Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
How Well Can You Play Jazz?
In the grand scheme of things, there are some elements of storytelling that make a larger impact than others. Character, point of view, scene, dialogue, these are all textual, the brass nuts and bolts your readers will engage with directly. Then there are elements of craft that are more supportive, behind-the-scenes, the framework and scaffolding that keep your story together.
Worldbuilding falls into this latter category. No matter what you do as a storyteller, regardless of genre or narrative intent, you will have to build worlds for your characters to inhabit. If you’re a genre writer (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.) odds are you’re in need of more of this scaffolding than, say, a writer of contemporary adult fiction, or really, anything set in a non-magical or non-hyper-technological world.
For instance, if I want to write a family drama set in Waco, Texas, I can most likely get away with using my imagination. A gas station in Texas is the same as a gas station here in my home state of Colorado. A bar is a bar, a home is a home, a restaurant is a restaurant. Now, if I I’m a very skilled and enterprising writer, I might actually travel out to Waco, especially if I’ve never been there before. I might walk the streets, soak in the ambience, listen to how the locals talk, how they interact with each other. Nice, right? Conversely, I could do it the lazy way and just use Google Maps. You know, worldbuilding for slugs.
Don’t worry, there’s no judgement here. I’m slug number one. Anything worth doing is worth doing the easy way, or so my habitual procrastination always tells me. Still, you may find it difficult to easily jot off scene details when your story is set on an intergalactic space station, or in a magical realm full of wizards and dragons, or perhaps in a unique and genre-bending setting heretofore unimagined by non-writing mortals. Like dragons tearing ass through awesome space stations. Bestseller material. I’m sure of it.
As with everything, novice writers tend to lean on advice found on the internet or in books on craft published thirty years ago. Take it from your local writing advice guy, there’s nothing wrong with that. We all need instructors, examples, positive influences to look up to, no matter how experienced we become. Worldbuilding advice from certain genre masters includes meticulous research, lots of thinking and planning, note-taking, mapmaking, character family lineage, alien astronomy, mythical world histories, languages built on complete working syntax and sentence structures.
And far be it for me to second-guess the masters. However, it must be noted that even they aren’t huge on taking their own advice. I once had a professor who picked the brain of Fantasy author George R.R. Martin on this very subject. When asked how it was he built such engrossing, immediately present and lush worlds, Martin didn’t rattle off dry advice like, “I draw up detailed maps,” or, “I don’t write a single word until I have the look and feel of every fork and every knife placed on each house dining hall table.”
Nope. It seems the creator of the Game of Thrones series likes to wing it. He said, simply enough, that if he wanted a character to have a fork in her hand, he’d describe it on-the-fly and then move on to the next thing. Dialogue, for instance, which can convey information about a world in subtle yet effective ways. He’d then need to describe a goblet or a roaring fireplace into which his character could spit the unwanted rind of a piece of old cheese. Was there a history behind that fireplace? Yeah, maybe. And in this way, his worlds build themselves automatically. In other words, for him the process is organic, unrehearsed, true to the spirit of conjuring stuff from fairy dust and raw intuition.
Not to suggest Martin eschews preparation in every case, because I’m sure he doesn’t. Never start a book without thinking about it at least a little. You know not to do that, right? Stephen King offers similar advice to Martin’s in his seminal autobiography/writing manual, On Writing.
“Description should begin in the writer’s imagination and finish in the reader’s.”
By which he means an economy of words and ideas is our best friend. After all, we don’t write fiction to glorify our own intellects. At least not all of us do. We write to entertain, edify, enlighten, shock, or otherwise affect our readers. Let them participate. Don’t overburden them with extraneous fluff.
Generally speaking, I don’t do much worldbuilding. Some writers come to see it as a crutch, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s a matter of comfort and personal style. There are many highly skilled authors who do take the time to establish their working narrative milieus in exacting detail before committing them to an initial draft. I can’t fault them for this. I’ll just say that for the majority of us, especially those of us who are just starting out, all that detail can become a liability. What’s to stop us from using it—all of it—to create infodumps of mythic proportions? You know what an infodump is, don’t you? It’s when a writer loses confidence and shoves a pile of overcooked world down my throat.
“Look! There’s story here! Don’t choke on my custom third-age elf lore, please. I made it just for you.”
It’s okay to play jazz a little bit, throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. You never known what your narrative needs until it asks you directly. Trust me on this. Ever overprepare for a job interview? Caught off guard by unexpected questions, flustered now, rattling off hyperbole and corporate nonsense instead of real knowledge acquired through years of experience. Too much worldbuilding can become a mess precisely because we think we know what to expect yet never seem to.
Sometimes we fall into a rut and overprepare because it’s easier than the actual writing. It’s a different animal, playing with your characters in real terms. Everything you do up to that point is academic and therefor inert. Besides, improvisation as an author’s best friend. You may find over the course of your career it’s your saving grace. You’ve got instincts. I say use them. The best stories ever told have had an organic, unaffected, natural quality, don’t you find? Besides which, I like Jazz. It’s surprising, fresh, sometimes complicated, but never boring. Unless you like Country, and if that’s the case, I need you to stop reading this blog post and go develop a decent sense of music.
Joking. Only joking.
Well, that’s about it for Craft and Practice this month, folks. Drop me a line in the comments section below. Are you a meticulous worldbuilder? Do you find that a more improvisational approach is best? In November, we’ll take a look at a sister topic, character development. See you then!
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
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We’re all tired of staying at home during this recent crisis. It seems like everyone has been affected in different ways, but no one has gone unscathed. Our world has changed in recent times. We, as authors and lovers of the written word had many of our in-person writing events – conferences, conventions, and book fairs – cancelled due to the appearance of COVID 19. To to emulate all those events we look forward to each year and are missing out on now, and to chase away some of the boredom of social distancing and isolation, WordCrafter presents the 2020 Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference on Tuesday, April 28 from 8 am to 8 pm.
This is a unique event, the first of its kind, and one you won’t want to miss. Free presentations and author takeovers will be occurring on the Facebook event page, and interactive workshops and panel discussions will be offered for a minimal fee on the Zoom platform. Interactive panel discussions and workshop session can be accessed individually for $5, or an all access pass to all interactive sessions can be purchased for $50. Tickets can be purchased on the Facebook event page. Watch for your Facebook event invite from me or one of the many wonderful authors involved with this conference. Send me a message through my WordCrafter page or through the event page if you have further questions, or if you would like a half an hour author takeover spot to promote your own work.
This has been a huge undertaking to organize and set up an event such as this one, but I haven’t done it alone. Without my 22 talented presenters, this event couldn’t happen. We have a great line-up, with international bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson presenting the keynote on the interactive platform.
And that’s just the beginning. Take a look at the talent that has lined up for presentations, workshops and panel discussions.
Award winning and national bestselling speculative fiction author Mario Acevedo will be offering a presentation – “The Power of Motivation: What Your Characters Do and Why”
USA Today bestselling multi-genre author Dan Alatorre will be a member of the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
Multi-genre author Chris Barili will be presenting “Writing in the Face of Adversity” and giving an interactive workshop on “Writing Across Genres”.
Award winning fantasy author L.D. Colter will be offering a presentation on “Short Fiction”.
World builder and speculative fiction author Kieth R.A. DeCandido will be offering an interactive workshop on “The Business of Writing” and he is the moderator for the media tie-in interactive panel discussion.
Award winning novelist Guy Anthony De Marco will be a member on both the short fiction and world building interactive panel discussions.
Fantasy and science fiction author Anthony Dobranski will offer two presentaions, “How to Swim Upstream: Not being in the mainstream of your market/genre” and “Working with Others: How to direct others in a project”. In addition, he will offer two interactive workshops. “Business Class Tarot” and “The Savage Horror of Writing Back Cover Copy”.
Author for young readers, Jason Henderson will be presenting “Story Ideas and the Choices You Make” and moderating the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
Media tie-in author Kevin Killiany will be a member on the interactive world building, media tie-in, and short fiction panel discussions.
Award winning young adult fantasy author L. Jagi Lamplighter will be on the interactive panel on world building, and moderate the interactive short fiction interactive panel discussion.
Award-winning science fiction author J.R.H. Lawless will be a member of the book marketing interactive panel discussion.
Award winning and New York Times bestselling multi-genre author Jonathan Maberry will be a member on three interactive panel discussions: short fiction, world building and media tie-ins.
Award winning multi-genre author Bobby Nash will deliver a presentation on “The Importance of Promotion”, as well as being a member of both the media tie-in and book promotion panel discussions.
Science fiction and fantasy author Jody Lynn Nye will offer a presentation on using humor in science fiction and fantasy writing, “Bringing the Funny: how to apply humor to your writing” and she will be a member of the world building interactive panel discussion.
Award winning fantasy author Ellie Raine will sit on both the short fiction and world building interactive panel discussions.
Award winning multi-genre author Art Rosch will offer a presentation on “Creating Villains We Love to Hate”.
Award winning multi-genre author Sean Taylor will offer a presentation on “Visceral Story Beginnings”.
Science fiction author and marketing expert Alexi Vandenberg will be joining the book marketing panel.
Award winning poet and author Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer offers a livestream presentation “The Gateway to the Unknown: A Poetry Thought Shop”.
Author and educator Rick Wilber will be a member of the short fiction interactive panel discussion.
Award winning and New York Times bestselling science fiction and fantasy author Dave Wolverton/David Farland offers a”Promoting Your Book BIG” and he is a member of the interactive book marketing panel discussion.
You can find a full schedule here. I do hope all of you will join us for this unique writing event. It’s the first of its kind and we could be making history. You can be a part of it, too. Join us.
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