Monday, 28 November 2011


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!


Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

Brilliantly interesting post Zoe, you've given me loads to think about.

Zoë Marriott said...

Jenni: Thanks!

A Backwards Story said...

FIRST TIME!? What rock have you been under? If you take that long to watch Disney/Pixar's BRAVE next year, I will be very, very sad! I agree; many animated films are much better than live action ones. The people who scoff at us just don't know any better!

And I agree, not everything will work the same way for every book. What I'm working on now is half outlined in my head, but half on the fly, too! I have no official outline (Because then I'd want to stick to it and be stuck!)

Isabel said...

Ach, I just wrote a long comment connected to this post, but now it's lost. Anyway, this is a really helpful post, Zoe. I spent a long time making a story outline for my book before I wrote it, and then when I started writing it completely fell apart. So I've been constantly changing things as I go along. I've always thought that there's a difference between a really cool idea and something that you can actually write about, and that's where the protagonist comes in. They really are the only thing that keeps the story going. Thanks for the great advice!

Rebecca Lindsay said...

Great advice. I'm always a bit worried about world building and this helped :)
I'm really glad you liked Tangled, I love it! I think it's one of the best disney films that has come out in a while. I thought they were going slightly downhill, with Up and The Princess and the Frog, but I loved this one! "Mother knows best..."
Sorry, I sounded a bit crazy there lol.

Megha said...

This is really helpful! It's great to know that it's okay to work however you want. At the end, it's still going to be a novel, right? Even in its twisted and somewhat horribly written ways :P And it will be MY novel :)

You watched it for the FIRST time? Oh, Zoe, Zoe, Zoe. Well, at least you watched it. It's just so WONDERFUL, right? It comes on telly about once every two weeks and I STILL never miss it!

Rebecca: I haven't seen The Princess and the Frog, but I actually liked Up. I mean, I think it's really sad that he never got his house back, but at the end the characters were all happy. But I understand what you mean about them going slightly downhill. Although Tangled just made me love Disney more than I already did :)

*Turns on Disney playlist*
Yes, I actually have that.

Isabel said...

I'm starting to feel pretty self-conscious because I have never seen Tangled, Up, How to Train Your Dragon, or The Princess and the Frog. (Booo!) I do watch Mulan obsessively on my computer, though. Anybody else a fan of Mulan? ;)

Zoë Marriott said...

Bonnie: Time got away from me! I had no idea it was available on disc until I saw it there in the shop this weekend.

Isabel: Oh, dear! That does seem to happen an awful lot around here. Sorry. And yes, I'm a big Mulan fan. However, I do think you'd love Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon. Try to get your hands on them.

Rebecca: Oh, I haven't seen either of those! I'm really behind with my Disney viewing these days. Shameful!

Megha: Absolutely. YOUR way is always the best way for YOU.

Isabel said...

Zoe: I should! Maybe I'll tell my mom to get them for Luisa. ;) (Yes it just happened again! I wonder why...)

Elissa said...

I'm glad so many people like Tangled. I worked on it, so it's nice to see it being appreciated :-)

And as always, wonderful advice Zoe!

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Ah, I must be nice to have a younger sister to use as an excuse for getting all the cool Disney films! Makes me feel wistful :)

Elissa: That's quite an achievement! What work did you do on the film?

Rebecca Lindsay said...

Isabel: I know, I love Mulan too! It's so good! lol

Zoe: Shameful, very shameful lol

Elissa: You worked on the film?! That's ace!

Elissa said...

I was doing production management (still do, actually, but not at Disney anymore) which means keeping artists on schedule and making them happy. I also worked on Princess and the Frog, but it doesn't seem as well-loved (sad face).

It's a pretty swell job for an animation nerd like myself. Also uses a completely different side of my brain then the one I use for writing, which is always nice.

Liz de Jager said...

I hope blogger lets me post this!

Great reply, lovely Zoe! Thanks so much. This has definitely helped. I have been doing a lot of world-bulding but am doing my utmost not to be too prescriptive, letting the reader (my imaginary reader, at least) also figure out a few things for him/herself.

I've also started keeping a series bible - a rough bit of thing in my scrivener folder that I work in, so that I know who the manager of xyz hotel is for the fae creatures and such. In case it ever goes further than my head and computer.

Zoë Marriott said...

Elissa: That is an amazingly cool job! And just so you know, I asked about The Princess and the Frog on Twitter and loooooaaaads of people love it. So I'm getting that next :)

Liz: Comment successful! I think a series bible is a great idea - you can keep adding to it as you write, which gives you the freedom to keep inventing as the plot/characters evolve.

Anonymous said...

This was a nice read. Thank you.

Most days I'm all research and world-building for writing and DMing, but when I DM as of late I'm usually winging it and make notes later for the stories.

"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."

I'd like to add to this. In this case, split it into chunks as RPG campaign modules and you'll make a nice profit. Lot of pencil&paper gamers looking for new worlds and campaign hooks to explore. :)

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