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Networking with Writers: Nobody Cares About Your World-Building

AeternisJun 20, 2019, 11:53:52 PM
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This is an expansion of a piece I wrote out last year to explain why a writing group I was in seemed so inclusive to some new members but so hostile to others. It is based on my experience there, but what happened so regularly there is sadly general behavior, both online and offline.

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If you've ever attempted to write a novel, especially a fantasy novel, you know that good world-building is an important feature of the process. That being the case, when you as a new writer are trying to explain your work to other writers (professional or amateur), you need to learn how to avoid talking about your world-building at all costs.

I appreciate the work you’ve put into this one aspect of the process, but nobody really wants to hear about the setting until you have some idea of the story or stories you want to tell, and everyone who's ever been in a writing group for more than an hour knows that there is a certain subset of pseudo-writers who never get past the world-building phase and are not interested in crafting a proper story.

You can spot a world-building project done without any regard to story from a mile away. They’re usually pretty standard structures festooned with Christmas Tree ornaments of originality – an original fantasy race here, an unorthodox martial tradition there, and so on. In fact, the ornaments themselves often stand out as deliberate attempts to stand out by doing things nobody has done before. In an attempt to be original at any price, this sort of world-building invariably ends up being laughably generic and derivative, without the faintest spark of life which a consciously derivative work would have contained.

The moment you start going on about how cool your original magic system is, eyes are going to glaze over, because most writers have heard it all before. If you spend your entire elevator pitch describing setting details not immediately relevant to the plot, it comes off as empty, hollow, soulless, and it contains nothing to get invested in or to judge in terms of anything a reader might enjoy. It's more or less comparable to advertising a film by talking about nothing but the in-story meaning of the props.

World-building for its own sake is an exercise without value to the writer or any reader, and World Builder's Disease is a real phenomenon where a writer is terminally diverted from the process of writing the book by a perverse and borderline-masturbatory pleasure gained spending all their creative effort on the driest and least human part of the process, knowing that it is safely distant from the responsibility and hard work involved in finishing the novel they set out to write. Most aspiring writers have had run-ins with this "disease" or the people who suffer from it, and will be very hesitant to engage with anyone who bears the symptoms.

If you struggle with World Builder's Disease, keep in mind that world-building is an ongoing process rather than a discrete step. In a good novel project, the setting shapes the characters, and the characters shape the plot, but the needs of the plot also shape the setting. This cycle should be continuous throughout the writing process, even after the first draft is complete. When you are talking to other writers, they are looking for hints that this process is healthy.

Temper your enthusiasm for proselytizing knockoff Brandon Sanderson magic systems accordingly. All three inter-related areas should feature in your description in some way, but the details of what you would classically call world-building (origin myths, deities, geopolitics, magic systems, etc) should not be present. Use the minimum detail necessary for your audience to understand the drama, and the details closest to the characters and plot. Only then will you start describing your work in a way that other writers can get interested in.