Category Archives: teaching

Creative Wednesday: Communicating Our World Building To Our Readers

Tomorrow night, I will be giving a talk on world building here at the university, in a themed residential house devoted to writing. The students from the house, at least those I’ve met so far, are earnest and passionate and serious about learning their craft. I’m looking forward to what I expect will be a fun and engaging evening.

For much of the evening, I will be answering questions and thus allowing the interests and concerns of the students to guide our discussion. I’ll open, however, with remarks on what I believe to be some of the keys to good world building. Some of these things I have covered in posts on this site — creating maps for our worlds, developing magic systems, building cultural and social traditions into our worlds through the creation of holidays, customs, and rites.

But I will also focus on the maintenance of our worlds. The feeding and caring of them, if you will. To my mind, one of the central elements of world building is putting all the work we do into practice.

What do I mean by this?

A couple of things, actually. First, I mean that the most important thing we do as writers who create worlds is convey the details of those worlds to our readers. The creation is the easy part. The hard part is sharing with our readers all of the cool things we’ve done, without resorting to data dumps and “as you know, Bob” moments. We want the communication of our world building to be seamless, invisible. We want the information we share to feel as natural as, well, every other part of our narrative. And so the descriptions and explanations of our worlds need to be doled out in ways that are consistent with point of view. Characters should not explain things, either in conversation or exposition, that they would not need to consider or discuss in that given moment. Put another way, if they have no reason to think or talk about these things other than to meet our needs as writers, then we have resorted to contrivance, and that’s not good writing. We need to be driven not by our narrative purposes, but rather by the exigencies faced by our characters. And so, world building needs to be conveyed in tiny increments, rather than in chunks, and it needs to be communicated, at least in part, through spoken language, with idioms and expressions and aphorisms and simple analogies that carry within them vital information.

Think of all the things we say in the course of everyday conversation that actually might give a stranger information about our world, our country, our faith traditions, our history. Elements of our landscape work their way into our speech as examples of grandeur or vastness or desolation or beauty. The same should be true of landscape features in our worlds. Figures from our history embody nobility, wisdom, generosity, courage, and also deception, betrayal, villainy. So should figures from the histories of our worlds. Tenets of faith become components of our social and cultural values, of our rituals and practices with respect to courtship and familial relationships. Faith should have a similar influence in our created worlds. I can go on, but I think you get the idea. We have to learn to write our worlds into our stories with the subtlety and pervasiveness of our own world’s insinuation into our language. That is how we communicate our world building without bludgeoning our readers with it.

And then the other element of this, the flip side of the same artistic coin, is making absolutely certain that expressions and analogies and all the rest, which might be reflective of our real, modern world, don’t creep into our writing in a way that contaminates our created worlds. We should avoid any figures of speech rooted in our traditions of faith, politics, history, culture, etc. We should avoid temporal anachronisms that might sound too modern for, say, our early-Renaissance-analogous created world. The last thing we wish to do as writers is create a world with painstaking care, only to undermine its credibility with conversations that sound more like something we might overhear in our local Starbucks.

As I say, I only have a short time at the beginning of tomorrow night’s event in which to present what I believe are key world building techniques. But to my mind the elements I have discussed here are so important that even if I had only half as much time, I would still work them in to my remarks.

Best of luck working on your worlds. Keep writing!!

Professional Wednesday: Thoughts on Teaching Writing

As I have mentioned previously, this past weekend, and the weekend before, I participated in the Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop as both a lecturer and a workshop instructor. I gave a talk on writing epic fantasy, and then ran critique groups on fiction writing, query letters, and first pages/synopses. It was a terrific experience. I met and spent online time with new writers, all of whom were passionate and energetic and brimming with new ideas. It reminded me that our genre, and indeed the entire literary world, is constantly remaking itself. At times, publishing industry dinosaurs like me lose sight of that fact. I came away from the conference hopeful for the future of storytelling and reinvigorated with respect to my own work.

Book shelfAs you might expect, I did a great deal of prep work for my various classes — I wouldn’t dream of entering settings like those if I weren’t armed to the teeth with talking points, notes, topics for discussion, etc. For one thing, I have a responsibility to my students, and I take is seriously. And, though I don’t think most people would know it to look at me and listen to me, I suffer from profound stage fright. That preparation is my armor, my spell of warding. If I prepare well, my thinking goes, I’m less likely to make a complete fool of myself. This doesn’t always work — I’m perfectly capable of looking and sounding like an idiot even when I’ve done my homework. Still, I think my strategy is sound, at least in theory…

But my reason for bringing this up is that invariably — and my Futurescapes experience was no different — my best moments as a teacher come when I step away from my prepared remarks and lesson plans, and simply open the room to questions and discussion. It’s not that what I prepare is bad, nor that am I so dazzling on my feet that my Q&As become some sort of transcendent pedagogical spectacle.

No, the magic of those open discussions lies with the students themselves. As much as I try to anticipate questions and concerns with what I prepare, the simple truth is I’m often surprised by the issues raised by my students. And those surprises almost always force me to think about the craft or the business from new perspectives. Their thoughts force me to make connections between seemingly disparate elements of professional writing, which then resonate through my thinking on a whole host of issues.

For example, since answering a question the other day about multiple points of view in a student’s story, and how we decide which elements of a narrative might best be conveyed by a specific character, I find myself rethinking the structure of my current project. With multiple point of view storytelling, our readers always have more information than any one character is likely to, allowing our readers to anticipate key encounters and perceive dangers that remain hidden from our protagonists. But how far ahead of our characters do we want our audience to be? Is it a matter of sentences? Of pages? Of chapters? And how do we decide which plot points deserve that kind of treatment?

I don’t necessarily have answers yet. And the discussion with my students didn’t wander far down this particular path. But as Robert Frost once said, “ideas are a feat of association,” and my conversations with my students have been sparking associations in my head right and left.

I believe that the discussions were similarly stimulating for my students. More than that, though, I think they were comforting. Again and again I was reminded of something that I often take for granted. Writing is a solitary endeavor — now, in our Covid world, more than ever. I am starved for the company of my colleagues, for the opportunity to drink beers with my friends and talk shop. I can’t begin to imagine how desperate I would be for that if I wasn’t a quarter century plus into my career, and all too familiar with the challenges and vicissitudes of this crazy profession. Young writers just want to talk, to hear that others are grappling with problems and harboring hopes similar to their own.

That’s why the unscripted moments of teaching often stand out as the most rewarding. Those are the times when we — student AND teacher — let down our guard a little. That’s when we step out of those strict pedagogical roles and allow ourselves — all of us — simply to be writers.

I’m so grateful to the young writers I encountered who offered me a week filled with such moments. I hope they are still buzzing with creative energy the way I am.