and don’t catch colds” driving up on Thursday I came down with the mother of all colds. So Thursday Night and Friday up until the convention started I spent in quarantine, which was extra depressing as it was my birthday.
However, I rested enough to feel better (and when I wasn’t sleeping I did work on the novel, including writing an entire chapter at 3am in the morning when I couldn’t sleep). Come the start of the convention I was over the worst of it.
First person I saw was @hagelrat of Unbound where I got to see another side to her. Now, you may think Adele is sweet and dear. Don’t believe it! She’s a tyrant, gathering her minions and plotting blogging domination. I only hope she wasn’t too hard on newest minion Chris that he had a good time!
I also saw Sharon AKA @dfreview (http://darkfictionreview.net/). I think I’ve only ever said hello briefly once before but I got chance to chat with her over the weekend at various points. She too celebrated a birthday over the weekend.
Friday night saw a meal with @alrutter, @ghostfinder and his lovely wife Sandra, and @gavingsmith. Brilliant company, and lovely food. Amanada reviews books over at Floor to Ceiling Books (as well as a million other things) but she writes some of the best reviews in the business. Adam is a very talented writer (www.AdamChristopher.co.uk) whose work has appeared in Hub and a load of other places. He won the Sir Julius Vogel Award this year for editing (New Zealand’s answer to the Hugo) and most of the humour of the evening came from trying to come up with different ways he could display the trophy. Gavin G Smith is a published novelist with Gollancz (http://www.gavingsmith.com/) whose novel first novel Veteran is out now. I’m personally not big on Sci-Fi novels but hearing him describe his makes me want to pick it up.
From the meal we went to the Heavy Metal Karaoke. This is where I discovered I have now become old and find it “all a bit too loud”. I also didn’t recognise any of the songs. I doubt whether I would have even if they’d been sung perfectly, so I left early, thinking I should take it easy given the cold.
Saturday was a fab day. Normally at conventions I plot out my panels, rushing from here to there, trying to pick up information that will be of value to me in my career. I either know it all now or am beyond help, as I spent most of the day in the bar. There we were joined by Mark and Liz De Jager from My Favourite Books. Lovely, lovely people. And you’d think a day of sitting in a group drinking and chatting with people popping off here, there and meeting back up would make for a boring day but the constant flow of people made for such a interesting day that I was glad I was there rather than going to panels.
I did go to one on “How Not To Get Published”. I don’t know why I subject myself to these things. I mean the panelists made it interesting and entertaining but I have to accept that I know not to include rose petals and perfumed paper with my submission. I get a little disappointed when I come away from a panel not learning anything new, but then there is only a finite amount of information you can impart in an hour.
Of course, it’s impossible to go to these events and not talk writing. Just four and a half chapters from completing the novel writing is very much on my mind (I’ve stopped giving drafts numbers and am now on to letters. I think this is draft M). Whilst I think the ‘pitch’ needs a lot of work and hence didn’t get rolled out, I think I managed to talk about it without sounding like an idiot or boring everyone.
It appears a few of us are going on a pulp SF binge, but I won’t say any more about it for fear of pre-empting something.
I did see @markcn (www.MarkCNewton.com) briefly, but he was as in demand as ever.
We didn’t go to the banquet but instead, @alrutter, @gergaroth, @lizuk, @ghostfinder, Mrs Ghostfinder and myself went out for food and cocktails. This is where things start getting murky.
I may (at some point) said I could take George R R Martin and Neil Gaiman in a fight. I did not say I could take Joe Abercrombie – I know my limits.
We came back for the awards. These were the awards my non-fiction book got longlisted for. Lee Harris went and collected the award for best non-fiction winner and then put it down on the table next to me. Evil plots were indeed plotted but I do like Ansible and think it a worthy winner, so nothing was carried out (quite literally).
The downside to missing the banquet is the free books. Free Gollancz books may I add. At some point someone may have given us theirs, so I did come away with King of the the Crags (Thank you @kaisavage for your retrieval skills).
I took very few pictures at Fantasycon and this is probably well as I do have photos of Amanda and Mark making leopard poses that I only sort of remember. The one thing I do remember was Mark telling me about his book, which just sounds awesome and I want to read.
Another person I met was Will Hill. He’s a new YA writer whose book sounds interesting but I won’t say any more as I think Harpers has various things planned for launching him. Just remember the name and keep an eye out on all your favourite blogs.
If Saturday was the party, Sunday was the hangover. Mrs Ghostfinder came down with a cold. I maintain it takes 48 hours for a cold to develop so couldn’t be Liz or I, Mrs Ghostfinder is blaming the dirty wine glasses, so we’ll leave it at that and just hope she feels better soon. Likewise Liz and Mark decided to head home early, turning Sunday into a Ghost town.
There seem to be a lot of complaints that Fantasycon is more horror than fantasy but as an fantasy person I do have to say that if only horror people are joining and taking part in the British Fantasy Society, you can’t really blame them if things get skewed towards what their members want. The only way it will change is to start to get more of the fantasy writers there. I don’t think it would be resisted either. In fact I’m almost positive that it would be welcomed.
But I had a absolutely brilliant Fantasycon, in no short part to all the great people I met up with and talked to (only some of whom are listed above). Next year the event moves to Brighton after years of being in Nottingham. Hopefully that will mix things up a bit and see another big influx of new people.
It seems the done thing these days for writers to announce when they are attending conventions. They announce any launches they will be doing, any signings they’ll be holding, any readings they’ll be performing and any panels they’ll be attending.
I, on the other hand, will be in the bar. I’m not advanced enough in my career to be launching anything, not popular enough to be signing anything, not brave enough to perform anything, and not informed enough to be of any benefit to any panel.
Which is fine as I’m looking forward to catching up with a few friends. I’m also hoping that my statement a couple of days ago of “my immune system is overactive, I will not catch your cold” holds true, as currently I feel rougher than a pair of badger’s nadgers.
If you do see me, please feel free to come over and say “Hi”. I’m terrible with faces, so please tell me where I know you from (even if only from online), so I can lie and say “Of course I know who you are” and therefore avoid those awkward silences as I rack my brain going “where do I know this person from?” Trust me, it’ll be better for both of us.
On a more serious note, I do hope to use Fantasycon to speak to a few people and get some specific advice as the novel slowly makes its way to being ready to submit. And how’s that going? Well, I’d hoped to finish today but it’s looking like tomorrow and Friday daytime will be put to good use trying to battle to the end. There are no real major hold ups other than procrastination.
Hopefully I will be able to get drunk at Fantasycon with a completed draft behind me… and absolutely no cold!
Douglas Adams once famously said “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” And that’s pretty much been my motto as I’ve progressed through this draft of the revised novel. I mean, I have the luxury of being able to take my time and get it right (there’s no editor chasing), so as long as I continue to make progress, it’s all good, right?
My original plan was to get it done by the end of July but some plot points really held me up, as the old story diverged into the new. But it has moved forwards, even if at times it only creeped.
But after going through that difficult two thirds stage of the novel, I’ve emerged the other side, and suddenly the end seems in sight. I have the luck of having the actual end already written (the last 15,000 words or so) so it’s just a case of writing the last few connecting scenes.
So my plan is to get it done by Fantasycon. Not, as Adam Christopher joked, so that I can assault agents and publishers with it – it’s still a draft and will need quite a bit of work yet before it’s in any fit state. No, it’ll mean that I can go there and talk (if conversation gets round to it) about a novel that is written rather than being written.
I’m actually pretty pleased with it (secretly, I’m quietly confident that it’s actually really good). There are some chapters that need smoothing out a little, but by and large, it’s a pretty good novel, with tone and pace and character arc, pretty much in place already.
I can also safely say that there’s nothing else like it out on the market. There may be a sensible reason for this. Other than it being fantasy, I really can’t pinpoint it to a sub-genre. It’s the type of fantasy novel I’d like to read, and for that I’m pretty proud of it.
Of course, attention now turns to the title. Book 1 was going to be called ‘The Thieving King’, but after plot elements got pushed out to book 2 when I split the book up, that’ll probably be the second book title. With book 1, I have some ideas, nouns mainly, but it all seems a bit too Sci-Fi right now.
The surprising thing is just how quickly it all comes together once you break free of that dreaded two thirds. I had that happen when I wrote the first draft of Refugees and I thought it was a quirk.
So there’s still a load of work to be done, but it’s finally looking like a complete draft will be done, which as my friends will attest to, is a landmark occasion. I don’t worry too much, Patrick Rothfuss approached his first novel in a similar way, and look at him.
When I was a boy, I had this vision of the Hugo Awards looking a bit like the Oscars. I imagined there would be a orchestra, and for years (and I do mean years) I tried to decide what I would have as my music if I ever went up to accept an award.
It was only a few years ago that I actually got to see video of a Hugo Awards Ceremony and I was disappointed to see there was no orchestra, just someone with a tape recorder who played the Star Trek TNG theme as people went up to accept their awards (as a lifelong Star Wars fan, I cannot begin to tell you how disappointed I was).
However, since then, trying to find coverage of the Hugo Awards (other than the results) has often seen me waiting weeks.
At Eastercon, I got to see the nominations announced live, and it was incredibly exciting. It left me wanting more.
So I cannot begin to tell you how much I appreciate the Hugo Coverage by Cheryl Morgan, Mur Laferty & Kevin Standlee. The video feed suffered problems but you know what, it was enough to give you the atmosphere. As someone who has provided online coverage for events, I know how much hard work these things are. I think what was done this year was a great foundation that can be built on.
So Mur, Cheryl & Kevin, you’ll probably never get to read this, but thank you. I really appreciated the coverage and video. Maybe one year I’ll get to see the awards live, but until then you’re coverage is almost as good.
There’s a famous story about Neil Gaiman phoning up his agent regarding his latest project and telling her that it was no good, that the project needed to be scrapped or he needed to start again.
“Oh,” she replied. “You always do this. You’re at that part of the novel.”
That part of the novel for me seems to be around the two thirds mark, and the urge isn’t so much to scrap but to go back and write with greater insight.
In reality there are no real wrongs or rights pertaining to writing method. There are days when words just drop from your mind onto the page like water. There are other days when they come like treacle. All you can do, as a writer, is recognise the traps and work round them.
I’m actually pretty pleased with how the project is going. The book still doesn’t have a name, The Thieving King moving to book 2 (and then that took about ten years to come up with). But for the moment I’m content for it to be known as THE Book, because for the moment, it’s the only book in my life.
For those who haven’t been following, I came to the conclusion back at the start of the summer that the book I’ve been working on (itself part of a series) was actually two books. The beginning and end had enough differences for it to feel like two books. So I took the first half and reworked it, expanding it to novel length.
So as a result, I already have the end written, and the real work was to expand the story without it just becoming a few additional adventures shoehorned in. Of course, this came with a rewrite, so it’s been more than just rewriting scenes, but pretty much rewriting the whole damn novel. Patrick Rothfuss did this with The Name of the Wind, so I don’t feel too bad about it.
Maureen’s thread has pleased me the most, her story has really benefited from the expansion. Of course, being at that stage, I worry if it’s all a little too confusing, and whether revelations from book 2 need to be moved forwards (and what will this do to the overall series story arc?). I worry about minor things too. She had a handbag when she left, where is it now? But I recognise these are all products of being at that stage. They can be fixed. I just write notes in the margin such as “where is the bag?” or “more description” or “this dialogue sucks” and move on. It can be fixed when I come to editing the book.
Darwin & Cassidy’s thread was always more mature in terms of development and I’m only just getting to the stage where the storyline deviates from the original. Again, just as I did before writing the extra Maureen material, I worry that it’s going to just feel tacked on rather than a true part of the story. Still going in with that concern, means that I’ll very conciously do all I can to avoid it. I’m sure it will be alright, and already expanding the roles of the various vampires seems to benefit the book.
The most important thing is that this book has it’s own tone and feeling, and it doesn’t feel like anything else. Yes, I have elves and dwarves but this doesn’t feel like a Tolkien rip-off (not that it ever set out to be), it feels like its own thing. It’s not Scott Lynch, or Abercrombie, or George R R Martin, it’s me, and whatever now happens I can be very proud of that fact. That might mean that ultimately, it’s not right for the publishing market, but deep down one thing I am sure about is that the book is quite commercial. I just have to write it in such a way that an editor is unable to say “no”.
I’m finding mornings are being more productive than evenings, and whereas a lost evening would just frustrate me, because I am at that stage, it’s starting to annoy me. Mornings, I can write 2000 or more words in a coupel of hours and feel happy. Evenings, I’m lucky to get 400 words of nonsense.
I need to lock myself away, get to bed early, get up early and get things done. The end is done, that doesn’t even need to be written, I just need to write up to it. The characters are also so well known, they’re not doing anything unexpected. I reckon another 20k – 30k words and I’ll be done. Book 1 will then exist with everything at the same draft. I want that, I want that today. But to get there, it does sometimes feel like I have to swim uphill in Treacle.