Writing Excuses 10.18: Build an Entire World? Are You Crazy?

This is for you folks who started writing the story before you finished building your world. Which is what we wanted you to do all along! Sneaky! We’re talking about letting your story drive your world building efforts, so that you can be more efficient.

We cover some of the tools that we use, as well as when world building fits into, then out of, and then back into our respective processes.

Out of Context Quote: “Sometimes you just need to take the underpants off the puppet.”

Other Worldbuilding Episodes to Reference: Brandon promised a list of links. Here’s a pretty comprehensive one!

We recommend not listening to all of them in one go. You’re supposed to be out of excuses and writing, not podcast diving for another two hours…


Pick your gee-whiz, whatever it may be, and describe it in 150 words from ten different perspectives. Yes, that’s 1500 words.

Stormdancer: The Lotus War, Book One, by Jay Kristoff, narrated by Jennifer Ikeda

15 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.18: Build an Entire World? Are You Crazy?”

  1. Personally, I’m enjoying that when Howard had his idea about “coal tar”, he “pitched” it to the publishers.

  2. Thanks for posting these! I’ve just stumbled upon Writing Excuses and you guys have definitely helped me improve my writing for a book I’ve been working on for a while. Thanks again!

  3. Ed: Since Howard was writing for one of these large established canons (He mentioned which one it was; I’ve already forgotten), the owners of that setting exert a level of control to maintain an overall coherence. Howard’s character was largely defining the type of combat medicine used in this particular canon, so that needs to be consistent for all future authors who might want to have a combat medic. (Otherwise people ask questions like “why does this medic use bloodletting and leaches while this other guy uses nanosurgery medpacks?”)
    ….And only after I finish writing this comment (including what’s below) do I recognize the pun on the word “pitch” meaning not only “to throw/to suggest a concept” but also “a black, tarry substance.” *sigh*

    Mary: It’s nice to have someone point out that introducing magic (or whatever) means changing the technological development of society accordingly. It’s far too common to see things like Harry Potter. (Overt magic in a modern setting that’s recognizably our world, despite the fact that the existence of overt magic would fundamentally change our world. Admittedly there’s a secrecy conspiracy in most of these settings among the thinking peoples (be they wizard societies, vampires, etc) but most of these settings have very powerful creatures that just don’t give a d*** – how does one hide the existence of dragons?) I don’t mean to deride the concept entirely – having a comfortable modern-Earth setting as a base point lets authors jump right into things (Larry Correia’s works and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files are excellent examples of this), but it’d be nice to see more authors take their concept and play it out in a plausible manner through history. (Say, dragons exist, and are intelligent. Great civilizations like the Roman Empire would have seen the potential in finding some way of controlling such entities. Fast forward from there to the Napoleanic wars and you have Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which involves dragon powered air forces as a third branch of the military.)

    It’s an interesting world building exercise, taking a specific gee-whiz concept and playing with how it would effect history. Consider, say, Earth with the magical trifecta found in MIstborn. (Frankly, that one goes disturbing places, fast. I don’t want to know what Hitler+hemalurgy looks like, thank you.) A good method of generating ideas for anyone who gets stuck. Pick an interesting time period, come up with a magic system, and run that magic through history until you reach your target time period.

  4. I think part of my problem is that I don’t worldbuild enough. The more I write, the more I realize that I’m a planner and not a pantser. What usually happens for me is that I don’t work out details in advance, like where my characters will be and what the settings look like, what their world’s swear words are, how does the evil overlord enforce the rules of the kingdom, etc, and so when I get to the point where that information would be useful, I just stick in something generic and keep going so I don’t lose momentum on the draft. Yeah, I could always fix it in revision, but there’s something extremely discouraging about reading something you’ve written and thinking, “Generic, generic, pretty good idea, generic, didn’t describe that scene enough, generic…”

    1. Do what I do: stop writing the generic and start writing placeholder objects.

      He stubbed his toe on the anvil. “Crap!”


      He stubbed his toe on the [ANVIL_ANALOGUE]. “[OUCH-SWEAR #1]”

      Eventually I get really tired of writing placeholder objects, and my brain antes up and gives me something useful. Then I do a search/replace, and on my revision pass I can tweak everything so it fits.

  5. Cuban groceries, Chicago politics, and graft? A magical hurricane? The 70 Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries? Icebergs? Underwear for puppets? And field medicine? Can even our wonder podcasters connect the dots between all those topics in some meaningful world?

    Check out how they do it, over here in the transcript! Easy reading!


    and in the archives, of course.

  6. Hey guys! Quick question, off topic, but it has been bugging me…

    When submitting a manuscript to a publisher or agent, should one include the intended epigraphs? I have several song lyrics for epigraphs that pertain to the chapters they precede, but I’m not sure if it’s too insistent and self aggrandizing to include them in an unpublished manuscript.

    Thank You, for both the answer and the podcast!

  7. Hey guys. Sociologist/author here. Today, Mary mentioned “cultural appropriation”. Now, I’m familiar with this term as meaning the adoption of another culture’s or group’s traditions, stories, practices, or artefacts in order to confer some of their cultural capital on yourself (a popular example is white guys with dreads droning on about Jah in order to appear interesting without being part of the history of rastafarianism).

    I can’t work out what Mary means by the concept in the podcast, though! She uses it when referencing existing relations of oppression, and warns against adopting those in the book— but she does this in a vague way and doesn’t fully explain what is problematic about this type of appropriation — if anything. Now, using real-life inequality as a blueprint or framework for some kind of allegorical or inspired tale is extremely commonplace in fiction.

    Could Mary please explain exactly what she means?

  8. Here’s a question for you in regards to helping someone understand World Building: I am part of a writer’s group which has an interesting mix of people. Several fantasy writers who have been coming a long time, and then a couple of newer members; older gentlemen who write poetry. They just cannot seem to grasp fantasy. We all submit our chapters with fantasy settings and one of them, every time says, “But WHERE is this? I just can’t see it? Is it Earth? What city?” We say, “No, it’s not Earth.” And he’ll say, “But Joseph is a name from Earth!” And that will confuse him further, for how could a regular name be used in a fantasy story?

    When you start Chapter 1, you can’t begin the sentence with “This is on a fictional planet called ‘Blargh’!” just to ensure people understand it’s not Earth…you have to build up to the fact this is not a real place, which most people will understand. I just don’t know how else to help this older gentleman grasp that in fantasy we’re not going to give him a date, time, city name, planet, etc. in the first paragraph just because it’s not Earth. I want to help him, but I don’t know how!

    1. You might need to talk to them about genre conventions (conceits and assumptions, not “events”) and how their questions are a little bit like asking “but who is THAT guy” during the first three minutes of a James Bond film. Or asking “why doesn’t this rhyme, and why are the sentences stacked funny” when reading poetry.

      The “secondary world fantasy” conceit is so common we’re often blind to it. We start from “not Earth, these are humans, and the whole thing is magically transliterated into English I can comprehend” without consciously making that assumption… right up until something breaks that for us, like the name of a modern city (“we shall quest then to the high castles of Brooklyn”) or an anachronistic metaphor (“prithee, he surely did go the whole nine yards. As if!”)

  9. Maybe there isn’t enough description for them to determine whether or not that city is on Earth, let alone what sort of city it is. Do characters go to the market, palengke, or souk? Each of those denotes a particular flavor of city. They can’t imagine the fantasy city because they haven’t been given enough cues to fill in the details. Maybe he’s trying to say that he needs more to your city.
    As for names? There’s no such thing as a “regular” name. Like Howard says, suspension lasts until something breaks it. Maybe by naming your character Joseph (not Josef, Yusef, Jose, or Guiseppe) denotes a particular setting in his head: Protestant English / American. You can find Tiphane in the marketplace of Breukelen with Iosephus for a late morning meal of breads, cheese and small beers. or join Tiffany and Joseph for brunch in Brooklyn.

  10. I think that, ultimately, a reader has to be willing to go along with fantasy in order to enjoy it. It’s a fool’s errand trying to write a fantasy story that will please someone with a hair-trigger plausibility metric. Some people can’t stand fiction of any kind because they cannot get beyond the very idea that it is not real (see Noel Gallagher’s recent [fairly idiotic] comments). It might be that the old guy you are writing with is just never going to be into fantasy.

  11. At JordanCon we were having discussions of using real science to inform your writing. The thing we kept coming back to was that as a writer your job is to get the reader to suspend his disbelief. Once that’s done, you should just get on with your story. Geeking out on the rest of your research in the story just tends to get you in trouble with the readers who know more than you.

  12. So am I crazy or on those linked pages about worldbuilding are the listen/download links missing?

  13. I read book one of the Lotus War because of your recommendation. Now that I’m done… I honestly want to know why you recommended it. It was a great idea, but poorly executed. Too much background, too many stereotypes, and the characters changed their nature too readily. Did you really enjoy the book?

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