Ask Correia 18: World Building

The Ask Correia posts are what happen when somebody asks me a writing related question, and my answer gets so big that it turns into a blog post. In this case I recently announced two new collaborative projects, and how I was working on building two different worlds at the same time, and people asked if I had a method for that. (I’m also teaching a 4 hour master class at FyreCon on this topic, so I’d better!)

I love designing new worlds. I’ve done some where I take our existing world and twist it somehow, others that are alternative history, and some that are just scratch built. So here is a peak behind the scenes of how I create new fictional settings.  Note, as usual there is no such thing as Rules of Writing, and anybody who tells you there is only One True Path is full of crap and probably doesn’t sell many books, because for every rule they cite I can probably find a bestseller who breaks it. These ideas are just the way I do things, but you can do it differently, the only important thing is that your readers like the results.

Sometimes you have a story in need of a place to set it, and other times you’ve got a setting you want to write about, but don’t know what story to tell in it. Me personally, I’m almost always a Story First kind of guy. Usually I think of the story I want to tell and then I go about building the world that best facilitates me telling that story.

If you have an awesome idea for a setting, but don’t know what to do with it, that’s fine. In that case go through the world and see what features appeal to you. Then start imagining what kind of people would live there, and what kind of conflicts they would get into. A strong setting is going to suggest stories. That’s why some IPs have amazing staying power and turn into shared worlds with lots of different authors coming up with things to do there. Build an interesting enough setting and you’ll never lack for ideas for what to do in it.

Always Be Asking

Since I usually start with a basic plot idea, the first thing I do is think about what does my world need to have/allow for me to write this? Some are pretty obvious. Monster Hunter is our world but supernatural stuff exists in secret. Others ideas require something more complicated. For Son of the Black Sword I needed to figure out a world with brutal caste systems, where the low born are basically property.

Take those must haves, and then ask yourself if that’s how things have to work here, what else would change? Always be asking yourself how are those required things going to affect other things?  This doesn’t just make your setting stronger, but it supplies you with tons of great new story ideas.

For the last week I’ve been going back and forth with John Brown about our upcoming sci-fi project. When I’m collaborating my methods are basically the same as when I come up with worlds myself, only I’ve got an extra brain to work with.

We had an existing basic plot idea that we’d come up with at LTUE based on all the sci-fi things my son thought were cool (giant robots, giant alien monsters, space fights, bandits). That really basic skeleton was what we started with, but then we needed to fill in the blanks.

We started with the basic premise of pirates who steal giant robots… Why? Well, there’s got to be a market for these things. Why can’t people just buy them? Gun… er… I mean ROBOT control. Okay, cool. Interesting complication. What kind of people would still want to get their hands on giant fighting robots even though it could draw the ire of the authorities? Well, just like real life there’s lots of different reasons people want illegal weapons now, from basic self-protection to overthrowing governments. Tons of different directions you could take that, but since we’re writing about people who could be “good guys”, let’s go with the self-defense angle.  What are you defending yourself from that you would require an illegal, and very expensive, battle robot?  Obviously something you can’t just shoot with a regular gun… ergo GIANT MONSTERS.

Which brings us to another important element of world design:

THE RULE OF COOL

When presented with a few options for how to accomplish something, pick the awesome one. Pick the one that makes your story more entertaining. Pick the one that you are the most excited to write about, because when an author is having fun writing it, that’ll come through the page and the readers will feel that excitement. It’s all about contagious enthusiasm.

Grimnoir used dirigibles because I wanted to have cool dirigible fights. That was it. However, then I had to tweak the rules in a way so that their use made sense and felt organic and true to the world. I had to look at why they lost to heavier than air craft in real life, and then add something which would have kept them competitive.

You can’t just have something awesome that doesn’t make sense because that’s going to kick readers right out of the story. Remember, the goal is immersion. You want the reader to lose track of time. When you screw something up like that the immersion is broken, they’re reminded that this isn’t real, it’s just a book. You have just failed that reader.

Your cool idea still needs to fit somehow. It needs to be organic to the story. If you introduce some super awesome plot element, but it feels like it is shoehorned in there, simply because it is groovy, unless you are writing a story that is purposefully silly (anything can happen in Tom Stranger for example) readers are going to get annoyed. Annoyed readers don’t buy the rest of your stuff.

TV shows and movies can get away with this more because they move at a different pace than a book, and by the time the watcher’s brain is processing the giant plot hole they just saw, the movie has already moved onto the next scene or distracting visual treat. Books move at a different pace, and the way most people read, their brains are still processing the information they just read while they are reading the next part. Nonsensical things are far more jarring in written form.

In the Force Awakens, they’ve got a planet sized weapon that sucks in a star (apparently then they drive that planet to the next star?) and shoots it across the galaxy (at a wacky velocity that is still dramatically visible) but it is all covered in an energy shield that you have to be going light speed to go through (why not just accelerate an old freighter to light speed and obliterate Star Killer?) so they fly the Millennium Falcon through the shield and shut down light speed manually before hitting the surface…

Oh man. If I put that in a book I’d never hear the end of it. But for most watchers at the time they aren’t going to catch all that in time to break their immersion. Even the clever audience members are going to note that stupid bit, but they are going to stay in the theater because they’re already watching the next cool visual. Sure, they’ll start picking it apart during the drive home from the theater, but during the movie they just shut up and enjoyed their awesome.

Writers can’t do that. That’s why books about movies have to make more sense and provide more context and information than the movie they are adapting. You screw up a book and the reader gets the effects as soon as the words are processed. They sigh and put the book down for a moment.  You lost them. Enjoyment squashed. If they come back it will be with some reluctance. Author fail.

One handy cheat, if you want to have some cool piece of tech or magic thing, write that scene from the PoV of somebody who doesn’t know how that item works, just that it does. A space marine on a ship isn’t going to know how the FTL drive works. Space ship go fast. It is what it is. Hell, we all drive cars yet most of us couldn’t explain the details of how the internal combustion engine works. On some things, you don’t need to overthink them. If it isn’t stupid and it feels organic to the setting, the reader will give you a pass. Basically anything that fits in context, the readers aren’t going to stress. Anything that feels broken or stupid is going to bug them.

Back to asking questions.

For our plot, we needed giant battle mechs fighting giant monsters, but let’s think through the problems with walkers. Why would a mech be preferred over something simple, cheap, and low profile like a tank? That suggested use on terrain that would favor that kind of weapon system over something that drove, hovered, or flew, which led directly to designing the nature of our planet. Answering that question led to an interesting setting and a cool visual.

Now you don’t need to provide a doctoral thesis and annotated bibliography explaining how every cool thing works (unless you are writing Hard SF and your readers are into that), but it just has to feel like it makes sense in the context of the story. There is always going to be one nitpicky bastard who is going to complain about everything, but that guy complains even when he’s wrong and the author got all the science right. Screw that guy. Nobody likes him in real life either.

We’ve got mechs going down to this planet to protect people from giant monsters, why? What is worth it down there?  Our original thought was they were mining something valuable… Okay, but that raises the same question as in the movie Avatar how come the humans didn’t just tow over an asteroid and kill all the annoying smurf people and their pterodactyls, then mine the unobtanium unmolested once the dust settles? So that gave us another kind of cool idea why that wouldn’t work, and our miners turned into harvesters.

We needed far flung human colonies. That required space travel between star systems. How does mankind travel? There are a few common methods that get used over and over in sci-fi. What are the pros and cons of using that method? What story problems does that method introduce? We decided to go with the common trope of gates, but the biggest reason we picked that one was that we were writing about criminal smugglers, and having choke points which could be controlled by government officials added interesting story complications, which led to the idea of having illicit criminal gates and creative work-arounds.

The space travel questions led to questions of history and what would need to happen between our world right now, and this world in the future, for us to get to where they are. Of course this process led to even more cool ideas we could exploit later.

John posted the following on Facebook the other day:  An insight into how Larry Correia develops story ideas. No hand wringing or stress. Just “send me your cool ideas,” “what would be cooler between these ideas,” “hey, this would be fun,” and “what would we need to do to make this awesome thing work and still be believable.” I’m having a blast thinking through the ideas and responding back and forth. This is the good part of writing.

I hadn’t really thought about this too much before he posted that, but yeah, that’s pretty much it.

Every question you ask yourself gives you a chance to come up with something better. It helps pick apart potential flaws and weak spots. If you really really can’t think of a way to stick in some specific cool idea, that’s fine, save that thing for something else. Writers should always be writing, and there is no such thing as a wasted idea. All of your cool stuff will get used eventually.

The fantasy project that I recently outlined with Steve Diamond started out as a story that the two of us pitched for an existing IP. In that case we had a fleshed out world to work with, and two creative types looked at it, and thought, damn, it would be really cool to tell a story from the perspective of this specific group of people which hasn’t been told before. So we outlined that happening and came up with a really neat story, and pitched it. When that project dried up, Steve and I were left with this really cool plot, but it was set in a world that we could no longer use.

But it’s like I said, you keep writing and there are no wasted ideas. The same plot can be used in a variety of settings (Red Harvest turned into Yojimbo which turned into Fistful of Dollars which turned into Last Man Standing). Years later when my publisher asked if I had any other collaborations in mind, Steve and I pulled out that old outline and dusted it off. We had an awesome plot and characters, and now we just needed to build a world to fit it.

We started out by tossing everything we could no longer use. Anything that originated in this other IP was not ours. Obviously that left some pretty big holes, so the discussion turned to how to fill those in. And this is where it gets exciting.

I’ve done quite a bit of writing now in other people’s IPs, a few novels, and a ton of short fiction. It is fun to play in somebody else’s sandbox but it can also be a challenge because you are so limited in certain specific ways, and by the rules that the original creators have established. They’ve got a road map already. When you’re creating your own stuff you are a trail blazing off roader cutting a new path in your 4×4.

We went off in some crazy new directions. Steve and I did the same thing John and I did. We looked at what we needed, and then we started filling in those holes, and asking lots and lots of questions. Every decision has repercussions. Nothing exists in a vacuum. And a few days later we had something new, interesting, unique, and most importantly, really cool.

Using Cultural Analogs

You see this all the time in fantasy, where NotEngland is fighting against NotFrance, but the NotVikings invade, and the NotMongol Horde comes riding across the plains. Cultural analogs are super common. As much as critics like to get all huffy and bitchy about that, there’s nothing inherently wrong with borrowing from familiar real world cultures. As long as it is entertaining you can get away with it.

On the plus side it establishes some fundamentals with the reader easily. You’ve got longbow archers with English sounding names fighting knights with French names, it paints a quick picture. They’ve read a hundred books and seen a dozen movies like that already. Readers are going to subconsciously assume that everything which isn’t pointed out as being different is probably the same as what they’re already expecting. Those are their defaults.

On the downside, it’s been done a million times. But the reason something gets done a million times is because it works. This is a competitive business, so if you’re doing something familiar then you need to make yours stand out somehow (I’d recommend being excellent). If you use a cultural analog which isn’t as familiar for your audience, it is unique, but it may require a bit more work to set the stage. It still creates a visual waypoint, but the audience just might not have as much groundwork laid. There aren’t as many epic fantasies about NotIndia as there are about NotEngland, but people get the idea.

Now critics are going to bitch no matter what you do. If you have a western basis to your fantasy you will be called tired and clichéd (and probably racist) and if you use a non-western basis then you are guilty of cultural appropriation. So as usual, just tell the critics to kiss your ass and get back to writing. Nobody really gives a crap what they think anyway.

Personally, I like borrowing from all sorts of different places. It keeps things interesting, unique, but familiar enough that the reader can concentrate on the important stuff, being entertained rather than being lost.

Another possibility is just making up something entirely unique and original, not based on any Earth culture at all. You are free to do whatever you want. There’s no reference for the readers, so you’ll need to do a good job painting them a picture. Just don’t get so clever with making up new stuff that the readers get confused and lost, adrift on a sea of made up words. If you’re going to write something dense and confusing, where the reader can’t get a bearing, you’d better be one damned compelling wordsmith to keep their interest.

Nuts and Bolts

When you’re creating something from scratch, you’ve got to think through how it all fits together in a way that makes sense. I’m talking things like resources, society, and economics.

I’ve often seen the book Guns, Germs, and Steel recommended in these discussions for authors to get ideas about world building. It’s a pretty good read about the clash of cultures and their relative advantages/disadvantages. (it has been years, and I don’t recall what now, but I disagreed with some of his conclusions, however it was a way better read than most dry anthropology books).

Geography matters a lot. When building a society realize that people are a product of their environment. Think about things like weather and distances.

If you’ve got a world without electricity, that is going to cause some issues. If you can’t refrigerate food, eating is a whole lot different. Horses don’t work like fleshy motorcycles. If you’ve got magic, if it is common, how is it going to change your world. You can’t have super common easy to use magic that can do all sorts of miraculous stuff, and it not have some repercussions. The commonality of cell phones has made it a lot tougher for horror writers now than in the 80s. Whether you are introducing magic or new technology, it’s going to do something to your world. If everybody can cast Create Light Level 1, it really sucks to be a candle maker.

Think about what your people have got to work with. If you’ve got a little tiny poor country, it isn’t going to field ten thousand armored knights. That’s a giant resource suck. On the other hand, if you’ve got Star Trek style replicators that can just make whatever you want, whenever you want it, then that’s going to cause all sorts of other complications. When you can push a button and get free stuff, people’s motivations change. So don’t introduce crap you can’t deal with.

In Grimnoir I needed healing magic, mostly so I could have some truly brutal action sequences, and do it in a manner that the main characters could be back in action in time to narrate the next scene. To keep it from granting everybody functional immortality I had to put in some limitations. I made healers scarce. But just like real life, when a resource is scarce but with high demand, prices rise. So in Grimnoir healers are worth their weight in gold, literally (or in the case of statist countries like the Imperium, you are worth your weight in not being tortured and having all your loved ones executed).

In Son of the Black Sword I’ve got a magic system based on two scarce resources. One is super powerful, but it is being used up and it is not renewable. The other is renewable, but since it is extracted from the body parts of dead demons, good luck getting it. So in this book magic isn’t just about Hey Look at This Cool Thing I Can Do, it’s also a measure of wealth and political capital. Having black steel becomes a big friggin’ deal. It’s like how a country gets more respect in international affairs if they’ve got nukes. There’s a whole underground black market economy for magic users.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I don’t remember which famous sci-fi author said it, but if you’re writing what’s basically a rabbit, you don’t need to describe a rabbit, hops like a rabbit, has ears like a rabbit, and then call it a Fleerp. It’s just a friggin’ rabbit.

Also, sticking the word “Space” in front of normal things doesn’t suddenly make it sci-fi. To use an infamous example, if you refer to a Space Diaper, but you’re just talking about a diaper, that’s lame.

The more you stray from assumptions that readers default to, the more likely you are to confuse/lose them. So stray all you want, but try to keep it useful. Don’t switch expected norms up for pointless reasons. If you don’t specifically say everybody has three legs, readers are going to assume people still have two. Every time you rename some normal thing, that’s one more thing that a reader is going to have to keep track of. It’s like some of the classic sci-fi where they were super excited to rattle off the names of a bunch of high tech inventions the characters were using, but most readers just got bored and skimmed until the plot started progressing again.

When you do change things up, try and provide some context so the reader can figure out what’s going on. Son of the Black Sword doesn’t use western military ranks, like sergeant, lieutenant, etc. Because the military structure is based on historical India crossed with Thailand. So when I refer to somebody as a Nayak or a Risaldar, somewhere near that I need to provide clues that’s his rank, and at least what his relative standing is compared to the characters he’s interacting with.

Some of the coolest parts of world building are the little things. Pay attention to things like what the people eat, how they dress, what do they do for fun, what music they listen to, etc. The stuff that doesn’t pertain directly to your plot you aren’t going to dwell on, but it’s those little things that flesh your characters out, give the place some depth, and make it feel like people actually live there.

I recently watched the Ghost in the Shell movie. I liked it quite a bit. I only had one real complaint about the world building. On all the sweeping establishing shots of the big city, with the giant holograms, it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel lived in. But when they got down to the gritty street level, or the apartment blocks, or the cemetery, then it felt organic, it felt like a real place. Your book is the same way, big and glossy is cool and all, but it’s the little things that make it feel a real place someone could visit.

You Need To Know Everything but the Reader Doesn’t

This is a very important point. As the master of this new universe you need to know how everything works. Why is this thing here? Who are these weird people? Why did that big thing happen? But you don’t need to tell the reader all that unless it matters for this one particular story you are telling.

One problem writers run into is that we over explain. We’re so very proud of this nifty world that we made up that we want to show the readers ALL OF IT RIGHT NOW. This leads to things like boring info dumps or odd digressions into pointless boring subplots. Note the recurring theme there is boring. You can get away with damned near anything in a book as long as you aren’t boring.

Most readers aren’t stupid. You don’t need to hold their hand and over explain stuff, plus that will quickly annoy all the smart readers who are now bored. If the nitty gritty details are important for some reason, then explain away, or if those details are unique or entertaining to explain (that describes most of Cryptonomicon) have fun. But for most things, just let stuff happen and the readers will figure it out.

As a retired accountant who loves econ and finance, I spent a bunch of time figuring out how the economy of Lok works, but you see almost none of that in Son of the Black Sword. I might think that stuff is fascinating, but I know most of my readers don’t read Thomas Sowell for kicks and giggles. My job is to write about a bad ass super swordsman fantasy version of Judge Dredd turning into a fantasy version of George Washington, not to dwell on how the paper currency of the Banker sub-caste is the worker caste’s greatest weapon in great house politics.

But the important thing is I know that, so anytime I’m writing a scene where that behind the scene stuff is involved, it stays consistent. And who knows, maybe at some point that subplot might be explored in a way that’s interesting.

Try not to overwhelm people with too much information at once. Especially if you are working with naming conventions that are odd. In Son of the Black Sword most of the people and place names are Indian, southeast Asian, or east African in origin, so they’re not easily remembered by western readers. I try not to dump twenty of them on the reader on page one, because they aren’t going to remember who is who, and too much info and readers start to skim. Introduce a couple at a time and give people a chance to remember who is who.

Don’t blow all your cool stuff at once. Sometimes you know exactly how something works, but there isn’t a good place to get into it. I knew exactly who Agent Franks was, but there wasn’t a good spot in the first book to get into that, so I teased it a tiny bit, made the readers curious, and then revealed (part of) his identity in the 2nd book. And I had so much unrevealed backstory built in that eventually he got his own book.

I get a lot of comments from people who are impressed when I reveal something I teased a few books earlier. That’s really not that big of a deal, it’s just about being patient enough to save something for when it has the maximum impact.

How Much is too Much?

World build enough that you are confident to start writing the actual story. You can always go back and fix things later. It’s too much when you are postponing actual work in order to do something that you consider more fun.

I get the same question about research or plotting, usually from somebody who has been making notes about the same project for the last four or five years without actually producing any fiction. These people love that stuff, hate the actual writing part. If you are procrastinating the writing to keep world building, then it’s too much.

Quit screwing around. You aren’t creating an RPG supplement. You don’t need to make a loot table for every dungeon on your planet. At some point you need to put your happy ass in front of the keyboard and write the friggin’ story.

Have Fun

The most important thing about world building is that the author and the readers have a good time. So go make up some awesome stuff and GET PAID!

A snippet from my story in Forged in Blood
Behind the Scenes of Me Filming Gun Stories

89 thoughts on “Ask Correia 18: World Building”

  1. That brings back memories. Back in college, I was taking a course in SF, and as part of it, I had to write a short story. The story went 12 pages. The notes, diagrams, etc took another 150+. . .

  2. Very interesting points. I’m always fascinated to see how different people developed their writing processes, especially ones who started in completely different fields. Funny that a lot of the things I do are very similar to what you’ve described. I wonder if that comes from having reverse engineered a writing process from reading?

    My biggest problem is I tend to come up with a plot or series of events I think would make a great story, but when I try to write it I always get hung up on the characters. They turn out two dimensional or stereotypical, to the point where you could replace them without affecting the overall story. Ever had that sort of issue? Any tips for designing secondary characters that are interesting, or main characters with more depth?

    1. Something I’ve noticed that authors I admire do is they establish a few fundamental aspects of their characters to highlight, especially with secondary characters. Character workshops always seem to want you to outline every possible detail of the character from the day they were born, but really when you’re writing them, you want to note the things that stand out. For appearance, I always think of JK Rowling’s Albus Dumbledore. He always is described as having a long beard, half-moon spectacles, and a crooked nose. What he’s wearing may change, and she mentions that he’s tall as needed, but when it comes to describing Dumbledore the first time in the book, she uses those details almost every single time. So does JD Robb (aka Nora Roberts) in her In Death series. She always focuses on the same details for each character, and it’s not “she’s wearing a green tank top and blue jeans,” it’s that she has a dented, take-a-punch chin and choppy deer-hide hair. For other characters, she has them habitually clomp or dance when they walk. These writers aren’t just telling you what the character looks like; how they describe them underscores what the character IS like. They use the description of their appearance to tell you about their personality.

      Then you have to pick out key traits to play up. Secondary characters especially. Almost any memorable secondary character you can think of, the storyteller (I’m thinking of TV too) has chosen three or four aspects of their personality to emphasize. They’re reckless or sarcastic or never stop talking. Think of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad with “bitch!” Or Monica in Friends with her obsessive cleaning, bossiness, and competitiveness. As someone who has been accused of writing better secondary characters than main characters, that’s generally what I’ve found myself doing. That secondary character could have a single, repeated, very strong motivation (My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.) and/or a small, distinct set of personality quirks and traits. You spend a lot more time in main characters’ heads so you can get into more nuances and quirks and deeper backstory. You don’t get that with secondary characters, and so you have to make their page time crisp, specific, and memorable.

      I’d like to hear what Larry has to say on the topic, but I love discussing writing so I thought I’d throw my two cents in.

      1. I’d also like to see more on character creation/development. Not that this post wasn’t useful and informative – it’s nice to see many of the things I’ve done intuitively articulated so clearly. But I find myself struggling in the area of characters. Plotting? Solid. World building? Cool. Action? Yeah. Character design/dev? Wandering in the dark.

        This seems like a topic Larry has covered, but I can’t remember or find it.

        1. Go up the Best Of tab. Look for the Ask Correia posts. I’ve talked about all of those.

  3. As a student in the aforementioned FyreCon class, that was an excellent preview/insight, so thanks for that!

    And, for the record, I am one of the handful of readers that DOES read Thomas Sowell for kicks and giggles, but also for the contact high of consuming the product of his intellect.

    1. I also read Thomas Sowell (especially his text books) for pleasure, the pleasure of learning something new in an enjoyable fashion. Economics has been called the dismal science but reading Sowell makes it fun.

  4. One of the great things about the original Star Wars movies is how they don’t explain everything. Obi-Wan doesn’t go into a huge discussion on how the lightsabre works, for instance.

    And one of the worst things about the Star Wars prequels is how they explain everything.

    1. But how would we have understood anything without an in depth discussion of galactic politics?!

      Wait. Sorry. Mixed that up. The correct phrasing is: How did we understand anything with that in depth discussion of galactic politics?!

      1. “Ep IV” did the politics thing brilliantly- a few quick lines between the Imperial Admirals and Tarkin, and you know pretty much all you need to know.

  5. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle has this habit of almost writing an encyclopedia world building before starting their actual novel just to stay consistent. This is most in evident in The Mote in God’s Eye.

    1. They’ve also done it for other people. They built a world timeline for a sequel to the 70s Spider Robinson revamp of “Armageddon 2419”, then Ace had 3 other authors (including one of the people who built D&D’s default non-Gygax/Arneson setting) write 4 sequel novels – while placing Niven & Pournelle’s “Lucifer’s Hammer” INTO THE PAST of Tony Rogers, tying it into the origins of the Han.

    2. Not surprising considering that they are collaborative stories in a hard SF genre and they tend to be long stories with several main and many secondary characters.

  6. Good to read a successful authors take on this. Working on a couple world building projects mostly it’s “This is cool, can it work?” Or “How does this change things?” Some is relevant, most isn’t is what I find. Or more like not relevant right now. 🙂

    1. Maybe they really are “scare” resources?

      Exactly what might a scare resource be? Maybe the healer must drain the life of one of his patients on a purely random and uncontrolled basis, creating a violently insane revenant once in a while?

  7. It also helps to know what your friends are experts in. I have friends who are actual rocket scientists, which is handy when you’re writing SF.

  8. “It’s all about contagious enthusiasm.”

    Is that what happened in the first MHI? It started fine but about the time he joined the team you flipped the Awesome switch. Did you connect with your enthusiasm?

  9. “World build enough that you are confident to start writing the actual story. You can always go back and fix things later. It’s too much when you are postponing actual work in order to do something that you consider more fun.”

    This is how I’ve tried to do things on my most recent writing project. In the past I’ve let myself get sucked into world-building or character development a bit too much, and it’s kept me from getting the actual story written. World-building, outlining, all the behind-the-scenes stuff is seductive because I know it’s something no one else will ever need to see, but the writing itself? It’ll have to come out rough, and that’s no good to show anyone. So then it needs to get edited, but what if it’s not good enough? Maybe I should flesh out my world or outline a little more… And the vicious cycle continues.

    I may not know everything about the current setting I’m in, but that’s part of the fun. Like you said, it can be fixed later, and it also gives some wiggle room when drafting.

  10. Interesting post. Hmm . . . giant robots & mecha; I brought up an example of the Giant Robot powered by steam to a steampunk author and had it, very politely, pointed out to me that a giant robot wouldn’t work in R/L owing to ground pressure.

    I’m no engineer but if a story involves mecha etc it might be worth checking. (Assuming that it hasn’t already been check out.)

    1. Why does the giant robot only have two legs?
      Although, once you get over a certain weight that does get to be an issue. I kept -my- giant robots at 500lbs, that’s what a human being scales to at 20ft tall. Give her a too-short skirt, fusion power and a 20mm chain gun, that’s a Valkyrie.

      Ain’t nanotechnology grand?

      1. There aren’t a lot of quadruped giant robots, off the top of my head all I can think of are Zoids and AT-ATs (and I’m not sure that the latter even count, as they are obviously just vehicles even if they walk. I think a giant robot needs some sort of ‘personality’, even if it is piloted). When most people hear ‘giant robot’, they think bipeds.

        My biggest plausibility problem with giant robots isn’t ground pressure, it’s the joints. Even if you could design joints that could deal with the forces exerted by even a smallish giant robot, you’ve still got a weak point in your superweapon that’s vulnerable to small arms fire.

        1. I just thought of windmills. The forces on a knee joint for a 100 foot tall robot would be larger than the torque and bending moment on a windmill axle. Those things suffer from brinelling just from sitting still. Imagine they had to take the weight of the windmill. Imagine the shock loading!

          This is the problem with knowing stuff. You know things are impossible.

          Solution? Unreasonably strong materials! Increasing the forces of molecular bonds by using Handwavium generators to strengthen the Unobtanium plating on the bearings!

          Mad science for the win!

        2. Joints, ground pressure, maintenance and repair. I’m fond of mecha genres, but they are more emotional truth than physical truth.

          But steampunk has little grounds to criticize those genres on that basis.

          1. Those genres survive BECAUSE they’re entertaining, and you don’t go too deeply into the ‘how’.

            (ex: when Phantom mentioned the Valkyrie, I thought of Macross, straight up.)

          2. Pacific Rim had this in spades. An oil tanker would totally tear apart under the stress of being used like a baseball bat by a giant mecha, but that scene was definitely Rule of Cool trumps Laws of Physics territory.

            The mechas and all of their equipment looked lived in too. There was some superlative visual worldbuilding in that film.

          3. To be fair the example I gave was a specific one. I asked a Steampunk author on a panel about hard science in steampunk. In retrospect I should have picked a better example than steam powered Giant Robots.

            Hmm . . . I suppose Giant Robots / Mecha are just so cool, and near ubiquitous on the SF scene that we (or at least me) forget that they wouldn’t work in R/L. I suppose the difference between one powered by steam and one powered by a reverse engineered Martian power source / hyper-advanced fusion core is that with one you’re asking the reader to suspend disbelieve twice.

          4. They both ask one to suspend disbelief twice.

            The request they have in common is the general mecha feasibility issues.

            Steam has issues in that water’s properties as a working fluid are very well understood. Steampunk is an aesthetic, and is generally not hard science fiction built around the steam tables.

            Alien technology or super advanced human technology is also a request to suspend disbelief.

            Done well, it’ll work for the right audience.

          5. No. Not really. It isn’t suspend disbelief X number of times. I is that you’ve got one fantastic element that your book is really about, and pretty much anything related to that fantastic element, you get a pass. So if my element is monsters are real, then all the ancillary stuff related to the existence of monsters falls into that. Where you break the immersion is when you toss in something unrelated to that element. Think about all the grumpy reviews from Weber’s alien invasion novel, because vampires showed up. Everything related to the aliens got a pass. But a different fantastic element, people had issues. That’s just how most readers’ brains work.

          6. Something like that happened with one of the Macross series, Macross 7. I could accept all the overtechnology, giant mecha, starships, etc….

            ….but a Valkyrie mecha controlled by an electric guitar?!

          7. Since you mention, I did roll my eyes when the vampires showed up. Mostly because he didn’t warn me ahead that there would be fantasy elements in the SF story. A couple of scenes snuck in at the beginning where vampires were seen running around would have fixed that easily.

            On the whole I liked that book though, even with the surprise fantasy element.

          8. I read a sci-fi book years ago where reptilian aliens had invaded Earth and the hero turned out to be a vampire. I recall blinking a little when I figured out what he was, but it wasn’t particularly jarring. The author dropped plenty of hints from the beginning that he wasn’t a normal guy, so it wasn’t an ass-pull deus ex machina.

          9. Personally I think those vampires are another alien species, or the offshoot of an alien experiment left on Earth. I don’t think they were actually supposed to be fantasy.

        3. Ghost in the Shell had multi-legged tanks, resembling spiders.

          Though they weren’t giant mecha. They’re about the size of a modern-day main battle tank.

        4. Wargamers might remember the old FASA game, BattleTech. BattleMechs were basically giant, humanoid suits, up to a hundred tons. Fun game, used to play it a lot.
          While rare, there were a few quadruped Mechs. And there were also the things swiped in toto from the Macross/Robotech animes. The Valkyrie became the Phoenix Hawk LAM, etc, etc.
          Fun game.

      2. Woah, wait a second. Mass/weight scales with volume, not length (assuming constant density). A 20-ft tall person is 3.333… times as tall as a 6-foot tall person, which makes them weigh 3.333…^3, or a bit more than 37 times as much. If our 6-footer weighs 150 lbs then the scaled up version of him weighs 5,550 lbs, not 500.

        The only way to get 500 is if you stretch only the height while leaving the width and depth the same; Slenderman, basically.

        I don’t like to nitpick, but square-cube law confusion shows up *everywhere* and it’s really useful to keep fundamental scaling laws in mind when world-building.

    2. Just look at the long running Anime series Mobile Suit Gundam. In terms of world building, they have 1 magical particle that accounts for both the need of visual range space combat (the scattering of the particle renders radio signal useless) as well as compact nuclear fusion reactor necessary to run everything. With the need of visual range space combat, they added giant robot. The particle, when compressed becomes a highly energetic mega particle that’s electrically neutral that cannot be deflected conventionally. Thus we have the ray-gun that can only be defeated with the shield that utilized the same particle, compressed into a shield. The shielding requires a whole tons of energy, so only the biggest mecha will be able to house it…

    3. Ground pressure is one issue, but that’d dependent upon the weight of the item and the footprint, just like anything else.

    4. Ground pressure isn’t a big problem. As an example, an F250 with load in bed can weigh 6 tons with a ground pressure around 125 psi (4 tires each 20sqin 80 total). A 40 ton mech would need an area of 640 sqin for each foot to take full weight and have 125 psi ground pressure. So call it 32″x20″. My shoe (size 12) is roughly 12″x4″ so a mech weighing 40 tons having a foot 4x mine seems very reasonable. I may need more caffeine to check my math though.

    5. “I brought up an example of the Giant Robot powered by steam to a steampunk author and had it, very politely, pointed out to me that a giant robot wouldn’t work in R/L owing to ground pressure.”

      You are probably referring to the square-cube law. While gigantic robots and monsters are cool in novels and movies, they wouldn’t work so well in the real world or hard sci-fi.

  11. Larry, I have a question for you. It’s writing-related, but I didn’t know where else to put it. When you started with Baen, did you have to meet face-to-face with them or did you use Skype to communicate with them? I ask because I’ve been looking for publishers for my book and don’t have the finances at the moment to travel to say, New York to meet with a publisher.

    1. Just phone calls and emails. I didn’t meet Toni face to face until like a year after I’d been writing for her.

      1. Thank you for the reply. I’ve met with one publisher and it was a face-to-face meeting, only because they , like me, are in Minnesota.

  12. “Most readers aren’t stupid. You don’t need to hold their hand and over explain stuff, plus that will quickly annoy all the smart readers who are now bored.” One of the things that greatly impressed me in Hard Magic was how much you respect your readers’ intelligence. You dropped hints and allusions to little surprises–the identities of Francis’s grandfather and Jane’s father, for example–so that the reader could speculate, but then when you did unambiguously reveal who they were, you did so briefly, and to the point, without laboriously explaining details. When I had guessed correctly, I felt like I’d solved a worthy puzzle, and it seemed the author’s attitude was, “I knew you could do it,” not “There’s no way you’ve put these pieces together, so let me do it for you now.” When I hadn’t guessed correctly, I could put my finger in the book, think back on the clues, and say “Now it makes sense! I should have figured that out,” without feeling the author was aware of my slowness. Thank you for that aspect of your writing!

  13. This was an enjoyable read, though, I could have sworn the world-building “Ask Correia” had already been done.

    So I have a question related to “do rules function the same ‘there’ as they do here”. This may lead to an obvious answer, but how far should you go outside of expected social conventions when creating cultures/societies? I know some people who had a hard time getting into a book because the culture/society that functioned quite well didn’t share their expected customs/morality. Or as they put it “Too unrealistic to work”.

    1. Well, there’s your answer. It either works or it don’t. And the real question is the writer’s skill in telling that far fetched society in a plausible manner. You look at a master like Dan Simmons, and he can write about societies that are super far fetched, but he pulls them off because of his skill. Most of us aren’t Dan Simmons. 🙂

      1. That makes sense, but it does lead to new question. How grounded should new writers aim to be, given that skill is something that tends to be acquired through experience and practice?

  14. I actually world-build as I write the story. I’ve tried in a couple different projects to build it all out beforehand, but until I’m actually writing the book and letting the characters do their thing, I never know what I’ll use and what questions I need to answer. Even my distant backstory (how did people come to this fantasy continent 4000 years ago) ends up changing the further I get into the world. I think that goes to your point about people that build the world out in minute detail and never actual get around to writing the book; you’ve boxed yourself into a corner and really limited the creative freedom you need to tell the story. I’m convinced I’ve killed a couple of my own books that way. You put all this time into building this gorgeous, mathematically, geometrically perfect, sparkly world, and then when you try to write the story it just doesn’t work. It’s like trying to teach a robot English. He’ll get the rules and grammar right, but he doesn’t have the soul for a sonnet.

    And I’ll add something I just learned myself to your advice, which is, don’t lay down any big absolutes unless you must. Especially if you’re writing more than one book in the world. I’m writing a story right now where animals can communicate telepathically with humans, and of course that means I need to know the limits of this telepathy. Is it only with a few select humans? Do they need to be within “earshot” so to speak? Can they learn over time to speak to new people? If I were to sit down and write a paragraph explaining how all that works in detail before I ever started writing the book, or worse, explain those rules explicitly IN the book, in the first book, I am very likely to find out I’ve screwed myself by book three.

    1. it doesn’t matter when you build the world, just keep it reasonably close to consistent. If you do it while writing, you may have to go back and fix some things, your fans will pick apart the inconsistencies that get through (even David Weber needed to make significant changes to his ship sizes in his Honor Harrington series because of this sort of thing)

  15. Larry, I’m going to have to disagree with you. I’m pretty sure *lots* of your regular readers read Thomas Sowell for fun. Which in no way negates your point about how much of the world building should show, I just suspect you underestimate how much of your fanbase has a more than passing interest in the dismal science, and nobody breaks it down better or more engagingly than the good doctor.

  16. Also, since it’s been revived from dusty literary limbo, may I suggest that perspiring writers read “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which shows you everything NOT to do. At the beginning of the story, we don’t know who heroine Offred is, why she’s where she is, how the Republic of Gilead functions, why it came to be, and at the end of the story we still don’t know.

    Don’t be that guy–er, girl. Don’t leave us floundering. We’re tourists in your world.

    1. See, she KNOWS it really exists outside of Oden, Utah, so she doesn’t think she HAS to tell you about it…

    2. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but I suspect that all of that uncertainty was Atwood’s attempt at sticking the reader directly into the action, as one might do in a spy thriller novel.

  17. I think for many readers the world may be more important than, or at least as important as, the plot. I doubt anyone reads Game of Thrones because it’s fun–but I bet a lot of people read it because it’s fascinating.

  18. “I get the same question about research or plotting, usually from somebody who has been making notes about the same project for the last four or five years without actually producing any fiction.”

    Dammit Correia, did you hack my computer? Because that totally doesn’t describe me.

    Totally

    *shifty eyes*

    1. Don’t feel bad. It’s a common problem. For me the time suck is historical research.

  19. I’ve had the problem of enjoying what I’m writing, but only hooking a few readers once it’s out. That tiny group is devoted and enthusiastic. Everybody else…… What then?

    At this point, I’m really not sure what I’m missing.

      1. There is? I didn’t see that as one of the titles.

        But I should’ve been more specific: I’ve had readers on the series I love best, but few fans. They didn’t hook enough in book 1 to go to 2 and 3, and I don’t know why. I love those particular characters so this drives me nuts and I feel like I’m failing them somehow. Everything else I’ve written since 2005 I can let go of, but not this story.

  20. Larry, if you’re going to Fyrecon remember to pack a jet ski. Exuma apparently has some real problems…

  21. I heard that’s where the idea of Sim City came from: the maker realized he enjoyed building the world a lot better than making plots.
    And the other famous example when Howard write the essay The Hyborian Age to use as a map for his Conan stories.

    About the rabbit part:
    “In the course of eviscerating one of Robert Sheckley’s early stories, James Blish penned (or typed, more probably) the immortal line “they look like rabbits, but if you call them smeerps that makes it science fiction.” This made its way into the famed (and partly infamous) Turkey City Lexicon as an injunction against “false exoticism.”

    My problem with Ghost in the Shell is that it is dated. We have a human where the brain is transplanted into an artificial body. The idea works excellent as a backdrop in a world where such a thing is common, like in Battle Angel. But in Ghost in the Shell, the idea becomes the story itself. We are not living in a world where this is common, but where she is assumed to be the only success story of the technology. We saw the same problem in The Surrogates. Instead of coming up with a cool story in a world where people moved around in avatar bodies, the concept about avatar bodies and some forced moral issues in that regard ended up as the story driving the plot forward. That’s like instead of writing a story where airships is part of the world and used in big battles, one decide to write a story about the concept of airships and that if god wanted us to fly he would have given us wings.

    Another problem I have with certain stories is how the writer think it is a cool idea to include elements that doesn’t really add something to the story. For instance Ghost Story by Peter Straub. In this novel he tries to come up with an explanation for the vampire and werewolf myths around the world, and use his own beings as the original source. Why mention vampires and werewolves at all? The story wouldn’t suffer at all if it was left out. If one wants to come up with a way to explain these mythological creatures it probably works best if you write a story dedicated to that specific goal, instead of just throwing it in somewhere before moving on with what the plot is really about.
    The same with The Disoriented Man by Peter Saxon. What appears to be a vampire is on the loose, but leter it turns out the whole vampire thing was completely irrelevant for the story. He did attract attention from investigators and got the snowball rolling, but a normal killer would do the trick just as well. No need to have him drain blood from his victims as well.

    Regarding writing advices; if you feel like you need to read some advices first (if you want to read all the “who to write” books out there, you will be too busy reading to ever write anything at all), the best thing is probably to trust you gut feeling. Ignore the advices you disagree with, dislike or find irrelevant, and use what you think has a point.
    Or try to imagine that you are working for the “How it should have ended” team who posts videos on youtube. As long as you can find something in the story that can be used in videos like that, the story needs reworking.

    Agree with the backdrop thing. It may not be important for the actual story, but it makes it look more realistic. If a sci-fi novel takes place in a high-tech society thousands of years into the future, it can only mean that all the present day problems related to pollution, threats from nuclear weapons, energy sources and ways to store the energy, lack of resources, overpopulation, recycling, transportation and traffic jam. Because these are problems we are struggling with today, which has to be more or less solved in such a future civilization, such a society will in many ways seem like an utopia through the eyes of those living right here and right now, even if other challenges are present. Crime, greed, politics, rules and laws, new problems and different kind of threats will still be around (if not, it would be a pretty boring book).
    For instance, surveillance technology will probably be far more evolved than it is to day, and would be difficult to deal with it both humans and AIs were always monitoring everything you said and did. Unless there are some rules preventing this, like in the Dune universe, where computers are illegal.

    Anyway, always interesting to read about the creative process writers go through during the writing process.

    1. One little trick about world building- if you don’t provide the details, your fans will do it for you, provided the story is good.

      1. If you build a world and fans continue to build on it and add stuff on their own, that would be a great compliment for a writer.

    2. I assume the live -action GITS is also, but the original anime is set in a near-distant future (and far superior to the current movie with ScarJo).

      1. The original Ghost in the Shell is some years old, and those concepts felt a lot newer back then. Today the idea feels a bit too dated to be served as the main course. The animated version still has the nostalgia factor amongst other things, but if Hollywood is going to adapt an anime, they could have picked something more relevant in my opinion. Not that it wasn’t entertaining, it just didn’t have the little extra.
        Loved the undewater scene in the ocean by the way. Mostly because I have actually had dreams like that a lot of times.

        1. It’s still relevant. Motoko was looking for answers on what made her real, how she could know she’s real, etc. also, the vulnerability due to hackers in a tech-driven society, etc. and then Innocence was fantastic and Stand Alone Complex was amazing.

          1. Yes, you can always make a story out of quests like that. But most people are familiar with these concepts and have seen it all before.
            If we are talking about a future high-tech society, there should be other material out there that works just as well.
            When I first read some cyberpunk stories I hated them because I found them boring and disliked them in general. But then I gave Snow Crash a chance, and realized that it is possible to write great stories even if it is cyberpunk.

          2. Stand Alone Complex, in particular, is more relevant now that it’s ever been. It basically predicted exactly how memes would work and propagate today, and it was made back in the days when Internet culture was still just a developing baby.

    3. Ghost in the Shell IS a world where a human brain being transplanted into a robot body is commonplace. It’s only in this horrible new adaptation where Motoko is some kind of unique prototype that has never succeeded before. In the original, she’s just in a mass-produced body, and runs into people who look exactly like her fairly regularly. It’s her brain, and her ability to come to an understanding/thorough acceptance of being a ghost in that shell that makes her special.

      In fact, if they had just gone with the original “mass-produced body” idea, they could have done away with the shoehorned in pleading attempt to explain why they picked a white actress that they threw in to please all the people complaining, and just said, “yeah, we threw your brain into the Scarlet Johansen model, because ALL our clients want to be Scarlet Johansen. Didn’t you?”

  22. An advice from Frederik Pohl:
    ‘A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.’

  23. As someone who enjoys writing, but has yet to finish anything; these blog posts are great. These tips are great motivation to get my butt in gear and actually finish a story.

  24. Alas, what threw me out of The Force Awakens was 1) a certain camera shot that had me cringing and saying “Oh, geez, you HAD to use that one, didn’t you?” and 2) The Falcon and Co. departing the exploding super-weapon-planet-thing, because my brain was running the physics.

    Back on topic, I’ve found OSC’s balognium (or balony-um) rule to be very valuable. You, the writer, are allowed one use of balognium per book/world. In other words, you can get away with one off-the-wall conceit or concept without providing much explanation. After that, you’d better have at least an in-world-plausible explanation for strange/odd/bizarre events/powers/physics. YMMV, IANAL, et cetera.

  25. I came at it more from gaming, so the world building comes easier for me than the rest of it. Especially the characters and dialogue. Probably doesn’t help that if the terse, asocial, wallflower type.

  26. You had me, all the way up until you called the new Ghost in the Shell good.

    I mean, seriously, they took a fascinating exploration into transhumanism and what makes us “us,” and turned it into Robocop-with-tits. Not that there’s anything inherently WRONG with “Robocop-with-tits,” but seriously, if you want to make a Robocop-with-tits movie, just make a freaking Robocop-with-tits movie. Don’t call it “Ghost in the Shell.”

  27. I still need to finish the blog post, but I was going to refute your claim about Rules of Writing* by throwing out two that every writer must follow: “Confuse me, you lose me” and “Bore me, you die”.

    But, alas, when you said “For every rule there is, I can find you a best-seller that breaks it”, alas, I suspect that these rules are broken fairly regularly by writers. Indeed, although I’m not 100% sure it’s a best seller, nor have I even thought to try to read it, I suspect that James Joyce’s “Ulysses” probably breaks both rules….

    *One Michaelbrent Collings stated these rules on an LtUE panel this last February, and they really stuck with me. I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t take anything else from this year’s LtUE, getting these two rules cemented into my brain was worth the it. Now, if only I can find the time to put the two rules in practice!

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