A Conversation About Outlining and Worldbuilding, Part II

In last month’s post, I shared the beginning of a lengthy and fruitful email correspondence I shared with a friend of mine, Tim Rohr, a talented young writer.  Our discussion focused on worldbuilding, outlining, and the other preparatory work we do as we begin a new novel or series.  This month, I present the continuation of that exchange, which focused more closely on the worldbuilding/research end of novel groundwork.

Tim responded to my first response with the following:

“I’ve been thinking the past day or so about what you said regarding worldbuilding/research and outlining. When I first considered the topic, I was coming to the question for myself, looking for input and trying to render some consistent methodology. And not the question of one over the other (wb vs. outlining), but of the interplay between the two, and where that balance should be.

I’m quite certain now that it isn’t a matter of “should be,” beyond that for each writer the balance “should be” wherever it needs to be for them to produce their best stories… So, gathering my thoughts and drawing on what you wrote, let me throw some things your way to see if you would agree.

First, worldbuilding, even for pantsers, is indispensable. When you say (rightly, it seems to me) that worldbuilding and research are interchangeable, I think this is the next logical step.  And second, worldbuilding has two goals that would apply to any genre:  Completeness and consistency  …and, for something like your historical novel, Thieftaker, you could add a third:  Correctness.

Would you add anything to those listed goals? . . . Reading what you wrote about your process on Thieftaker, it did strike me as a little ironic that when your worldbuilding must be more rigorous (striving to be “correct”), you are actually outlining less. I know you mentioned the single-POV and the mystery format as the primary reasons for not needing as much outlining work, but does the added rigor in your worldbuilding/research have anything to do with it as well? . . . And could you talk a little about the relationship between worldbuilding and outlining with regard to sub-plots and how that works for you?”

And my reply:

“I think that you’re right that consistency and completeness have to be goals of worldbuilding (I would, for the purposes of simplification, put “correctness” in historical worldbuilding/research under the rubric of “consistency” since the consistency of a fictional world and the accuracy of a historical setting are, to my mind, rough equivalents).  But I think there is a risk in looking at it in this way.  The goal of all of this, beyond the mechanics, has to be “making it cool and fun” so that your readers want to read it, and, perhaps more important, so that you want to write it.  I’m not trying to be cute here.  I’m dead serious.  What made the Forelands [the world I created for my Winds of the Forelands quintet] work for me — what makes the Thieftaker world [pre-Revolutionary Boston, the setting for my new series Chronicles of the Thieftaker, written under the name D. B. Jackson] work for me now — is that I WANTED to go there.  It was work, but it was also play.  I love those worlds, and that has to be the fundamental element of whatever you do.  Make it complete, keep it consistent, but for God’s sake make it so freakin’ cool that you WANT to do the work to accomplish those other goals.  Does that make sense?

To your questions:  I guess I’m not convinced that the amount of outlining I’m doing relates back to the worldbuilding in a direct way.  I suppose you could say that they’re connected at some level.  As I said above, the extensive worldbuilding I’ve done is a direct result of the fact that I simply love these worlds and want to know as much about them as possible.  And I think you can also say that because I’m so into these stories, I have them more firmly in mind and therefore need less formal outlining to know where they’re going.  But there’s nothing causal there; rather, they are symptoms of a third phenomenon, ie my enthusiasm for the projects.

Your second question:  hmmm.  Let me digress briefly.  Have you ever tried to teach a person to swing a baseball bat or a golf club.  I have, and I find it incredibly hard to do, because I find myself trying to break down an inherently integrated action into its component parts; I’m taking something smooth and seamless, and trying to make it into a step by step process.  I feel a little bit like that when talking about writing issues of the type you bring up here.  I do think that some of my subplots come out of my worldbuilding, and in working on the historical stuff for Thieftaker, I was able to find historical threads that fit very nicely with the various levels of plotting I was doing as I worked out my story.  But they also grow out of character work, out of unexpected plot twists (unexpected for me as writer — times when my characters take my narrative in directions I hadn’t anticipated).  I come back to a word I used in my last email:  Synergy.  There is nothing compartmentalized in my creative process.  It all blends together, and so telling you whether a particular subplot grew out of worldbuilding, or character background, or a plot idea is nearly impossible.  They all feed on each other.  Quite often I only recognize a promising sub-plot after the fact.  I’ve already started writing it and I have a “Oh, look what I did” moment.

Now you, being observant and intelligent, probably noticed that I pretty much contradicted myself in that last graph.  On the one hand I’m talking about the planning I’ve done for Thieftaker as I did research (this in a series of emails that began because I claim to be doing less planning than I used to) and on the other hand I’m also saying that I don’t know where any of this stuff comes from or how it works together.  Forgive me for slipping into metaphysics here, but the fact is that everything I’ve written here is true, even if it is inherently contradictory.  I am plotting less, and yet I’m still plotting.  I know that some of my ideas come from my research, but I also know that I have been able to find stuff in my research to support my ideas.  It’s all fluid and, forgive me, magical.  Yes, I really believe that.  I believe that the creative process is the most profound kind of alchemy.  We take piles of ideas and plot fragments and characters, and we spin them into narrative gold.

I knew that I wanted the first Thieftaker book to coincide with the Stamp Act riots.  And as I developed the mystery that I blended with that real world event, I had to come up with other elements of the villain’s plan to make his crime logical and part of a larger pattern.  Well, it turned out two other events in Boston’s history fit very nicely with what I was trying to do.  Did the subplot come out of my narrative work and find resonance in the history?  Or did the history present me with opportunities which I used to deepen my plot?  I really couldn’t tell you.  Both, I guess.  I don’t remember which came first.  I just know that they worked together perfectly.  To me, that’s magical.

. . . I think maybe the larger point of this entire email is pretty simple:  Don’t overthink this stuff.  Creative process is not easily explained.  It is as seamless as Paul Molitor’s swing (or George Brett’s, or whoever).  Is there value in breaking it down and trying to understand its component parts?  Absolutely.  To a point.  But after a while we have to go back to the swing itself and simply try to grasp it in its complexity and totality.  My swing works well for me.  And there may be things that I do that could help you hone yours (just as there are things in your swing that will help me).  But ultimately your swing is going to look unique, and it’s going to serve you very well, just as mine serves me.”

David B. Coe

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.



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