Worldbuilding and short stories

Short stories generally do not require as much worldbuilding as novels.

That may seem an obvious thing to say, but it’s something I sometimes struggle with when I’m writing fantasy or science-fiction short stories. Unless I set a short story in a universe I have written in before, it means coming up with a new world to write in. I try not to do a whole lot. Whereas with a novel I might map out the history of the world (to varying depths depending on the needs of the story, of course), with a short story I will stick strictly to what I need and never make notes on it, again unless it happens to be set in a world I’ve already written in before.

Still, despite that, writing short stories can be difficult for me because I run into a couple of temptations.

The first is to expand the short story into a full-length novel. This isn’t an entirely bad thing to happen, mind you, but I don’t always want to write a novel because I’m not always interested in fleshing out a world or universe in immense detail. Sometimes I just want to explore a simple idea, without having to commit to the length of time a novel usually requires.

The other temptation is to not use any of my good ideas. This thought stems from my fear that I might “waste” a really good idea that I could use for a novel later on, but it’s a really silly fear when you think about it. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “wasted” idea. After all, there’s nothing stopping me from taking that same idea later on and expanding upon it in greater detail in a novel.

Nonetheless, every time I sit down to write a speculative fiction short story set in a universe I’ve never written before, I feel like I have to do the same amount of worldbuilding I would do for a novel. This is where I am thankful for the Ambage, my writers’ group. For both of the anthologies that I’ve contributed to so far — Constellations and Fantastic Depths — I’ve forced myself just to write my stories and do only as much worldbuilding as each story requires, no more, no less.

Once I get past this irrational desire to worldbuild in excess, however, short stories are usually great fun for me to write. Not quite as fun as novels, true, but they are still fun, as writing should be.

-Tim

More thoughts on worldbuilding

In an earlier post of mine, I wrote about the importance of keeping worldbuilding in perspective for speculative fiction writers. I wrote it because too often, I see speculative fiction writers (fantasy writers in particular) worrying far too often about some obscure detail about their world that may or may not be important to the story and not enough about the story itself. I was hoping to reach out to other speculative writers with similar opinions or at least let other people know what I thought.

One thing I forgot to talk about, however, is how you should worldbuild. Personally, I am against the idea of sitting down and planning out the entire world before you write the first word of the actual story. I find that method is a good way to kill your love for the story, mostly because it uses up all the creative energy that should have gone to the story itself.

Instead, I advocate worldbuilding through writing. That is, coming up with details about your fictional world or universe as they are needed in the story itself.

That’s how I’ve been approaching my upcoming novel, The Mad Voyage of Prince Malock. I started out with only the barest knowledge of the world I was writing in, enough to get the story going but not enough to crush my imagination and creativity. Beyond those few basic details, the rest of the setting was a complete mystery to me.

And boy, was writing the first and second drafts fun. Both drafts came spilling out of my fingers like the ocean tide. New worldbuilding ideas constantly came to me, both while I was writing the drafts and while I was doing other things unrelated to the novel. In fact, I’ve come up with so many ideas that I doubt I’ll be able to showcase all of them in the novel itself (which is good, actually, because not all of the ideas are important to the story and not all ideas are equally interesting). I imagine that I’ll get even more ideas when I start work on the third draft later.

Now I didn’t worldbuild entirely through writing, mind you. I took some time out of my day to do a little bit of worldbuilding outside of my writing time, but even then, I was working mostly from what I’d already written in the story itself. Also, I didn’t let these details bind me down. If I came up with a better idea while writing the story that contradicted something I wrote in my worldbuilding notes, then the idea in the story became canon and the one in my notes was deleted.

Another important point I’d like to emphasize when using this method is taking notes. You will undoubtedly come up with a lot of worldbuilding ideas when writing, some major, some minor. To keep your ideas straight, I suggest writing down these little details in your worldbuilding notes, either during or after your writing time, and referring back to them when necessary. It will cut down on revision later and make you world seem far more consistent.

If you remember to do that, you might have a lot of fun using this method. So far, it’s been a lot of fun for me, much more fun than sitting down and figuring out every last detail before I write the actual story.

As usual, I must add that this method probably doesn’t work for everyone and that if you’ve already tried it and found you don’t enjoy it that you shouldn’t do it. There are no right or wrong ways of writing a story. Only what works for you.

Nonetheless, I suggest trying it out at least once. You might just enjoy it.

How do you worldbuild? Post your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim

“It’s always about the story”

I was rereading Stephen King’s On Writing recently (great book, by the way) and came across this quote from the “On Writing” section, Chapter 6, page 176 of the 10th anniversary edition:

It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting, anyway—it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story. (emphasis in the original)

In context, King was talking about describing setting, but I think it is a useful reminder for we worldbuilding speculative fiction writers, who can sometimes get so caught up in creating our fictional worlds that we never get around to writing the story that inspired the world.

In particular, the last line — “It’s always about the story” — reflects one of my own deep beliefs about writing, which is that the writer should always focus on what will help the story first and foremost and worry about anything else second.

-Tim

Top Five Most Popular Posts on this Blog

I can hardly believe that 2013 is almost over. It feels like it was yesterday when I was wondering what 2013 was going to bring. Now I am looking forward to 2014, which I have a really good feeling about for some reason.

Of course, I am also thinking about all the things that happened this year. This is a good opportunity for me to list the top five most popular posts on this blog, based on page views.

Now let’s get started:

1# Are you writing a story or building a world?

#2 New Year’s Resolutions

#3 National Day on Writing

#4 My UPS Job Misadventure

#5 Limyaael’s Rants and I Love Used Books (tie for fifth)

Because this is the last time I’ll be online for the year, I’d like to wish all of my blog readers a Happy New Year, good luck in whatever resolutions y’all are making, and thank y’all for reading this blog. I hope this blog will get even more popular as the New Year rolls in.

-Tim

The Mysterious, the Fantastic, and the Impossible

The current tagline for this blog is “Journey into the mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible.”

Sounds awfully fancy and intriguing, don’t it? I think it does, which is partly why I chose it. If I found a blog with a tagline like that, I’d certainly be interested in reading it. It also reminds me of old school comics, such as Journey into Mystery, which is the comic series in which Thor made his first appearance, so that’s kind of cool even though I don’t really talk about comics on this blog.

But primarily, it refers to my favorite parts about speculative fiction in general: Mysterious, fantastic, and impossible things. Creatures that exist purely in the realm of the mind, worlds that couldn’t exist in real life, and objects whose full histories may never be known.

To be clear, I am not hating on non-speculative fiction here. A good story is a good story, whether it is set in a created world or set in the real world or some mixture of the two. Genre does not affect a story’s quality. I’ve enjoyed many stories set in the real world, just as I’ve enjoyed many stories set in fictional worlds.

But it was speculative fiction stories that first got me into reading and they were the ones that first got me into writing. Although I may have been a bit harsh on worldbuilding back in October, I do love learning about imaginary worlds and strange new cultures and species that aren’t quite human. I also love it when authors leave certain parts a mystery. It tells me there is more to the world than what the author has shown, even if the author is not quite sure what the answer to that mystery is. It makes the world more believable, as there are many unexplained things in real life.

I try to have some of that in my own stories. My novels (none of which are published yet) always include a major mystery that is slowly revealed over the course of the story. I like to include things that are awe-inspiring, things that evoke powerful emotions in my readers despite their impossibility.

For example, in the short story Reunion (which you can read in the science-fiction anthology Constellations), I set the story on a giant ring-shaped starship called the Annulus that floats around an Earth-sized planet. I doubt something like that is even possible in real life (though with the way technology is advancing, who knows?); nonetheless, the idea of a ring-shaped starship big enough to wrap around an entire planet struck me in a way few ideas do and so I had to add it in, even though it does not affect the story too much.

Keep in mind it is possible to go overboard with the mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible. Writers can use them as a crutch to avoid explaining anything or to distract readers from awful writing. Sometimes, things can get too impossible or mysterious or fantastic, at which point no one believes what you have written and the story fails. Of course, each reader has different things they are willing to suspend their disbelief for and it is impossible to know for sure what readers will or won’t believe, so don’t lose any sleep if one reader tells you that your idea is unbelievable or stupid.

The mysterious, the fantastic, and the impossible must be combined with good story. They are not an excuse to be lazy. In fact, I’d argue that a writer must work extra hard when writing about mysterious, fantastic, and impossible in order to avoid shallowness and frivolity. There’s little else that is more disappointing than a mystery that doesn’t make any sense or is gratuitous to the story.

-Tim

Are you writing a story or building a world?

Several years back, I tried my hand at writing what I planned to be a five book epic science-fantasy series (that I might still write some day, so I won’t share too many details here to avoid spoilers).

Because this was my first serious attempt at writing an original story (up until then I had written mostly fanfiction), I was determined not to go in blind. So I took a long time to worldbuild, crafting world after world, character after character, culture after culture, all with the intent of making the best imaginary universe I could for my series. It would be even better than the Star Wars universe or the Star Trek universe or any of the other countless detailed fictional universes out there. Okay, maybe not better than any of those, but it would certainly be great.

When I decided I had done enough worldbuilding, I sat down to write the first book in the series. And I did; I wrote a few drafts, changing details that didn’t make sense to me, doing what any writer does when working on a novel, the usual stuff, you know.

And then, after the third or fourth draft, I just lost interest in the series.

I still have the drafts, still have all the worldbuilding notes. I haven’t tossed any of it away and frankly I don’t want to because I might still return to it someday.

I just don’t want to write it. Even though I couldn’t wait to write it before, it has been years since I last wrote about any of the characters or worlds I made (although I have borrowed a few ideas and names because I liked them a lot). Why did this happen?

I believe this happened because I lost sight of the series’ heart. I got so caught up in worldbuilding that I forgot this very essential, basic fact: That I was writing a story, not building a world.

To be sure, worldbuilding is highly important in speculative fiction. I don’t disagree with that. It’s just that I forgot that I was creating a world for the story, not the world for its own sake. As fun as worldbuilding is, to the speculative fiction writer, one must always ask the question, “Does this help the story?”

Some people worldbuild for the sake of worldbuilding. And if that helps, sure, go ahead. Have fun. I have a lot of fun doing it, too, at least when I’m on a roll.

But not all of us find worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding so wonderful. Remember what we’re doing here; we’re writing speculative fiction. Not world guides. Not gaming manuals. Not Wikis. Not histories. Fiction. Stories. Adventures. Art. Life, even, if you want to go that far.

Worldbuilding is a tool and should be treated as such. In my inexperience, I lost sight of the story for the sake of making more and more detailed worldbuilding notes on subjects that weren’t even important to my story. I unconsciously treated worldbuilding as an end in itself. And it killed my series as a result. Or at least put it into a coma that it has yet to awaken from.

My advice to all speculative fiction writers out there, to beginners and veterans alike, is this: When you find yourself getting lost in worldbuilding, ask yourself, “Am I writing a story or building a world for its own sake?”

The answer will determine what you should do next.

What about you, my readers? What have your experiences been with worldbuilding? Do you like worldbuilding? How much worldbuilding is enough and how much is too little? Post your thoughts in the comments!

-Tim