Monday, May 06, 2013

Databases and Worlds

A friend of mine teaches creative writing in an English immersion school in Seoul, South Korea.  Every once and a while, she asks me to Skype into her class and discuss various writing-related topics.  I have become, in many ways, their writer-in-virtual-residence.

I'm not sure how important that part is to the story, but I've been corresponding with one of her students about world-building.  He wanted to share his database with me.  I wrote back and said, "Uh, I have no skill to judge a database.  How about sending some writing?"  To which, he replied that he has no intention of writing anything until his world is fully-formed, so perhaps I could help him figure out how to organize it?

I felt like Tard the Grumpy cat, when I wrote back, "Nope."

I tried to explain to this young writer, in the gentlest manner possible, the no one reads novels or short stories for the worlds.  We read for character, and, sometimes, plot.  Your world can be rich and as deep as the deepest ocean, but no one will visit it, if it's not populated with interesting people doing exciting things.

That's what story is about.

I asked him to try, instead, to consider a character who would best show off the most exciting features of the world he's created.  One, perhaps, who straddles two cultures or who is on the cusp of discovering some great mystery about how the universe is created. 

But, then I reminded myself (and him) that each writer is different.  For me, the best results happened when I jumped in with both feet with a character and started by figuring out what world-building details I needed, as my character encountered them  or as the plot required them. But, maybe, I told him, he needed to wade in slower to the story, and build his world around himself like water-wings or a life preserver.  It's all good.  Get into the writing water however you need to.  There's no one perfect way.

And, I said, organize your database how it works for you.  I suggested if he needed a model of questions he could ask myself, there was always Pat Wrede's questionnaire:

I also offered that he consider finding a role-playing game manual and seeing if how that's organized will help him. 

I did, however, leave him with this thought:  do you think it matters to the legions of Star Wars fans that there are planets in that universe that are complete impossibilities?  Or, do you think what people love about Star Wars is the classic triumph of good vs. evil?


Kelly McCullough said...

Just for the record, I both read and write for world first. I want, and attempt to write, all the other things too. But it's simply not true that no one reads for world.

Kelly McCullough said...

I generally agree with your advice that he needs to do the other things as well, and I totally understand you not wanting to read his database—I probably wouldn't either. But telling him that the thing that he is most passionate about as writer doesn't matter, may not have been the best advice.

Douglas Hulick said...

In terms of the value of the advice, I think a lot depends on whether he is using the world building as a preparation for writing, or as an excuse for not writing. Wanting everything just so before you start is great, but it can also end up being a way to never quite getting around to beginning the story. Is his passion constructive of preventative? Only he can figure that out.

But I don't think its wrong to suggest he may need to lift his head up out of the sand and get to work at some point.

(And, just to mix it up more, I've found that I've walked away from more books and movies for plot problems than character or world ones. Then again, I've also walked away because of craft issues, so what does that say?)

tate hallaway said...

TBF, Kelly, I did tell the young man that his way was as valid as mine (did you not see that part of his post?) And, of course, no way to write a book is any better than another. However, I can't judge his database, nor could I help him much if he were to just explain his world to me without a sense of story. That's just me, though, and I tried to encourage him to do whatever turned is crank and got him writing.

Kelly McCullough said...

Apparently, I did miss that bit, mea culpa.

Network Geek said...

Although I feel like you were talking around it a bit, I think the point is not to get so bogged down in "world building" that one never writes. It's a point I've heard other authors make and, speaking from personal experience, a very valid one. I think for some new writers, world building becomes an excuse to put off the actual work of writing. All of which, of course, others have already mentioned.

Also, if I may suggest an alternative to keeping a big, cumbersome database, world building sounds like a perfect job for a personal wiki. I wrote about that some time ago here:

Shawn Enderlin said...

For me, the early over-focus on world building was all a part of the process of learning the craft. And I like your advice, Lyda. Put a character in that world and see how they react. It's almost as if you've done this before. :-)