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It doesn't feel complete

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by GwenhwyfarRaven, Jun 21, 2016.

  1. GwenhwyfarRaven

    GwenhwyfarRaven Dreamer

    I've been working on the prep process for my novel series for a little over a year, and I still feel like it's not even complete enough for me to build an outline on. Every time I try to outline, I run into questions that aren't answered. Every time I watch a show or read a book, I wonder, "What does this have that my story doesn't?"

    I know some of the answers to that question, but most of them have to do with world-building. I'm not very good at world-building. I wish there was some kind of template or questionnaire that would tell me some of the right questions to ask. I think the most significant thing I need to work on is landmarks.

    Are there certain questions and conflicts that one can only see when one is outlining or even writing the story? It seems that way, but it's frustrating to go back and rework something every time I get caught on the outline.

    (Example: I once had to stop mid-sentence when describing a blush because I realized I had never considered what color that species' blood is or why.)
  2. La Volpe

    La Volpe Sage

    I often run into issues like this. I.e. where I've already outlined and I'm writing along when I suddenly realise that I've never figured out some bit of worldbuilding that is obvious only then.

    When this happens, I do one of two things:
    1) I stop writing (especially if it's a HUGE hole in my worldbuilding) and switch to a blank wordpad and type out different possibilities for the particular issue I'm having (e.g. why is there a wall here, or whatever).
    2) If the issue is minor, like your blood-colour example, then I just decide on the fly, or default to whatever seems easiest, and then go on. Sometimes I'll make a note to come back to it later. Unless the problem will affect your story going forward (i.e. if your magic is based on the colour of the caster's blood or something, it might classify as a big gap), you can just gloss over it for now and figure it out later.

    In more general terms, regarding your worry about lack of worldbuilding: If you've been working on it for a year, it's probably fleshed out enough. Make sure you have all the important bits in place (e.g. how the magic system works, the kind of technology present, important races and creatures, or whatever) and then just start making your outline. The thing about worldbuilding is that you don't need to know EVERYTHING.

    You know the iceberg metaphor, where they say that the top bit is all you see, but the big bulk is hidden under water? Now, some people say that you need to know all the bulk of information under the water, even if the readers will only see the top bit. But I've found that you only need to make it SEEM like you know everything about the bulk under water.

    And also, while you're still outlining, you're still busy with worldbuilding. If you find that you need a historical battle that happened at this one place, then you make it up right then. You don't need to know everything beforehand. At least, I don't.

    It will seem a bit sudden at times, throwing out new information that doesn't lie flush with the other things you've shown, but that's okay for a first draft. You'll iron out the edges later and smooth everything into a nice polished whole. That's what revision is for.
    Devora and GwenhwyfarRaven like this.
  3. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

    Worry way, way more about story and plot structure than world building tidbits. If someone blushes, they blushed, done, move on. If you think it's a real issue put a big ol' {BLOOD COLOR} in there and move on. Story beats are what matter most, so when the world really matters to the story, that's when you need to know things. If an entire society is fleeing their island for the mainland continent, you need to know who/what is waiting for them on the other side and the basic disposition of this people toward the refugees, but you don't need to know the color of their flag, what their favorite food is, or whether they bleed red or green until you get there, you just need the big picture... say, a human, strict theocratic monarchy who's religion is opposed to that of the refugees, but not openly hostile kill on sight, opposed, but nor will they will the government assist these people unless they convert. Big picture, fill in the blanks as you go keeps things interesting for me.

    I'm not an outliner, nor a full on pantser, but outlining is much like writing, if you let details bog you down, you struggle getting anywhere.

    I'm sure there are many camps of writers, but I find many of the world building details come on the fly. Some of the most popular world building tidbits readers have commented on come from answering questions with offbeat tidbits that make sense in the world, but are amusing. Landmarks are world detail, so long as you have a basic map going so you don't contradict yourself, make up what you need when you need it and make sure to note it.
    GwenhwyfarRaven likes this.
  4. Holoman

    Holoman Troubadour

    I have a document listing every question I come up with, plot holes and questions about how the world works. It helps me to write them down and then come up with different answers.

    I found it easier once I just dove into writing though, you will come across little things like you said about the colour of blood, but that's ok, you can just stop at that, decide what you want it to be and then note it down & make sure it's consistent with everything. I don't think there is a need to know the intricate workings of your world before starting to write. Otherwise you'd never start.
    GwenhwyfarRaven likes this.
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Both Holoman and Demesnedenoir make good suggestions. Definitely get in the habit of using markers. Develop a convention. Using curly braces is a standard one. The idea is to use something that would *never* appear in your text. You can then, on a later edit pass, do a search on that string or character. So searching on { would take you to every instance where you had put in a marker to be figured out later.

    Only by absolutely knowing you could later find every instance can you let your brain continue focusing on the story rather than on a blood color.

    But that's just for little stuff, like names, a type of bird, the color of a blood. For larger issues, you will also want that external document mentioned by Holoman. I have two kinds of entries for my Questions list: one is stuff I think of when I'm just thinking about the story; the other is stuff I think of while I'm actually writing. Everything goes into the same document. That's crucial. If you start having multiple lists, then your brain doesn't trust that you are capturing the information and it starts to worry about those other matters instead of focusing on the writing. If I'm away from my computer when I think of a question, I write it on paper, but top priority is to type that up once I return to the computer/phone/tablet. Then I throw away the paper. Only one list!

    One tip: when it's something that happens while writing, copy a sentence or two over into the Questions document, then write your question. That way, you will be able to return to exactly that point in the story once you have an answer.

    This technique comes from the time management / productivity people. They are pretty much unanimous about this, and there's plenty of research to back it up. It's really the writer's equivalent of a ToDo list. You could even use Todoist or Wunderlist or the like. The key is don't stop writing. Just note the question, making sure everything is kept in one place. It's remarkable how this frees you up from those minor distractions which, if not dealt with, can mushroom into major distractions.
  6. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    I used to be a panser but now I'm somewhere between panser and outliner. For myself, after writing three novels, I find that I only need to know a few specific things before I start writing.

    For the characters I need to know what the protagonist wants physically and emotionally and why? The same for the antagonist.

    For the world, I just need to know generally what the major group divisions are, maybe religion(s), and what's generally considered right and wrong based on the previous two things. But these can change based on the scope and style of a story.

    The plot is an extension of what the characters want and the world helps to support that plot. My outline only involves the plot, everything else gets filled in on the fly.

    As others have mentioned, when I can't think of something right then and there, I just make an inline note like the following. (Edit: Need a good name here) I use the color to make the not stand out when I come back to it in the next draft.

    Everyone is different and knowing your world and your characters is important, but for myself, I find I don't need to know everything before I start. I just need to know most of it by the time I'm finished.

    Again, just for myself, I find that after a certain point, world building is a waste of time because as I write and my understanding of my characters and my world expands, a lot of the things I though I knew about my world and characters changes. As I write, I tend to come up with better ideas, and I'd say at least half of my initial notes/ideas get tossed aside for better stuff.

    I find that needing to know every exacting detail before starting can be a viscous cycle, because I'd say it's pretty near impossibly to know every last thing about your world, so that leads to you never really starting or not getting very far before putting on the breaks to go back to fill in a detail. But that's just me.
    GwenhwyfarRaven and Velka like this.
  7. Velka

    Velka Sage

    As others have said, writing the story is much more important than knowing all those little details in the beginning. The more time you spend in your world, instead of outside your world, looking in, the more those details will organically emerge. The first drafts of my works is littered with undefined, and unnamed things (I use CAPS inline to note names, details, etc that need to be defined/fleshed out/decided on).
  8. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    Some of the best things come on the fly. This last weekend I was writing my first chapter, which happens to have a ship on which the MC and a couple other characters arrive at the capital of the empire. They are from a provincial region that is far from the capital, so there are some cultural differences and some political friction between the capital and the large city state that is their home, and these frictions will play a role in the story. I realized while writing their arrival that I had never considered what the design of the flag of their city state would look like. Plus, they are of an elite magic class and would use a flag to announce their own arrival to the capital. So while writing, I paused and thought about those two flags and came up with designs that worked great. At the moment of writing, I was in the zone, the feel and mood of the scene and the situation of their arrival, and I think that helped me when deciding the designs of those flags.

    The flags are not going to play a major role, themselves, in the story, but they do add some interesting flavor because of what they "say" about that city state and the elite group of magic users.

    I suspect that the most important aspects of the world, those that are very important to the story, will already have been considered by you in the year you've been prepping. But it's all those "flavoring" aspects that you might not have considered. The good news is that you have a lot of freedom in choosing those. Think of how you'd describe a prince's private quarters or the main room of a tavern that happens to be used in a scene, or the clothing your characters wear throughout a novel; do you have all those little details determined before you begin writing or do you decide them largely on the fly? These flavoring aspects of the world are similar, in that they may be important for giving your world a vibrancy but are not particularly important to the story and plot of your book.

    Others have already given good advice in this thread. I'd just add, or reiterate, that keeping a list of these details that you've decided on the fly is a good thing–so you don't forget them. I will probably use those flags, or at least their symbols, later when describing a scene, and I wouldn't want to use something else by accident or because I forgot.
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2016
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  9. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    Another thing i do to speed edits along, is to highlight things that relate to a specific question. Just recently, a friend suggested a visible physical feature that I could have certain persons in my world have, that would indicate readily whether they had a particular disease. I hadn't considered that before. So, because the book is in its final editing phases, I don't want to just start inserting descriptions here and there...and then maybe choose not to go with the concept. If I do that, I'll have to hunt them all down, and that's tedious. So, when I inserted them into the text, I highlighted all those lines and references to the physical symptom, in green. I use a yellow highlight for when I know something's not as strong as it needs to be (like a sentence or description, or even a whole conversation, sometimes), and now green is for the disease.

    I find that highlighting works for me (in this case) because it also allows me to scroll quickly through chapters of a document and see how many references there are total, specifically relating to that one thing.

    Another thing about world-building, is that a couple details go a long way. I don't want to make generalizations too sweeping, because that's unfair to the many great books that defied the "norm", but very few books reinvent everything. One reason why, is because people just don't want to slog through learning all about a new world, where some of the "new" concepts highlighted...are sadly just dull. I'll give you a little example of a blood-color thing I did, not because I think I handled it awesome, but because I want to encourage you to let go of a little of your anxiety.

    So, I had a werewolf that saved this woman's life. She saw him shift forms, but thinks he's a wizard. Later, she says he must be a powerful magician to shift forms. He laughs and says that he commands no magic, but IS magic. She scoffs and says, "You're a flesh and blood human, not some creature of magic like the woodland fae." To which he replies, "Yeah, good thing werewolves bleed red, not blue like the face, because that would make it significantly harder to live in human towns." So....my point is, that if you're going to make a cool detail about your world, find a fun way to bring it into the story. Make that little detail sort of a point, in a way.

    There will always be more questions. There will always be more that you COULD have charted, drawn, mapped, researched. If you let it become a disease, it'll halt your progress whenever you aren't quite sure about even a little thing. And to be honest...I'm not sure about a lot of things, every day. It's the nature of writing. I think there are loads of people who probably make all the rules up front, who know exactly everything about their characters before they begin writing, but there are loads more who use discovery writing to flesh things out in an organic way. Brandon Sanderson has a great amount to say on this exact subject. He's a plotter, an outliner, a writer who sits down knowing the kind of story he's going to tell. But his characters are realized through exploration and trying things. And he begins on the first chapter and writes straight thorough to the end of the book, before going back and making any changes to world-building details. He says he puts notes into the text to himself that he'll read through before revising. I do the same. Let's say I decided that my mc in that scene above was now going to freak out when he says he's a werewolf. I put in a note that in editing, that I should make her attitude toward him first shocked, then afraid. And when I go to edit it, I can read the note I wrote, to sort of prepare me what I'll be writing that day...because if I didn't write the note, I would forget. And sometimes when i get there, and read the original scene, I choose another direction entirely, and disregard the note.

    If every time you want to try something new, you go back and edit it into every section it would appear, you soon spend endless hours revising things that quickly get confusing and disjointed. I used to do that...and I ended up with schizophrenic characters who seemed never to react the same to anything.
    GwenhwyfarRaven likes this.
  10. Trick

    Trick Auror

    I have a document by Patricia Wrede that is all about making sure you answer the important world-building questions. It is very helpful for a quick(ish) world-build when you want to know you've covered your bases and get to the important part: writing. It is not for info that necessarily has to go in the book - it is for you to have a properly fleshed out world and to know things that will affect the story so you can write them on the fly.

    I am happy to share it with the OP or anyone but please, please, please don't make it just another thing that makes world-building overtake your life. If you can avoid that, I'd love to send it around.
    GwenhwyfarRaven likes this.
  11. GwenhwyfarRaven

    GwenhwyfarRaven Dreamer

    Wow, that is a lot of amazing advice. I'm really new here, so I'm relieved and inspired by the responsiveness of the community! I feel so welcome! :')

    Firstly, I'll note that the color of blood in this particular case was a bigger deal than it seems outside of this fantasy realm because of its relationship to racism. Every race in this world (there are 6) has a different skin color, and words related to color are closely tied with association with that race. You know how we often think of people in our own world as "we're all human" because we all bleed red? I wanted a similar type of thing in this world, but I didn't want the color of blood to be connected with a specific race. In this case, I ended up going with blood that is silver when wet and warm, but coagulated to a pewter/hematite-looking color. It works out really well :)

    On the other hand, when I do jump into the story, I end up adding thing to the character spontaneously, details that I also like. One time I randomly decided she had a pet wolf now lol. But I'm afraid to casually write something about the blood being red and not realize the kind of implications that has until changing it involves a huge process.

    Ultimately, I think I'm putting too much time into planning and not putting any faith in my editing. The tips in this post should be really helpful to make me feel like it's not the end of the world if I decide to change something later :)

    What I'm most afraid of with world-building (probably because I've never made a whole world for a story before this) is that I've missed something major. It wasn't long ago that I realized I'd never considered how people are even educated. I got government, religion, and now education covered, but another example of something I'm not so sure about at the moment is currency. It would be nice if there was some kind of quick "5 Things to Know About Your World Before You Start" thing lol. I know it can't be that convenient.

    After everyone's posts here, I do feel easier about stuff like landmarks and whatnot. That's probably a lot more interesting to have them come up as I write.
  12. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    >What I'm most afraid of with world-building ... is that I've missed something major.
    Don't worry about it. That's what beta readers and editors are for. Just resign yourself to missing something major and having to do some sort of massive edit because of it. Embrace the pain. :)

    There are in fact a number of lists for world building out there. Just search on "world building tips" or even just "world building". We'll check back with you in a month or two!
    GwenhwyfarRaven likes this.
  13. Chessie

    Chessie Guest


    I make up most of my worldbuilding details as I go along. There are some things that I need to look up while I'm writing; for example anything to do with weapons or armor. It's actually one of the reasons why my stories don't have many battle scenes. I freaking hate them and I despise even more needing to look up things that do not interest me whatsoever. But sometimes it needs to happen.

    But yeah, stick to the story and the plot. Don't let details be what holds you back from writing because in actuality, it's procrastination to the highest degree.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 25, 2016
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