Well, it was day one when I started this writeup, but we had a little tech issue. And by we, I mean I. And by little, I mean huge. And by huge, I mean hard drive replacement. But here we are and I’m going to let the title stand since the panel discussed herein did indeed occur at Emerald City ComicCon on day one.
I know a lot of you out there are fiction writers. We geeks tends to have worlds upon worlds in our busy little brains whether we end up setting them down or not and a goodly number of us make, at the very least, valiant attempts to do just that. All writers have strengths and weaknesses and everyone feels differently about which bit of the writing process is most enjoyable and which most difficult, but it is a truth universally known that the most intimidating thing in the world to a writer is a blank page or a cursor blinking on a pure white screen.
So often, we know where we want to go but we can’t quite figure out how to start. And while it’s true not all who wander are lost, every story needs a framework. Without one, you do a whole lot of wandering and die dehydrated, starving, and half-eaten by weasels while being bitten by a shark and struck by lightening simultaneously.
We all know alpha and beta readers are essential, that editors are a must if we’re to be taken seriously that, as much as we’d like to believe writing is a Thing We Do On Our Own it, well… isn’t. The thing I’d forgotten about the social nature of writing, though? The thing of which this Build-a-World-Workshop reminded me at rather an opportune moment?
Your squad is just as necessary at the beginning of a written venture as it is at the end.
That, rather than embarking upon The Aspiring Author and the Painful Slog, we writers can come together and have some fun while still making progress toward the goal of the ever elusive finished novel.
We can even turn the whole intimidating, bottomless void of page one into a game.
I know, right?
As aforementioned, host/moderator Michael R. Underwood (Angry Robot Book’s North American Marketing manager and author of Gerenauts and the Ree Reyes series) called the game “Build-a-World Workshop.” You can call it whatever you want. Just don’t call it Shirley (ba dum). On the panel were Angry Robot authors K.C. Alexander (Necrotech), Eric Scott Fischl (Dr. Potters Medicine Show), Patrick S. Tomlinson (The Ark, Tridents Forge), Wendy N. Wagner (An Oath of Dogs, July 2017), and Joseph Brassey (Skyfarer, September 2017) and the session’s intention was for audience members to feed suggestions to the panel and for the panel to build a world in which a variety of tales could be told. In an hour. Which, if you’ve every tried to do the world-building thing before, isn’t much time at all.
I, for example, have been building my current world for over a year. Probably because I didn’t do this thing.
I knew this was going to be a good show when each of the authors included the phrase, “I swear a lot,” in their self-created bios. With the exception of one who claimed, “I don’t f&^$^&$ swear at all.” Beyond being a preview of the hilarity which was to come, the admission set a relaxed tone for the session, immediately engaging the attendees with humor and creating some common ground (come on, you know you love to cuss).
Mike decided on discussion categories ahead of time: sub-genre, setting elements, protagonist, antagonist and asked the audience for suggestions. In order to keep everyone on track, he limited the responses for each category to four (file under: yes, you do need a cat wrangler, Virginia) which ensured manageable size while allowing for good variety.
The panel’s task was to connect the various dots as members saw fit. Collectively. Which was amazing to watch because while, in theory, I’m well aware that authors can come at the same subject from an infinite number of angles, I’m used to writing alone and hadn’t actually seen the process in action in a very long time. As fascinating as our new world was, it was even more interesting to examine the ways in which the same spark could light an entirely different fire in each author’s brain, spinning out into tales that didn’t even seem related though they germinated from the same seeds but also influencing one another in a myriad unforeseen, unanticipated ways.
The world? I’m glad you asked: a robot-noir, post-apocalyptic, space opera involving a crumbling generation ship, a failing AI, a plucky non-binary mechanic, an ex-hustler who dealt in black market wishes, a ship of newcomers who live a life submersed in jazz, and their AI. Among other things.
No, I’m not kidding and yes, the panelists figured out how to make it all work because they each tugged on different threads, each approached from a different vector, and were all willing to consider and integrate world elements which, individually, might have been discarded or evaporated.
Everything above can be applied to your own world building technique, whether you’re a member of a writing group, have a group of writer friends, a group of writer arch-enemies, or if you live in a house of weirdos (in the most positive sense imaginable. I am, after all, weirdo-in-chief) like me (seriously, my kids have some of the best story ideas).
You probably won’t have an audience or a full sized panel (jeez, how big is your writing group?) but gather two or three folks besides yourself. You? You get to stand in for the moderator: pick your trouble spots (be honest, now) and use them as your core “please, help me” categories. Make with the note-taking while everyone else is idea-spewing. You already know what you think; you’re there to find out what everyone else thinks. I know, I know. You know where you want it to go and damn the torpedoes, but trust me, there is going to be at least one idea which digs its claws in and makes you realize you were missing something essential you wouldn’t have realized was missing if you’d flown solo. Write everything down, dismiss nothing, and don’t think too hard. Plenty of time for that later.
And even if you do use each and every suggestion to build your world, it isn’t all going to make it into the book. That’s fine The reader doesn’t need to know everything but she’ll know if the author doesn’t so this is your chance to be exclusive, expansive, and completely impartial.
Set time and suggestion per category limits as Mike did. Remember, wandering is good but getting lost can be problematic. If you find something tugging at you, follow it, but remember to leave a trail. Make decisions but be flexible; you can always change things later, either back to what you started with or to something completely different. It’s called editing and everyone does it. Well, everyone should.
Make sure all of your “panelists” have a chance to talk – the best ideas often come from the most unexpected of places and you’re generation is the whole point of the gathering. Good ideas, bad ones, weird ones, intense ones, ones that flip in loops, other which twist your brain into complex knots; during this process, it doesn’t matter. Everything builds your dragon’s hoard. And the hoard will serve you well when it comes time to, as they say, make the words.
And this isn’t just an exercise for fiction writers. It might help you generate an article topic or an RPG campaign.
Most importantly, though? It’s a reminder that while writing is very, very hard work, it’s also a ton of fun, especially if you invite others into your sandbox.
Next time I start a project? I am definitely going to play this game.
How about you?
(ed. note: Apologies to Wendy and Joseph. You guys don’t have covers for me to share yet. To readers: I’m sorry I don’t have actual photos of the panel. I was having so much fun, I forgot to take any)