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Saturday, June 13, 2020

MD Presley's worldbuilding project Q&A

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Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Woven Ring
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Thank you for joining us, Matthew, and welcome to Fantasy Book Critic! How have you been? 

Thanks for having me out. Like everyone else, I’m still sort of reeling from 2020, but the horrors of this year have at least been somewhat inspiring since I’d now like to escape to some fantastical worlds. Hence finishing a few books on worldbuilding. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming non-fiction projects? 

Well, this series was sort of inspired by being placed in the FBC bracket for SPFBO several years ago. Mihir complimented me on my worldbuilding, at which point I realized that as a genre we don’t really have a shared understanding of what “worldbuilding” really means. So I set out to become an expert on fantasy worldbuilding. That was… God, three years ago? Since then I’ve been ginning up on the subject in the form of three books, the first being a sampler of 101 worldbuilding prompts, the second a deep dive into the subject of fantasy worldbuilding, and the third a how-to guidebook for applying all the theories (along with another 750+ worldbuilding prompts). 

What's your focus or philosophy behind this series of books?

I not only have a philosophy, but a full-fledged motto: “Tools not rules.” But the long answer is that there are as many philosophies and approaches to worldbuilding as there are worldbuilders out there. So I’ve been compiling those theories and practices from academic sources, interviewing fantasy authors, and studying video and role-playing game design. The idea is there is no one way to either build a world or assess its effectiveness any more than there is to write a book or critique it. As such, I want to make sure fantasy fans and authors have an overview of all those strategies so they can pick and choose the right tool for the right task at hand. 

In your opinion, what is the purpose of worldbuilding within the larger goal of writing a novel?

It depends on the genre of the novel, but as one of the foremost theorists in worldbuilding states, “worlds can exist without stories, but stories cannot exist without worlds.” All stories need a setting, but the fantasy and science fiction genres are unique in that worldbuilding is one of the core components. It’s called a genre expectation in that if audiences do not encounter a new world that cannot possibly exist in our own, the story is diminished because of that lack. It’s the same as if your thriller novel was not thrilling or your romance novel not romantic. Worldbuilding is therefore one of the legs that supports fantasy stories, along with characters, plot, and prose. If any of those components is missing, the whole table topples over. 

One of the main things that set speculative fiction apart from other genres is the potential to build a brand new world. What, in your opinion, makes for "good" world-building?

I actually avoid using the terms “good” or “bad” worldbuilding since those are subjective definitions, and what is good for one reader is bad for another. So I aim for a more cumulative approach that’s either 1) ineffective, 2) effective, or 3) inspired. It all comes down to the immersive experience and if the audience is 1) thrown out of it, 2) immersed from start to finish, 3) continues thinking about the world after the story is complete. To me, the best worlds are the most efficient, like Airbender, where they make very few drastic changes to the world (really just three for Airbender), yet can still create such a vibrant and complex world from them. 

Can you describe the types of research you’ve done for your books?

Oh, man, hold on. I’ve gone from academic works like Mark J. P. Wolf’s textbook Building Imaginary Worlds to the Douglas Parker’s Parageography course to N. K. Jemisin’s workshops on worldbuilding to Brandon Sanderson’s whole season of Writing Excuses to Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass to Tolkien’s own writings in On Fairy Stories. Then the online worldbuilding communities on Facebook and reddit (shoutout to /r/worldbuilding), and the RPG community, who have basically been crowdsourcing best practices as to world design for the last 40 years or so. Plus some reference books like Guns, Germs, and Steel and How to Invent Everything. Oh, and my own surveys of fantasy fans and interviews with fantasy authors. Just to name a few. 

How does your book differ from other books tackling the same topic?

Firstly, I’m not just aiming this at authors wanting to worldbuild, but also for fantasy fans who want to understand this core component of the genre. We frequently mention worldbuilding when we review fantasy books, but I don’t think many of us have delved too deeply into the subject. And as to worldbuilders, my difference depends on which books you’ve already read. Most worldbuilding guides written by fantasy authors follow their own, personal strategy for how they designed their worlds. I’m drawing from numerous theories so would-be worldbuilders can pick the approach that works best for them (tools not rules, yo). I also have more of an application focus than many of the academic books on the subject, so hopefully this is a good middle-ground for worldbuilders and fantasy fans alike. 

Please, share some surprising or weird discoveries with us. 

Well, I did not know to what degree Tolkien had retconned Gollum from between the first publishing of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Turns out he changed the whole character but very few people noticed. Also, the names of the four hobbits as we know them in LOTR are their Anglicized names. Their real names were Froda (Frodo), Banazir (Samwise), Kalimac (Merry), and Razanur (Pippen). Oh, and finally that more fantasy fans expect dragons to have wings (66%) and legs (55%) than to be able to breathe fire (45%). I don’t know why, but that last bit really weirds me out. 

Were there challenges or lessons learned during writing books about world-building? 

Yeah, fiction is much easier since you get to make stuff up and don’t have to verify your statements. Who knew that non-fiction had to be so accurate? Jokes aside, writing this really was a labor of love and I think I’ve really learned a lot working in non-fiction. But I also am not sad to say goodbye to it and return to writing novels. 

Do you work on any other projects you would like to mention? 

Well, there’s always that flintlock fantasy series Sol’s Harvest that inadvertently started me down this path by winding up here at FBC during SPFBO. It should be finished by the end of this year, although that’s been put into doubt since I’ve been approached to write a movie. It’ll probably fall through (they always do), but I have worked with these folks in the past writing ten episodes of the show Yolkman. 

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, MD. When can readers be able to read the books? 

It’s been my pleasure. You can pick up 101 Worldbuilding Prompts for free at my website or at Amazon for $.99 It should be in Barnes & Noble/ Kobo in the near future. In it I’ve compiled 101 worldbuilding prompts that I’ve compiled over the last few months working on my big, overview book. In truth, there’s a lot more than 101 questions since the vast majority of them have subquestions underneath them. For instance, if you have added fauna to your world, what does it look like, what abilities does it have, what weaknesses, etc.? In all, it’s 35 pages worth of questions to fill out your world. 

Worldbuilding For Fantasy Fans And Authors is due out July 31st but is available for preorder over at Amazon Worldbuilding for Fantasy Fans and Authors compiles and synthesizes worldbuilding theories and approaches. This has been a three-year journey for me, and I’ve scoured academia and the internet alike for all this information. I think the most quoted books in this are Mark J. P. Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds, Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, Brandon’s Sanderson’s three rules of magic (secretly four), and N. K. Jemisin’s worldbuilding presentation. But I’ve also drawn from Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Steven Erikson, Blake Snyder, Jared Diamond, Ryan North, and… well, that’s all I got off the top of my head. 

I’ve even done the unthinkable and worked on some infographics, which is definitely something I never expected to do when I sat down to write my first fantasy novel five years ago. But I think they’ve turned out pretty well, as will the surveys on fantasy worldbuilding once I do one last push the next few weeks to get some more answers. 

The final book in the series, Fantasy Worldbuilding Workbook, is tentatively slated to come out late October, but is dependent on if that movie deal comes through


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