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Transcript for Episode 10.18

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


Key Points: Start writing your story before you start worldbuilding. Don’t get overwhelmed! Worldbuilding is in service of your story. Start with your geewhiz, look at how it affects things from the viewpoint of your characters. Avoid sinking your writing with icebergs. Sometimes you just need to take the underpants off the puppet. When researching, look for patterns and weave them into your world, don’t just borrow specifics and try to file the serial numbers off. Get experts to review. “Why is it like this?” and “What is the effect?” are your two guides.

[Mary] Season 10, Episode 18.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Build an Entire World? Are You Crazy?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m… Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard… Oh, crap.
[Dan] I’m still Dan.
[Howard] Oh, man.
[Dan] I know who I am.
[Howard] I know, I know, I know.
[Brandon] We changed it around, for those who are listening and confused why we have so much trouble. We did it one way for many years. But then people were getting Dan and Howard mixed up because we do our tagline in a different order than our names.
[Dan] Now they’re going to get…
[Howard] If you must know what happened…
[Dan] Howard and Mary mixed up.
[Howard] If you must know what happened, it’s… When I said, “15 minutes long,” you had just said, “Build an Entire World? Are You Crazy?” and I thought, “Oh, my gosh. Dan needs to say something about building a world in 15 minutes.” Then he didn’t, and I was sad.
[Brandon] We missed the chance for a joke. It’s all your fault, Dan.
[Dan] I know.
[Howard] You blew it for me. Dang it.

[Brandon] Okay. World building. We’re talking about world building. Now…
[Howard] I want a re-…
[Brandon] I want to remind you, that we intentionally are… Point out, hang a lantern on the fact we intentionally had you start writing your story before we started you world building. This is because a lot of writers, new writers, do it the opposite way around. They will start doing their world building and they get overwhelmed by the amount they have to do or the amount they think they have to do, and never get around to writing their story. In fact, we did a podcast… It was a few years back now, targeted at one of my friends who’d been world building his story for a decade, and had never started writing. We called it Notes to My Friend. A podcast for him. We don’t want you to be overwhelmed by this. It’s… Specifically, we’ll be talking about world building, but for these next couple of episodes, we’ll be talking about them in service of your story. It’s not just world building, it’s how to world build for your story.
[Dan] You’re not just creating a world in order to create a world, unless, I guess, that’s what you want to do, but we’re talking about telling stories. You’re creating a world in which a fascinating story can take place.
[Brandon] Right. So how do you do this?
[Howard] Let me give you an example. We’re recording here in Chicago. Just the other day, Mary, you were telling us about the alderman and graft and the whole idea of Chicago politics and graft. If you’re writing a story about Chicago politics and graft, the fact that there is a wonderful… Was it a Cuban grocery? Just down the road from Mary’s house. Well, that’s part of the world that we’re currently living in, but unless the story takes us there, that’s probably not something that needs to be described. I mean, it’s really neat, and it’s got all the sensory stuff going on. But it’s not directly in service of this political story you want to tell. There are lots of things that are in the Schlock Mercenary universe that in the back of my head I know they exist, I know they’re there. But I don’t write them down, because I don’t have time to write them down. I’m too busy writing the story. If I need them, if they show up in the story, well, then I’ve got to write about them and I’ve got to fit them in.

[Brandon] With this podcast, we’d like to, today, help you identify the places that you want to expend your world building effort. Specifically, we want you to try to let your story drive where you expend your world building. Now you are going to have to put effort into this. World building does take work. But, you know, it’s awesome. It’s the reason that we’re reading science fiction and fantasy rather than other genres. It’s the reason we’re writing it. That said, as I often say, character comes before world building. A fantastic story with great characters but terrible world building is still going to be a book you want to read. But a book with all this world building, no character, no plot… That’s an encyclopedia.
[Howard] The… I guess, the operating principle here is that rather than info dumping, you want to use the story, the plot, to tell us the things, to describe the world to us.
[Brandon] In an upcoming episode, we’re going to talk about strategies for doing this on the page. Right now, we’re kind of talking about the idea of world building.
[Howard] The whole concept.

[Brandon] How you go about it, the concept. So let’s talk about our strategies. Do you use a separate file for your world building? How do you do… How much of it do you actually do ahead of time? How much do you do it on the fly?
[Mary] I do a mix. So I usually have something… I’ll do some brainstorming. Mostly, what I’m looking at is… What… Usually, when I’m doing my world building, there’s some particular idea that I’m really excited about. Like a tidally locked moon.
[Brandon] Your geewhiz.
[Mary] My geewhiz idea. So I will look at how that affects… How society would be affected by that. Particularly from the point of view of my character, but the questions that I specifically ask about the geewhiz idea is how does this geewhiz idea affect the highest level of the economy, the lowest level of the economy, how does it get misused? When I say like the lowest level of the economy and how does it get misused, I’m like does this cause a black market? Is… Are… Do we have social… Societal repression because of this? What are the things that happen because of this thing? The other thing that I look at is, particularly if it’s a geographically based geewhiz idea, I look at how it affects the areas that are not there.
[Brandon] Right, right, right. Very good points. Dan, you tend to discovery write your stories. So you tend to not have your world building done ahead of time and put it in as you need it, I would assume?
[Dan] Well, I do a mix of both. As we were preparing for this I was trying to think, which do I do first? I… They play back and forth across each other constantly. The cyberpunk series that I have coming out later this year is a good example. I sat down and I thought this is the kind of story I want to tell, therefore I’m going to need these kinds of technologies and these kind of technological companies. I wanted to be sure to constantly be name dropping my imaginary brands and things like that, just to build the character because that’s the kind of person she is. But at the same time, as I went through the world and said, “Well, if this technology exists, this other one probably also exists,” Okay, well then that’s going to inform the story back again. Doing that on the fly is hard…
[Dan] But that’s what revision is for.

[Brandon] Yes. That’s why I constantly think that you’re crazy as a writer, because I’m more of an outliner. I have my settings all done ahead of time. But I’m a working writer, meaning I don’t have 20 years as Howard referenced Tolkien on a previous podcast, to get everything prewritten. I want to be releasing two books a year if I can. So for me, I’ll have a few months if I’m lucky to do my world building ahead of time. So I have to focus. I have to say, “Okay. What… Where am I going to expend that energy?” I usually let the characters do the driving. Now once in a while… Usually I’ll have a geewhiz… I’ll be like, “All right. There’s a geewhiz for this world. It’s a world where a hurricane, a magical of hurricane tears across the land every couple of days” or something like that. I will start populating that world. Then I’ll focus down on the characters and say, “Okay. What does this character have experience with? What does this character know about? This character doesn’t know the history of their world. This character knows that he’s locked in a prison and he’s trying to deal with this battlefield that he was part of.” So I need to know what they’re fighting over and why they’re fighting over it and things like that. I will spend my time building a document that’s a couple of paragraphs here, a couple of paragraphs there about why they’re fighting or what they’re fighting over, what’s distinctive about their combat, and these sorts of things, that I can use then to write that character’s viewpoint.
[Howard] A great example of this from the Schlock Mercenary universe, from my own work, is the 70 Maxims of Maximally Effective Pirates… Or Maximally Effective Mercenaries. Sorry. There’s… We know that there’s 70 of them, it’s right there in the title. I haven’t written 70 of them.
[Brandon] Yet.
[Howard] As needed, I will assign a number permanently to a maxim. When I assign that number, I go to the wiki that has these canonically listed and I like that in. Because at some point, this piece of world building is going to be very profitable for me.
[Howard] Because, I mean, Schlock and Mercenary, which of those words said otherwise? But people ask time and again, “When are you going to tell us what all 70 maxims are? You’ve got them all ready, don’t you?” No. I’m building them as I need them in support of the story.

[Dan] But that’s one of the great things to do about world building. Which is, if you look like you know everything, people will assume that you do. Like the brands of technology that I mentioned. I have five or six companies for every major technological group and my world. I don’t know what they do or where they are or anything about them, but I can mention, “Oh, you’ve got that computer from X.”
[Brandon] Because people are all crazy.
[Dan] And people are like, “Wow. That’s great.”
[Brandon] No. I do this too. I absolutely do this. There’s no way you can think of everything. There’s no way at all. I often… In fact, I just taught a lesson to my students last week in my university course where I was talking about the iceberg theory. Where I’d heard before I became a professional writer this idea about the iceberg, where only the tip is showing, and the author needs to know everything that’s underneath, and there’s like 10 times as much under the water. I heard these authors pontificating about this on a panel. You know what, that’s not really true.
[Mary] I actually have a puppetry metaphor here.
[Brandon] Oh, good.
[Mary] So you only see the outside of the puppet. I know puppeteers who have painstakingly created that puppet, and it moves beautifully, the framework’s great, and then they build correct underwear for it… Undergarments for it, and they put it all together, and they put it on and the puppet can’t move because it’s bound up by all of this stuff.
[Mary] What they’ve done is they’ve got this beautiful piece of art, but it doesn’t do what they were intending. A lot of times what happens, I think, when people focus on the world building before they focus on the story is that they feel like they are locked in, because they put the work in and they put the effort in. But sometimes you just need to take the underpants off the puppet.
[Brandon] I will say…
[Dan] I live by that advice.
[Brandon] I’m scared by that.
[Mary] Sorry.
[Brandon] I do like the iceberg metaphor in what we’ll be talking about in an upcoming episode, where we talk about not overwhelming the reader with too much stuff.
[Howard] Based on what the reader sees.
[Brandon] Based on what the reader sees. But really, the truth is, you need to give the illusion that you know the rest of the iceberg. In some cases, you will have a big chunk of that iceberg, but for a lot of things, you won’t have this… What Dan was saying, all of the different companies done ahead of time, or you won’t have… You’ll have some of the iceberg, but you don’t need to have it for everything.
[Mary] This is also… This is… Even though we’re talking about creating a world, all of this advice also applies if you are doing something that is historically or real world based, in terms of the amount of research you do. You only need to do enough research to answer the que… The big questions. You need to do your big world building before you start.

[Dan] Okay. We’re going to pause now for our book of the week. This is one that I’m reading right now. It is Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff. It is read by Jennifer Ikeda. It is a fascinating world building book because it is a big kind of epic fantasy that is also steam punk. It is also based entirely on Asian culture rather than medieval European culture. So it takes all of these different elements, combines them in a very new way. It is not authentic Asian culture, in the same way that the Shannara books are not authentic Europe, but very interesting, very fun to read. I recommend it very highly. You can get it from which will give you a 30-day free trial and you can download Stormdancer for free.

[Brandon] Excellent. So let’s talk a little bit about the research side of world building, which was briefly mentioned by one of you before. How much research do you do, how much research do you need to do in order to get across this world building that you want to do?
[Mary] I want to talk about… I’m glad you brought that up, because one of the things that I wanted to talk about with world building, and the steam punk actually ties in very nicely, is that frequently what people will do is that they’ll take something from the real world and they’ll file the serial numbers off. A lot of times this is culture, and this can lead to something called cultural appropriation. But one of the things that I think you’re doing this research is that you don’t… Much like if you’re researching science or an article, you don’t want a single source. So if you say, “Well, I want a culture where the people… The women are socially repressed because it’s easier to write because it mirrors what I know,” you don’t want to just look… If you model it just on the way Europe socially oppresses women or just on the way India or Africa… That you will wind up with something that is a knockoff that you are culturally appropriating. What you want to do instead is look at the patterns of behavior. Those patterns of behavior are things that you can then weave into your own world. So this is… We’re still talking about fairly broad strokes in research. On the other hand, if I’m sitting down and I’m deciding that I want to do something that is actually set in one of those places, I would need to do much deeper research.

[Brandon] Right. The thing is, you can never get it all done. So there’s a very easy hack, so to speak. This is to find experts that can read your book and tell you what you’re doing wrong. So my suggestion is, for world building purposes in particular, make sure that you find a few experts. Particularly if you’re doing something that’s… Theoretically, someone could read your book and be like, “Wow, they did that wrong.” Whether it be something like how we’re dealing with race relations or something even simpler like when I was doing Way of Kings, I needed one of my characters to know field medicine. Well, the field medicine… This was a big part of his life, a big part of the world, how they went about doing medicine on the battlefield. It’s a nice cultural thing to the world, so I wanted to include it. I don’t know anything about that. So I actually went and got a doctor to read the book.
[Dan] In academia, this is referred to as primary sources. You never do a research paper that only has secondary sources. People talking about stuff that they’ve heard about. No, you go straight to the people who know about it and talk to them.
[Mary] But again, with the medicine, if you had based your field medicine only on an Army medic. That’s going to wind up being very different than if you looked at field medicine in Rome and field medicine in Japan and field medicine in the Army and then went to your doctor and said, “Does this play?” Because if they… If your doctor is saying, “This is how field medicine is done,” you’re regurgitating something that already exists.
[Howard] When I…
[Mary] Sometimes you want that. But if you’re creating from whole cloth, sometimes you don’t.

[Howard] When I did Mind over Matter for Privateer Press, I was writing an Iron Kingdoms… That’s their setting. Their setting, which is… Call it Full Metal Fantasy. It’s like steam punk only without the Europe. I was writing a medic. I asked the creators, “Well, what technology is available?” I realized that there was a portion of the iceberg that they hadn’t actually defined. So I had to go and start researching 19th century medicine. One of the things that I found was that coal tar was used as an antiseptic. I pitched that to the creators and said, “Hey, I found this stuff called coal tar, which is a mild acid and guess what? Comes from coal and is called coal tar. Can we use this?” They said, “Oh, my goodness, that word is perfect. We want that chemical everywhere!” So that piece of research became really important. The lesson I learned was that, “Wow, you research a thing and suddenly you have… You don’t have the answer, you have something that informs the whole story.” The second is that sometimes the person who you expect to be the expert on this universe doesn’t know anything about it.
[Brandon] Now I want to hear a story about Coal Tar the Barbarian.
[Dan] Coal Tar the barbarian battlefield medic.
[Dan] Yes. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about how they inform each other. Your world building and your story are constantly playing off of each other. As you research something, you go, “Oh, that’s so cool. My character would love this.” Or my character would hate this. That will change the way that I write the story because the world has changed.
[Howard] Yet, that antiseptic is acidic. It became something that got splashed in somebody’s face because I now knew I had a weapon.
[Dan] Again, if you had found a different kind of antiseptic that was not interesting and did not suggest anything cool about the world or the people using it…
[Howard] We wouldn’t have mentioned it.
[Dan] We wouldn’t be hearing about it now.

[Mary] One of the things that we’re pointing out is the way that all of these things are interrelated. I’m going to give you two questions to use as a tool for deciding these things. One is… You’ve got something like coal tar. That’s your idea. What you… The two questions are, “Why is it like this?” And then, “What is the effect?” So like if I say, “Oh, I’ve got Glamour.” I can cause light. Why can I cause light? Well, because of this. What is the effect? Well, if you can cause light, then no one would have invented candles. Maybe I’m not going to do that.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] But you can look at nothing exists in a vacuum. Every part of a culture, a world, affects every other part. The butterfly effect. So that’s why… Remember that your world building goes in two directions. Its past, and then the effect that it will have.
[Brandon] There is so much to talk about world building. There is no way we can fit into a five… 15 minute episode. Or even a 20 minute episode which this one is already [inaudible – approaching?]
[Brandon] That’s why we have all these archives of previous episodes. You will find a lot of world building. We’ll link some of our favorites in the liner notes for this one. But we talk about specifics, how to world build different types. This we were trying to get you to think about your world building, and as Dan said, let your story drive it. Let the conflicts of the characters drive where you’re going to spend your time. From there, you can do all of these other things we talk about, how to extrapolate and things like this.

[Brandon] We’re going to give you some homework. Your homework is going to relate to your world building. What I want you to do this week is I’m going to want you to pick your thing, your geewhiz, as we mentioned. Whatever it is. It could be your magic system, it could be some element of the weather, or whatever. Something cool from your world. I want you to describe it in 150 words. So very shortly. From 10 different perspectives. Now your goal here is to have 10 very different people describe or interact with this thing. Interaction’s better because they’re moving. That can be from 10 different cultures or you can include socioeconomic levels. Pick people from different socioeconomic levels or different ability levels. In fact, mix all of those together to come up with who’s going to interact with this thing whatever it is and do it in 150 words 10 times. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.