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First Drafts And World Building

Since I write speculative fiction, one of the biggest undertakings whenever I start a new WIP is figuring out the world building. I mean, even just the term makes it sound daunting. World building. Building a world. Sometimes this means building a world completely from scratch. Sometimes it means creating a future for our current world. Or sending your characters into space. Or making it believable that something paranormal is going on in our present day world and we just have no idea. World building applies to non-speculative fiction genres, too, of course, in that if you are writing a story set in ancient Rome, your characters should probably not have iPhones, or if you’re writing a story set in present day rural America, they probably don’t live in skyscraper penthouse apartment. (Although with historical and contemporary I suppose it could be argued that this is just called “doing your research.” Which is also important.)

Sometimes I think of world building as a battle. Because I can preplan it all I want to, write out massive word documents explaining governments and food production down to the last boring detail. Spend hours answering really specific world building questions from a massive list*. And still, as I’m drafting, world building flaws will inevitably crop up. This can be very distracting. I have to decide if it’s actually an issue or if it’s just me being ridiculously overpicky with myself. And then if I decide it’s an issue, I have to figure out how to fix it. And think about if this changes anything else. And fix that too. When I’m reading, poor world building distracts me more than almost anything else, so of course when I’m writing, I want to make sure my own world building holds up.

But obsessing about it can become quite a distraction from the drafting process. First drafts can be strange beasts. When it’s going well, it’s going really well, but when you get stuck, fixating on the details is a great way to procrastinate while convincing yourself that you are not procrastinating. At least this is how it goes for me.

So sometimes, when I find myself on the internet for the millionth time, researching if some tiny little thing no one will ever care about is possible, I just tell myself to stop. I ignore my crappy world building, except to leave myself small notes about checking things later, and I plow onward. And then I have a draft. Maybe I have to overhaul parts of it because I realize that something doesn’t make sense, but often, I realize that I was stressing too much over nothing and I’ve actually done just fine.

In the end, the hope is that your world building all comes together so perfectly that people marvel over your genius for years to come, but if at first something is just not quite right and it’s keeping you from writing, let yourself be okay with it--for now.

*I have never actually answered all the questions on that list. But I have used it before, because sometimes even just reading the questions reminds me of things I hadn’t thought to consider. 
Kaitlin Ward

Kaitlin Ward is the author of Bleeding Earth, Adaptive Books 2016, and The Farm, coming 2017 from Scholastic.

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  1. Your line "I have to decide if it’s actually an issue or if it’s just me being ridiculously overpicky with myself" resonates a lot with me, because I wonder this all the time! Am I just being nit-picky? Or does it actually matter? But plowing through and then going back to it later to see if it really was an issue def helps.

  2. I love small details in world building - the little touches like changing food or the length of a day - that make a huge difference.

    As a pantser, I world build as I go, but I use photos as inspiration. I spent the past four weeks in India, and I'm going to shamelessly plug the world building series I did while I was there! Everything there from the culture to the architecture proved inspirational.

  3. "hen you get stuck, fixating on the details is a great way to procrastinate while convincing yourself that you are not procrastinating." Yup. Me alllll the way. Though, when I switched to Scrivener, it did get a lot easier to leave a note for myself and to plow ahead instead of getting stuck in the details. (There's a "document notes" section right there beside the chapter I work in, which makes it so much more organized!)

    1. Ahem... That should be "When" not "hen," ha.

    2. Too right. Someone else called it, 'all those nice shiny things.'
      When the internet goes down, I get shiny things withdrawal--and probably do more work.
      But yeah, Scrivener lets you just do bits in episodes and worry about the melding together later.

  4. That's a good reminder, to make a note and come back. Sometimes, especially with a historical piece, it's necessary to find out a detail in order to continue writing (but probably not the price of bananas in 1963 ... which I have searched).

    Given that a first draft is a draft, it's going to be revised a bunch of other times. Again, easy to say, harder to live out when you're writing!


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Item Reviewed: First Drafts And World Building Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kaitlin Ward