Notes from World Building Techniques and Approaches at BayCon 2017

Panelists: Kevin Andrew Murphy, Ms. Jennifer L. Carson, Jon Chaisson, and Katharine Kerr

Moderated by me (Margaret McGaffey Fisk)

Note: I’ve tried to get the correct attributions, but sometimes multiple people spoke on the same concept so no guarantees I succeeded in every instance. I’ll happily entertain corrections or expansions along these lines in the comments. The notes in parentheses are mine.

Techniques from Jennifer

  • Explain it to someone else. (With the expansions of walking to get exercise and keep the blood to brain flowing.)
  • Use training (whether classes, writing books, etc.) as a jumping off point to develop your own style. (If your teacher’s voice is visible in your writing, you are writing in their voice not your own. The exception is when mimicking another style is crucial as when you take over someone else’s series or write in their world as Kevin mentioned.)
  • Stop and reassess. (This goes with the listen to your inner voice comment in that if your gut says something is wrong, don’t just keep plowing forward.)
  • Good naming is a gateway into your world for readers so take the time to choose great character and other names. (Though Kevin did remind people not to rename something that exists on Earth just to make the world seem more alien because if it acts like and fills the niche of an Earth-based creature, the translation would be the Earth name. When things are unique, though, a unique name can strengthen the reader experience.)
  • Read your manuscript aloud (because your eyes will gloss over things that jar your ears from uncomfortable rhymes, to words out of place or things that don’t make sense).

Techniques from Jon

  • Listen to the inner voice when it tells you to move on. People become attached to broken stories and can’t let them go. (If you find yourself doing this often, go back and force yourself to finish those stories even if you’re sure they’re not salvageable. The instinct for a broken story can sometimes be overtaken by fear of failure…or success, both of which can often be diagnosed by a stack of abandoned stories.)
  • Pay attention to what inspired you and think about why it was cool.

Techniques from Katharine

  • Analyze other books to learn how they do it. Focus on the techniques used rather than letting yourself be absorbed in the story. (I did a deconstruction class using the Iron Man 2 novelization and can recommend movie novels as a good place to learn to deconstruct. The plot is constrained by the script, and you can explore the different choices made in the movie versus the novel, especially when, like Iron Man 2, they were produced simultaneously rather than one based on the other.)
  • Read out of genre and not just by watching movies. Romance is especially good for teaching character description. (This is useful both for research and to learn by experiencing what other authors do as a reader.)
  • Expand your horizons. (The more you experience, the more you can bring to your writing.)

Techniques from Kevin

  • Research the history or similar history when not based in actual history to get rich details to make it feel real.
  • Put yourself into the character to make your story richer rather than writing it as an outside observer.
  • Write the story using stream of consciousness with eyes closed to throw yourself out of the familiar and push past a block.
  • When your writing is condemned by the internal editor, go to your bookshelf and read one of your favorite books/writers. If the internal editor is running rampant rather than being useful, you will see it question the same things in the published work and know it’s not your writing at fault. (I tend to take a break at this point because pushing on is more likely to break the story than improve it.)
  • Cut to the important details rather than describing everything when painting your seen. Use the point-of-view character as a guide, but focus on the moment in the story. (Kevin’s example was something like if your character is an antique dealer in an antique store, the age and condition of things might stand out, but not when ninjas are hunting them through the displays.)

Techniques from Kevin and Katharine

  • Identify if the story is flat by re-reading & looking at it as a reader. This ability can come with writing experience but reading extensively, that counts. (Flat can be anything from pretty words but no plot, a main character that doesn’t act but only reacts, writing that lacks description, and many other flaws. Seeing the text as a reader helps make those problems stand out. I use my Kindle to do this reading pass because it’s near impossible to get caught up in editing because I can only put comments rather than change the text.)

Techniques from Margaret McGaffey Fisk

  • Retype the manuscript if you’re stuck or need to convert the voice rather than editing. (Especially for older manuscripts, retyping the whole thing can bring it up to your current skill easier than editing because you are not distracted by trying to keep anything and can fix things by instinct.)
  • Writing and writers are all different, but it doesn’t mean that any technique is wrong. Try out various techniques, take what works for you, and recognize that what clicks with another writer may not with you. (I know many talented writers, both published and unpublished, who use techniques that would stop my creativity dead, and there are many more successful writers who write their first draft without any world building or outline than most people realize. Case in point, both Kevin and Kitt thought their process rare, but they use similar techniques, as do I.)
  • It’s a dangerous assumption that you need to “correct” all the illogical aspects of history when you should use them to inform your world building. A world without illogical beliefs or traditions will read as programmed rather than real. (Response to a comment of why do fantasy novels have regimented infantry going up against wizards with fireballs. It’s illogical, but look into the battle plans for the American Revolution and you’ll find the same illogical patterns still in place because logical patterns were considered dishonorable even though chances of survival with guerrilla tactics were much higher (as some did learn later in that same war.)

Jennifer also offered a game to teach you to expand your thinking: Gather a group of people and have one draw a shape on the board (or paper). Then use that shape as a world and posit the environmental, economic, etc. impact of its shape including the possibility of a designed rather than organic world. This is not a world-building game designed to build a working world for a specific project but rather a way to get you thinking of the consequences of decisions so they result in a more complex world. Some authors successfully use a variant of this by drawing random lines on a paper and using that as the basis of their world map, working again from the intersections to design the commerce, political, and social connections.

I want to thank my panelists who did a lovely job of showing as well as telling the different ways a writer can approach a project with the goal of making it strong. And a special thanks to Amber (last name hidden to protect the innocent) who did the first pass of typing up my notes at BayCon and did an amazing job (if you’ve ever seen my handwriting, you’ll understand just how difficult it was).

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2 Responses to Notes from World Building Techniques and Approaches at BayCon 2017

  1. Amy Keeley says:

    Very nice, especially the advice about re-typing an old story instead of editing in the usual way. Though I’ve only done that on a third of an old novel, I’ve found it works just as you described and cut down my editing time dramatically. Now I’m eager to try the map techniques you mentioned. (The kids would especially like it, I think.) Thank you!

    • Margaret McGaffey Fisk says:

      Yr welcome. I was impressed by how many usable techniques came up in the course of the panel. That was the purpose, but I like when a plan comes together :).

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