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Saturday, September 21, 2013

GUEST POST: World Building Schmerld Building, or Why I Don’t Give A Flying Snitch About Your World by Anton Strout

When not frantically grinding the sausage that is the next Spellmason Chronicles book (such as the just releasing Stonecast), I try to give back to the writing community that gave me my first shot. My chance at being a Published Author was a short story submission in the mid 2000s that came from attending the Writer’s Symposium at Gen Con, so I feel I owe it to try and pay my career forward by passing along any type of advice I've come up with that wish I had had back in the day.

Not that I've Mastered My Craft (a term I deplore), mind you. With four Simon Canderous paranormal detective novels and now writing the third in the Spellmason Chronicles, I’m still learning new things every damned day.

As part of my paying it forward, I read a lot of submissions during read and critique sessions at conventions. Some see me as the Simon Cowell panelist, which I don’t mind. I consider him brutal but honest, and if you put your ego aside and listen, you’ll actually learn something. And when I do these sessions, I do hope the new or unseasoned writer trembling before me does learn. I want them to succeed, but first they need to contend with what I see as the number one problem that comes before me in these sessions.


Look, new and fragile writer, I get it. You came up with an awesome idea set in a world that is blowing your creative mind. You've thought about the climate, the currency, the society, the monsters, how people survive for a living… you've given it your all.

Here’s the thing to remember: I don’t give a crap about your world.

At least, not yet.

Why? Because time and time again I see the new writer spend the first twenty or thirty pages showing me all his clever world building. Lush descriptive passages of the climate or a village, the fact that in your world it rains from the ground up into the sky…

Thing is, you’re not writing Fodor’s Guide to Rigel Seven, writers. I don’t care about you spelling out your world to me like it’s a travel guide (and this is how they do read almost every session). That’s stuff the author needs to know but readers don’t. I’d argue that that level of telling us about the world you crated doesn't need to be included in the book very much at all.

So what do I care about? Your characters, and I’ll only care about the fact that it rains from the ground up in your world once a character steps out their front door and water rushes up their pant leg because they forgot to tie their weatherproof pants shut. Now, I know it rains from the ground up and I care because your poor hero’s underwear is soaked and most of us can identify with their misery.

The trick of world building—as I see it—is: I only want to know about your world as far as it affects your characters in the moment of the plot.

If you want to see it done well, read Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. When his main character is reduced to being a beggar/musician, I learned exactly how the currency of the world worked because he needed to scrape together x amount of money for the most basic of needs—food. Nowhere does Mr. Rothfuss stop to give us a lecture on how the currency of the world works. Only through Kvothe’s needs do we learn it, and Pat is such a master world builder that while I was reading the book I found I easily knew how to make change in the currency.

And that didn't come from reading a conversion chart in a travel guide. And, yes, as a writer of modern fantasy, I've got it a bit easier. I can type out “the Empire State Building” and I don’t need to describe it to 95% of you. Your knowledge of our modern world fills in the rest.

That said, the burden of modern era fantasy writers then becomes making sure you tell readers what is different from reality in your book’s world. I don’t need to go on and on describing the Empire State Building, except to let you know that my main characters are about to contend with an infestation of zombies on the 36th floor. It’s also probably in my best interest to let the reader know how the Average Joe on the street would react if he saw one: Would he run or is seeing zombies normal in this world? Again, seeing how the characters react to the monsters would inform the reader what the tone of your world is. Reactions add richness.

Now, writing urban fantasy isn't a walk in the park, world building wise. Writing the modern fantasy comes with its own special brand of burdens, but in either modern or traditional fantasy, the world building is for the author’s notebook more so than being something to fill the opening chapters with. Trust me, when an editor sees that, they can’t put your submission down fast enough.

You've got a lot of cool ideas about how your world should be built, all the particulars. Write them down. After all, you as the author should have a full working knowledge of them, but treat those details of your world like salt, not the actual meat of the book itself.

They are ingredients that help make up a well seasoned pot of plot. Too much salt, you ruin it. You’re trying to improve the flavor of the book stew, not overwhelm it, so think twice before dumping the whole thing of salt in.

You don’t want to leave your readers with a bad taste in their mouth, do you?

Official Author Website
Read Lisa's review of Alchemystic 
Read Qwill's interview with Anton Strout
Order Stonemason HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Anton Strout was born in the Berkshire Hills mere miles from writing heavyweights Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville and currently lives in the haunted corn maze that is New Jersey. He is the author of the Simon Canderous urban fantasy series and Alchemystic, book one of the upcoming Spellmason Chronicles & the soon to-be-released Stonecast.

NOTE: Author picture & Stonemason book cover courtesy of the author. Kingkiller series covers courtesy of Fan SF.


Anonymous said...

Wow...well said!

M J Murcott said...

He ducked round the corner of the house to hide from them. When he was running away and felt the need to turn, it was always easier for him to turn to the right. As he was moving he was already leaning to the right anyway so turning in that direction was always easier. He spied a water barrel resting up against the back of the weather beaten house and tried to remain silent as he crouched behind it; not that he had to bend down all that far as his frame was already low to the ground. The smell of damp wood filtered into his nostrils and he tried desperately not to sneeze in case he was overheard.
They called him Tamdini or the lost one when they were being polite, which was rare, or Palmoa the crooked one when they were being cruel, which was certainly more common. In the years since the shipwreck he had got used to the names, the taunting and all the looks, but even after all this time occasionally some of them would take it into their heads to try to beat him up. Not that they succeeded very often, as Tamdini for all his disadvantages was very fast over the ground and even when cornered could handle himself in a fight. Still that didn’t seem to deter them; every so often one lad backed up by some of his fellows would feel the need to challenge him and today was such a day. For now they had appeared to have lost him and the bullies headed off into the hills surrounding the village in a futile attempt to locate him.
Tamdini decided to go back to the nets. Gutting fish mending nets and carrying things were all the jobs assigned to him and since there were no more fish to be gutted, the mending of nets would be the task the village elders would want him to work on. As he emerged from behind the barrel and proceeded to head down towards the bay, he felt or sensed someone behind him. He thought that it would be one of the bullies and he spun on his heel and brought up his left arm to defend himself. Behind him however, was merely an old lady, or rather a lady well past old, ancient would be closer to the mark. She was the first person Tamdini had seen who stooped over more than he did.
“Greetings,” he said to the lady, since he couldn’t think of anything else to say to her and in doing so quickly brought his arm down to his side.
“Greetings to you to young man, I think that you won’t have anything to fear for a while. The others have headed far into the distance in search of you and won’t be back for some time yet.”
“That is good to hear,” he replied relaxing markedly at the news. “Can I help you in any way? Most of the men are out on the boats catching fish but there are bound to be some women in the village still.”

Not much of a tourist guide here on the first page of Alfkun Independence :-)

Terry W. Ervin II said...

Yep. The reader needs to know as much about the world (as built) as is needed to relay the story. They should learn about it within the context of the story.

Good post.

Laura said...

I agree with you. However, the example you gave from Pat Rothfuss was still too much "salt" for me. I love his books, but one thing that really drove me bonkers was the constant running account of exactly how many coins Kvothe had in his pocket at all times.


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