Hello, Dear Readers - and Happy Monday! I hope you've all had a productive weekend. I enjoyed the tiny bit of autumn sunshine we got, and also watched Disney's Tangled for the first time (and adored it! Animated films really are better than live action ones at least half the time these days).
Today I'm going to tackle a couple of reader questions which are looooong overdue for an answer.
On Twitter, the lovely Liz asked me: "When does the world building stop?" Followed by (as far as I can remember, since TweetDeck ate the rest of the question) "If you want a complex, intricate world with lots of detail, obviously you need to do a lot of planning and world building. How do you know when you should stop, and start the actual writing?" My apologies if you actually said something different, Liz!
Then, in the comments, Megha said: "I'm not much of a person to plan - it's horribly hard. I know I need to do it, and I do plan before I start a story, but I feel like I don't plan enough. I know what will happen, but I don't know my characters as well as any other writer. Is this because I am young, because I am a sort of beginner writer, or because I'm one of the people who can work finely without planning? Is it okay to be one of those people who don't plan as much and like to improvise as they go along, or is that a bad thing? I can't control this urge of plunging into my book. You know when you have a special beginning scene in your head? I just need to write it straight away, and hence I start my story. Is there any way I can plan enough? I really think I need to plan more, I'm just horrible at it."
Since these questions are basically coming at the same idea from different directions, I'm going to save on waffling by answering them in one go.
First of all, I think it's important to state that every book is different. Some stories and characters will shape their own world and their own narrative shape as you write, and you'll find yourself throwing all kinds of stuff in there that's pure invention, and then knitting it together into a coherant whole later on, when you revise (this is how I worked with The Swan Kingdom). Some characters and stories respond very well to planning, and need a lot of forethought into how the plot will unfold, and research into real world analogues before you can see a clear way to make everything work (this is how Shadows on the Moon was).
And some books (like Daughter of the Flames) are somewhere between the two.
I've seen writers say that they find it easy to get very carried away by their research, that they love diving into reference books and making notes and reading up all about their topics. That before they commit a single word to paper they produce intricate, bullet pointed synopses which break down every chapter into colour coded lists, and that they always know just what their characters are supposed to do.
I've seen other writers say that the very idea of figuring all this stuff before they begin their story makes their soul die a little. That it literally sucks every bit of fun out of their process to try and plan ahead, and that if they don't know what happens next they make a note that says 'Research this!' or 'Insert scene that makes sense of the stuff in the river' and then move onto something else, letting the characters do whatever they want and finding out about the world and story that way.
And then there's me. I'm somewhere between the two.
What am I trying to say here? Really, that there's no foolproof way of doing this. Not only is every writer different in what helps them, but every book is different in terms of what it needs. There's no calculation you can run which will work out if you've done enough planning or enough world-building. You can't pencil in two weeks or two months of planning/world building and then know, for certain, that you've done enough. And no one is going to point a finger at you and say 'Hey! What you doing there, diving into this story without a plan?! Stop it at once!' or 'Oi! That world building is way too intricate! You're wasting time!'
The only way to know if you've done enough preparation for the story is to start writing it.
If you get past your brilliant first chapter and then feel at a complete loss because the world feels like a fuzzy mess that you can't visualise and you don't know how to move forward with the characters? Then you didn't do enough preparation. Go back and start again. It's not the end of the world. If you spent six months researching and planning and then find, a chapter or two into the story, that your characters want to do something entirely different and that you need to change key details to make that work? Does it hurt anyone or anything? No.
When you find yourself aching to write and holding yourself back from writing because you just need to research this one thing? You probably ought to just write. Similarly, if you start to feel like you'd be happy to keep world-building forever and have no urge to write the story at all? You may have taken it too far.
A key thing to remember:
The only way you can truly reveal your world to your readers - the way you make their ears ring with strange and haunting songs, choke them on dust, cause them to shudder in the cold, taste the sweet, soft flesh of ripe summer fruits or experience the warm breath on the back of their neck - is through the protagonist(s).
The way that your readers will experience the plot and other the characters - the surprise of a story twist, the horror of a betrayal or the joy of falling in love - is by the protagonist(s) is experiencing them.
Trying to figure out EVERYTHING before you begin work will always be impossible. Until your characters experience it in the story and make the readers do so, it's not real in the story world anyway. If you're in doubt about whether you need to plan in more detail or do more research, go back to your characters. Put yourselves in your character's skin, ask yourself what they will be or are experiencing (and how their unique perspective shapes that experience) and then you'll understand what they need to know, what their world and their story needs to provide.
You can do this before you begin work to show you how to start, or twelve chapters into the book when you start to feel lost, or (as I did) in the very last chapter of a book when you need an ending that resonates with everything that's gone before. You can do it as a planner or a pantser. I honestly believe that the characters are more important than anything, and that if you always place them at the apex of your list of priorities, you won't go far wrong.
I hope that's helpful, my lovelies! I'll be back on Wednesday with more shenanigans. Read you then!