When it comes to long form fiction, I am a planner. I don’t like to write a cobblestone street into a scene without knowing who originally laid it and when. I want to see their permit, validate their license, and inspect their tools. I want to see the stones being quarried. Then, just for good measure, I want to spend a fortnight with the builder’s family, just to learn their habits.
Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration. I could probably get what I needed in one week.
Things are not always sunny in my little town of Plantopia, however. There is an underlying fear that has doors locking, curtains drawing, and neighbor eying neighbor. I suppose there might be a fear for the denizens of Pantsville, too, where the mad rush of words to the page bears with it a sense of self-doubt that the story will make sense, be worthwhile, or actually go somewhere before flashing out like a sparkler in a child’s hand: sound and fury, signifying… meh.
But that is not the fear we Plantopians have. For us, the question is when to write. When is the world thick enough, the plot developed enough, or the characters deep enough to let loose on the page? We’re like parents with a child who wants to play in the park the next block over. Is she old enough? Is she ready? If I send her out as a warrior princess is she going to come back as some techno-sorceress? She knows how to use the blade at her hip, right? Does she have her lunch? A tissue?
Bye-bye, darlin’. Don’t talk to strangers.
These were the sorts of questions that led me to reach out to David B. Coe, a friend of mine and gifted author of the LonTobyn Chronicle trilogy, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, and the Blood of the Southlands trilogy. I thought David would have some valuable insight into the subject for two reasons. First, because as I read my way through the Forelands and Southlands series, I was impressed with the presence and texture of the world. As I told him via email, I felt that when a character tripped, I could look back and see the root poking up through the ground. And when they fell, the world was waiting there to catch them; it didn’t have to be added later in post-production with CGI.
Second, as a sort of counterpoint, I had read a recent post of his on the Magical Words blog where he talked about how he used to be an outliner, but was slowly becoming more of a pantser. (The Plantopian Minister of Emigration was understandably apoplectic at the news and vowed to take up the issue with the Office of Visas, Licensing, and Fish Smokery; however, we need not worry at that, as the good Minister was last seen retreating to his office to draw up an outline of just how to proceed, complete with appropriate contingency plans. He’ll be a while.)
(EDIT: David has posted part of our exchange on the SFNovelists site, and promises to post more next month. I suggest you go there and read all that he had to say. I certainly found our exchange helpful. My intention here is to present my synthesis of what we discussed, quoting the applicable bits of our conversation as shaped my thoughts.)
Let me lay some groundwork, first, so that you understand where I was coming from when I first contacted David on the subject.
I sometimes collaborate with my brother, Matt Rohr. As he recently wrote on his blog, he and I have different styles. I am a planner. Matt is a pantser… an oh-my-sweet-death-my-pants-are-on-fire pantser. Sometimes, as I told David, when Matt and I encounter a problem, it feels as if I am standing there holding a bucket of water as Matt goes running by telling me not to worry: if he runs fast enough, the wind will put the fire out.
Still, I had faith in my Plan-Fu. My Plan-Fu is strong. Iron Outline Plan-Fu would certainly crush the Fire School of Pants-Do, any day. So I thought to construct a post on the values of worldbuilding and outlining, and how the former could be like the many lanes of a track & field track (where though a single runner will generally only use one lane, the others are there should he put a foot beyond the lane lines) and the latter could be like the raised walls of a bobsled track (helping to steer a plot down the track, staying on course even as the pace of the narrative picks up).
Thus, the framework of some of my questions to David:
“Perhaps the first place to start would be just to wonder how much world-building you do before you put pen to paper? Or before you outline? Where do your outlining and your world-building intersect? What does that Venn Diagram look like? And to what extent is it sequential, and do those sequences overlap? How much of your world-building would we see in a finished novel? How much detail did you leave in the file because the prose never called for it?”
“How much of [the] world did you build before your story passed through, and how much did your characters paint as they passed through it?”
Some of what David wrote back seemed to echo what I was thinking:
“My worldbuilding for the Forelands books might well have been the most detailed I did for any series. I had information about all the major dukedoms, I had royal genealogies for several countries, I had historical timelines, detailed maps, deity pantheons, myths and legends that I wrote and posted on my website. I knew that world inside out. And I think that the books benefitted from that.”
“And yet for all that work, and for all that you see as you read the books, most of what I came up with in my worldbuilding never found its way into the books. That, I think, is as it should be. I believe in the iceberg approach — as I writer, I want to know EVERYTHING about my world (or as close to everything as possible). There is no way to give all that information to readers without resorting to data dumps, so I don’t even try. But what winds up happening is that the small details I do give manage to convey the weight of all that unseen work. There is enough behind each descriptive passage, that the details manage to add depth, dimension, texture, etc. without detracting from narrative flow.”
Alright, now we were in my comfort zone. We were having tea in my house in Plantopia, and never mind the Protagonist family outside, peering in the windows, pointing at their watches.
“We’ll get to you when we get to you!” I shouted at them.
But then David went on:
“Except that the process is not this cut and dry. And now we reach the crux of your questions. The fact is that while I was worldbuilding I was also plotting and developing character and starting to envision scenes in my head. And even after I was well into the book, I occasionally found that I needed a bit of information about my world that I hadn’t come up with yet. So worldbuilding fed the writing, and at times writing fed worldbuilding.”
“I talk a lot about synergy in writing: about how when things are really cooking, when the mojo is really right, there are no boundaries. Character work feeds narrative, which reinforces worldbuilding, which deepens description, which strengthens voice and point of view, which enriches character, which feeds narrative, which reinforces worldbuilding… Rinse, lather, repeat.”
Don’t tell the Minister of Emigration, but this helped me put things into perspective a bit. I think that I had approached this subject hoping to quantify the balance of worldbuilding, outlining, and actual writing. No, that’s too polite. I approached the subject trying to justify worldbuilding and outlining as the only right and proper way any good Queen’s man should go about his writing. Hmm, maybe that’s too harsh. But I was definitely between those two, somewhere between the walls of Validation and Vindication.
I wrote back to David:
“I’m quite certain now that it isn’t a matter of [where the balance] “should be,” beyond that for each writer the balance “should be” wherever it needs to be for them to produce their best stories… that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule.”
In fact, David had mentioned that very thing, noting that each series of his books had been a different experience, and that each had required a different level of worldbuilding, research, outlining, etc. But that didn’t stop me from having my own Dead Poet’s Society moment (remember the nonsense about graphing a poem’s importance?). Nearly arriving at a soundly reasoned position didn’t stop me from trying to muck it all up with some sort of imposed structure. Remember, I’m a planner. That’s what planners do.
I talked about generalized conclusions we could draw about worldbuilding/research (that it was indispensable, even for pantsers), and about the goals of worldbuilding (completeness, consistency, and the like). Muck muck.
Thankfully, David brought some clarity to things when he said, about worldbuilding:
“But I think there is a risk in looking at it in this way [the muck muck]. The goal of all of this, beyond the mechanics, has to be ‘making it cool and fun’ so that your readers want to read it, and, perhaps more important, so that you want to write it.”
You have to imagine David as John Travolta saying, “Ain’t it cool?” to understand the effect that this bit of sagacity had on me. (OK, you don’t really have to imagine David as Travolta to understand it, but it is fun to do.) Once again, David had seen to the heart of the matter, and brought me full circle to my motivations in approaching this topic in the first place. Not the motivations I mentioned above. Those were the pleasant lies I told myself, the little flatteries that you say at a party you’d rather not attend filled with people you’d rather not see.
What had really brought me to the topic, what had me seeking quantification and justification, was fear.
Remember, I told you not all was pacific in Plantopia? You might have seen this coming.
My current baby, my WIP, is a solo project tentatively titled, “Scainlander.” (You can read a sample here.) For that story, the ending came to me first. Because of that, I had a few trailing tendrils of plot that had to be satisfied in order for the ending to work. I went to work worldbuilding. After a time, I went to work outlining. With about 2/3 of the book outlined, I still had a gap that needed to be bridged between the end of the outline and those tendrils I mentioned. I had also managed, by this time, to pen the prologue and first two chapters of the book. With all of that work in, I hesitated.
I knew I needed to connect the outline to the ending, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to map out every single sub-plot (that sort of planner lives up in Plantopia Heights; I can’t afford the taxes). Though some sub-plots had come to me during my worldbuilding, I knew that others would occur in the moment as I was writing a scene, and that I needed to be flexible and open to these new ideas. (Sub-plots, and how they relate to our efforts at worldbuilding and outlining, constituted a portion of David and my discussion, but I can handle that in a separate post.)
I was at a crossroads. To write? Or, to plan?
Thankfully, David had some advice there, too:
“If I am hesitating to write something, particularly early in the process, it probably means that I’m not ready. It may be that you do need to build the world a bit more, or that you do better with more outline and that you should put in a little more time on the prep work.
On the other hand, I also know that early in a project it’s easy to be intimidated — by scope; by the unknown quality of a story yet to be discovered; by the promise of that one story that might be THE one, the break-out, the first one to become huge; the fear of messing up something the potential of which we are all too aware. We all deal with one version or another of these fears.”
Trust your gut. Reading that, I realized: yes, Plantopia can be a scary place. And, yes, the park that my little girl wants to play at might be a block or two away. But sometimes you have to put down the protractor, step away from the slide-rule, stop bunking with the street cobbler (and let him get to his job, already), and let your stories go play.
I think that’s true for us all, for all of our little stories. In the end, you have to trust that you taught them right and wrong, and that they won’t come skipping home telling you how they massacred the Protagonist family (strong plot ideas, all), or set fire to the Hall of Whatever-It-Is-You’re-Writing-About.