Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.35: Tools for Writing and Worldbuilding, with Erin Roberts

Your Hosts: Dan, Mary Robinette, Lari, and special guest Erin Roberts

We’ve received a number of questions about the ‘tools of the trade’ for organizing our work, especially with regard to worldbuilding. In this episode we talk about what we use, including some old-school analog tools like sticky notes and ballpoint pens.

Credits: this episode was recorded remotely, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Using whichever tool you would like, examine your favorite worldbuilding elements, and determine what your influences are for them.

Thing of the week: The Midnight Bargain, by C.L. Polk (currently available for pre-order).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: What do you use to organize your writing? Scrivener, Word, Aeon Timeline, PowerPoint, Excel, or maybe just a calendar or notecards. Multiple files. A world bible. What makes Scrivener good? You can chunk pieces, and move them around. Also, it has layers of version control and cloning. Sometimes you want to clone and rework, sometimes you should just start fresh. How do you keep track of your worldbuilding? Search. Plus notes. Excel columns. Focus on the parts that are relevant to the story. Sometimes you need to remember the mundane stuff, too. Other people can help, too, but you are responsible.

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 35.

[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Tools for Writing and Worldbuilding, with Erin Roberts.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Lari] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Erin] And we’re not that smart.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Lari] I’m Lari.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] Awesome. Erin, thank you for joining us again for this episode. Do you want to remind everyone super quickly who you are?

[Erin] Sure. I’m a short story writer. That’s about all you need to know.

[Dan] Well, excellent. We are excited to have you back.

[Dan] We have several questions that came in about writing tools. Some of them focused on worldbuilding and some of them just on writing in general. So I want to read the first one. It says, “Can you talk about the tools of the trade like Scrivener and Word? How do you organize your work? What features are invaluable, and why?” I know this process is different for everyone, I’ve never gotten the same answer from two different authors when we talk about the tools we use. So, what tools do you rely on and consider invaluable in the software or whatever that you use to do your work?

[Mary Robinette] So, for me, it’s all about the pieces of the story that I can’t hold in my head. It changes. So, I use Scrivener, yes. I also use Aeon Timeline. But in the last two things that I’ve been working on, I found myself going away from the computer and back to analog. So, for Relentless Moon, I actually printed out a calendar from 1963 and just used that to figure out my timeline. Divided it roughly into morning, noon… Morning, afternoon, night. That was… There were occasions where I’d get a little more detailed in there. That was what I used for a timeline. For The Spare Man, which I’m working on right now, I actually had everything in Scrivener, and then at a certain point, just bought packs of notecards and put it all on notecards and used a marker to mark which kind of plot thread I was using and also had a different… So I had some things that were labeled as plot point and some people… Some things that were labeled as story threads and some that were just labeled as information to track. So it’s like, “Oh, you’ve got moving sidewalks here. Make sure that you have moving sidewalks all the way through the novel.” But that was… It was very, very old school.

[Erin] For me, I’ve actually used PowerPoint before. Which… I’ve actually made a PowerPoint document for my story. The reason is that I’m a little more of a pantser, so I often am doing worldbuilding as I go. So I will throw a detail in, like a moving sidewalk, in a sentence, and then I’ll go back and be like, “Oh, yes, I did say that. I should probably carry that through.” So I would add to like technology in my world slide moving sidewalks, or I’d have one for characters. I like it because I’m not inherently a visual person. So having a PowerPoint reminds me to bring my visual self… Or to bring visuals to the story. So I often think the best tools are ones that kind of work with who you are and shore you up where you might need more support.

[Dan] So, talking about using visuals with the PowerPoint, are you like including reference arts and like character images and stuff?

[Erin] I do. It’s because I have aphantasia, which means I cannot visualize things in my head. So every time I have a visual in a story, I am looking at a picture of some sort in order to draw on that as a writer. So I am the queen of visual imagery.

[Dan] That’s awesome. I have… I am similarly old school to what Mary Robinette talked about. I know that I’ve said on the podcast before that I have tried Scrivener and just despise it. Which does not make it a bad program by any means, because many people swear by it. I prefer just the… I turn off every feature that my word processor has so it’s essentially just a typewriter that I can delete things on. Then, I will keep different files. It sounds like that’s common to a lot of us, that we will have one place, whether it’s a file or a PowerPoint slide or a whatever where we can say, “Hey, remember this thing,” or “Here’s where I’m going to talk about all of my character traits and things like that.” I build a world bible. I do use Excel in early stages of my outlining process. Just because it helps me keep all of the events in order. But then, by the time I’m done, I’ve put it back into a Word document and described it in paragraphs. I would love someone who does use Scrivener to very quickly tell people what makes Scrivener valuable. Just to counter my own hatred of it.

[Mary Robinette] I use it.

[Dan] [chuckles]

[Mary Robinette] Am I the only one in here that uses it? Okay. So I’ll talk about Scrivener. The thing that I like about Scrivener is that it makes it very easy for me to kind of see the shape of the thing that I’m working on. So, you can chunk stuff in there, in at as kind of granular as you want to get. You can go like chapter and then scene, which is the way that I usually have it broken down. But what it means is that like if I realize that a scene is in the wrong place, I can just grab it and move the entire thing very easily. So it’s… For me, that’s handy. Being able to… Like what Dan does, where he has multiple iterations of… Saving multiple copies of a novel, that’s how I used to work. The thing that I like is that I can just clone a scene… If I’m like, “Oh, I think I want to try this a very different way.” I can just clone it. Save the original one someplace else. Throw it into my scraps folder. Then redo the one… Redo it on the clone. So that I have both versions. I can look at both of them. It has a lot of really good version control. You can take a snapshot every time you make a revision. So, when I want to go back and look for something… I’m like, “Oh, I accidentally deleted this thing that I love.” No, no, I didn’t. It’s actually just a couple of layers deep, and I can go find it and it’s still there. So that’s what I like about it.

[Erin] So, I was going to add about the being able to save a scene. It’s a little bit of a tangent. But you were saying that it’s really great to be able to save the scene. I know that a lot of people like working in that way. But I also do know a writer who prefers to just delete it altogether and start from scratch. She thinks that she can get a lot more when she just has to go over and just do it all over again. So I think it’s just interesting in terms of different ways of using your craft.

[Dan] Thanks for bringing that up, because I’ve noticed, most of the time, if I write something and I think, wait, this is in the wrong place. I will copy it, I will move it, and then I’ll think, “Well, I need to transition into the scene.” So I’ll start writing a transition and end up writing the entire scene whole cloth as a new version of itself, and eventually realize, oh, this thing I copy-and-pasted is now useless. But, anyway…

[Mary Robinette] Sometimes that polite fiction to our own brain is handy, though.


[Dan] Yes. All right. We would like to pause here for the book of the week, which is Midnight Bargain.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. So, Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk. I just read it in ARC. By the time we… By the time this airs, it will be out. The reason I wanted to pick this… I’m going to read to you the first three or so lines, because it is… Like, it is really a master class in setting up worldbuilding. It’s… The clarity of it is so good. “The carriage drew closer to Bookseller’s Row, and Beatrice Clayborn drew in a hopeful breath before she cast her spell.” I’m like, “Boom.” I know where we are, I know that this is like… I know something about the technology. I know that books are going to be important, and I know that this is a magic user. Then we’ve got this. “Head high, spine straight, she hid her hands in her pockets and curled her fingers into mystic signs as the fiacre jostled over green cobblestones.” So I know that magic is something that she has to hide while she’s doing it, which is also amazing. Also, I know a little bit more, she’s given me this other breadcrumb, it’s not just a carriage, it’s like what kind of carriage. And green cobblestones! That’s so beautiful. “She had been in Bendleton three days, and while it’s elegant buildings and clean streets were the prettiest trap anyone could step into, Beatrice would have given anything to be somewhere else – anywhere but here, at the beginning of bargaining season.” I’m like, “Oh, my God.” I don’t know at this point what bargaining season is, but I know that there is this stake, this thing, that she’s not from here, that this is a thing that happens once a year. It’s like it’s so dense with stuff, but it’s also just effortless in giving me the feeling of the character and the character’s perspective on things. It is a lovely opening, and the novel holds up. It is, like, when I came… I thought this when I read that first paragraph. I thought, “Oh, this is a strong opening.” Then, when I got through the book, and realized how important books were all through. The… That opening line about drew closer to Bookseller’s Row, it’s like, “Oh. Oh, she sets up everything in the opening, and then pays it off.” It’s great. It’s a really good book.

[Dan] Awesome. That is Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk.

[Mary Robinette] Yes.

[Dan] Wonderful. Thank you very much.

[Dan] All right. So, for the second half of the show here, we talked about general tools. Let’s get into worldbuilding tools, specifically. So here we have another listener question. “How do we remember and manage all the information that goes with a fantasy novel? If you write 500 pages of story names, background, and rules, how do you stay consistent and remember all of it while writing the actual prose?”

[Mary Robinette] I use the search function. My basic philosophy is that if it’s not in the novel, then it’s not canon. So, I will… If it’s something that I am consistently misspelling, I will probably make a note to myself. Like, what are the types of dragons? And, like, I made up that word, that’s going to be hard for me to search for, so I’ll jot that down someplace. But otherwise, I’m pretty darn lackadaisical about storing my worldbuilding stuff.

[Lari] As an editor…

[Dan] Lari?

[Lari] I use Excel.


[Lari] I think it’s the version… I think it’s… And PowerPoint as well as Excel. So I just add a lot of columns to explain… These are the characters, these are the… When I added a [garbled trans?] I had to do that a lot, just to make sure we were keeping it consistent.

[Dan] So, to be clear about the use, you have like each column in the spreadsheet is for a specific character, and then other columns for what? Different worldbuilding elements?

[Lari] Yeah. It depends on the novel, but I would often also need tabs. Usually, it would be like a column, like characters. Then a column for the kind of gear that they have on, for instance, where they come from. So I can keep it all straight through out a series, for instance.

[Dan] Okay. Awesome. I…

[Erin] I also… Go ahead, Dan.

[Dan] Go ahead, Erin. Go ahead.

[Erin] Well, I was going to say, I think it’s also good to know what of your worldbuilding is just fun for you and what you’re actually wanting to put in the story, because sometimes of those 500 words… Or 500 pages, sorry, even more. Not all 500 maybe things that actually end up being relevant to the story or that anyone needs to know except you. It’s just like fun, it’s like you’re writing your own kind of back tome. But it’s always good to go through, I think, and identify what of this actually impacts the character’s world and journey, and then make sure that those you can really find. The other stuff, if you lose track of it, it’s not going to be as important to the story you’re trying to tell.

[Dan] Yeah. I think that that’s, to some extent, a self-correcting system. If you’ve written in a world detail that you think is really cool, but you’re consistently forgetting because it doesn’t impact anything, then maybe it doesn’t need to be there, or you need to find a way for it to impact something.

[Mary Robinette] I’m… Also, I will say that I also use Excel, but it is to track things that… Is actually specifically to track things that I don’t have in the novel, but that I want to remember in case I need it later. Most of this… In previous episodes, you’ve seen me do, heard me talk about the axes of power. So I will… I track that, because for the most part, when I’m writing the Lady Astronaut books, the fact of someone’s sexuality generally does not come up. But I want to know, because it will sometimes affect small things in a scene, and I want to make sure that I’m doing that. Or, if I have a Portuguese and a Spanish character, then I want to make sure that I’m actually remembering which one is Portuguese and which one is Spanish. Because I am… That is not my background for either of those, it means that I’m going to get someone to look at those scenes. That I’m handing the right scene to the right person.

[Dan] One thing that I noticed, when I have been writing the Zero G series, which is my middle grade science fiction, is that the details that I kept forgetting about the alien planet where they live in books two and three were the kind of mundane ones. So as I would be describing something, I realized about halfway through book three that I was describing things as impossibly alien. So, for example, the planet has huge crystals all over it. I had lost track in my head of the fact that there was still like normal rocks and dirt. That it wasn’t just a giant crystal planet. That’s because I was managing only the details that I thought were interesting. That meant that I was forgetting about the mundane ones. So I had to go back and mention, “Oh, yeah, there is actual topsoil. There are actual plants growing in it.” So I had to change kind of my world bible. I actually had to note in there, don’t forget, there’s actual rocks and dirt on this planet. Like, the mundane parts of the world are the ones that I was forgetting. Because it hadn’t occurred to me that I needed to manage these as well as the other ones.

[Erin] Actually, Dan, along those lines, one of the things I love to do when I’m planning stories is to read first person narratives, like people just talking. Especially if it’s in a similar cadence to the kind of language that I’m trying to use in a story. What I love about first person narratives, and I’m talking like real world nonfiction narratives, is you get to see what people actually mention in the details that people actually think about when they describe the world around them literally. So, so often, you’re like, “Oh, there is this huge tower,” or “There’s this great big…” And the person’s like, “I’m going to tell you about my kitchen sink. Because, like, I spend a lot of time in my kitchen sink washing things. That’s what I’m doing.” So it’s a good reminder to me to make sure that those smaller details, the topsoil of the world so to speak, is as clear and as interesting as the things that I’m excited about because they’re new and different.

[Dan]We are essentially out of time, but it occurs to me that there is a tool that all of us as professionals use, that we don’t usually talk about, because it is such a uniquely professional thing. We have other people helping us.

[Mary Robinette] Oh, yeah.

[Dan] Brandon, on his… One of his live streams a couple weeks ago, he had Karen Ahlstrom, who is his lore person and keeps an entire like massive thousand page wiki just to keep track of his lore for him. I, as a published author, I have copy editors. When they send their copy edit document, it has a full list of every person, every location, everything that I have mentioned in the story that she has then collated and put into this very digestible form. So, relying on other people is more difficult if you are not yet professional and in a paid situation, but it’s something that we all kind of rely on, and maybe is something that other people could try and find a way to use.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah, although I do want to caution people that it is… You can rely… Asking… Excepting the help of other people is really important, but… And, Lord knows, be grateful for the saves that a copy editor hands you. But also, there will be mistakes that slip past everyone. So you do actually ultimately, at the end of the day, it is always your responsibility to have found things. Like, I think I’ve told the story about the giant continuity error in the Calculating Stars?

[Dan] I think you have.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yeah. The fact that I kept talking about the seven lady astronauts, and there is, in fact, only six. Literally, no one caught it. At all.

[Dan] This is one of my favorite stories.

[Mary Robinette] Like, I just… I was working on book 3 and I was like, “Why can’t I remember the name of the seventh lady astronaut?” I went back to a scene that I knew that all seven of them were in, and there are six people in that room.

[Choked laughter]

[Dan] I can’t remember the context of the conversation I had with Mary Robinette. It was a phone call or a text conversation or something. It was endlessly amusing to me.

[Mary Robinette] There were a lot of caps.


[Dan] Anyway. We need to be done with this episode. As much as I would love to keep talking about it. Erin, you have our homework.

[Erin] Yes. Using whichever tool you would like, take a look at some of your favorite worldbuilding elements. I know there’s tons, but pick say five. Then, take a look at what your influences are. Are there any elements that are coming from a world that’s our world? Are there any things that you’re borrowing? Are there cobblestones, for example, like in the example Mary Robinette read? That is something that exists in our world. Make sure that those, all of those influences and those elements, are purposeful. Are they intentional? Why are you doing them? What do they bring with them to your story?

[Dan] Wonderful. Thank you very much for listening. This is Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses, now go write.