Thursday, December 12, 2013

World building

I'm seeing a lot of queries for historical novels that clock in around 70K. My first thought on seeing that word count is "there's no way you can build a world and tell a story with so few words."

If I read the first couple pages, or even sometimes more, my suspicions were correct almost 100% of the time --  the world building is flawed.

Well, you might ask, what the hell is world building?  Editor Keith Kahla once told me world building wasn't just the room, it was the furniture and the art.  He didn't mean that specifically, he meant it as a metaphor.  It's not just what's there, it's what gives the place character. It's the scars and distinguishing marks and the mannerisms.  It's the smell of a place. It's the layers and nuances of the setting.

Still not clear?

Well, often times the best way to see what something is, is to see a good example.

Here are the six books that the Romantic Times nominated for Best Urban Fantasy world building for 2013.

Trickster by Jeff Somers
"Everything in this book seemed to work together: the setting, the magic, the language, the characters were all very consistent to create a world I was instantly drawn into"--Amazon review

Heart of Venom by Jennifer Estep
"The world building grows and grows with each book."--Amazon review

Blood Winter by Diana Pharaoh Francis
"It is a superbly created world overflowing with complex characters." --Amazon review

 Last Blood by Kristen Painter
"Kristen Painter's Blood Rights is dark and rich with layer after delicious layer"--Gena Showalter

Touch of the Demon by Diana Rowland
"Phenomenal world building"--All Things Urban Fantasy

Ritual Magic by Eileen Wilks
"can't wait to visit this world again"--Amazon review

[When you buy these books for research, they're tax deductible as a business expense!]


Anonymous said...

I'm learning quite a bit about world building in my latest effort. Not only am I trying to focus on the elements you mention, I've also taken some words out of our everyday language and flipped them around to mean something else to my characters.

And now, I have a question about the term "world building." What makes the difference between building a world or establishing a setting? In reading Keith Kahla's explanation, it would seem the two are one and the same. Maybe this is a question for Question Emporium...

Sunny Acres said...

I can't imagine trying to build a complex world in 70K. I feel horribly constrained at 120K, the apparent limit for a first-time novel.

Mary said...

Maybe you can help me here. I hired a development editor for my novel ms. At that time the word count was about 85k. My target is small presses. The editor told me that for these, expense was a big factor. Moving from 250 to 300 pages was an expense in print run that might cause them not to accept the novel. (Not a historical novel btw). Thoughts?

Patty Blount said...

@Donna -- Here's my take on world-building. It includes more than merely setting. It includes the "rules" you're establishing for living in your characters' environment -- the things that constrain your character from simply taking over that world with a single surge of power -- whatever that power is.

Example: I read this novel in which the heroine has visions of a serial killer committing his crimes FROM HIS EYES, so she can't ID him. Every vision leaves her physically drained and she lapses into sleep that's almost like a coma and it lasts for days. Lo and behold, by the end of the story, she knows who the killer is and he's coming for her but suddenly -- her fatigue is magically gone. This ruined the story for me -- if she'd been passing out just as he raises his knife, that follows the rules already established for this character's world -- but I suppose the author wanted the character to 'save the day' and thus, magically removed a constraint I'd just spent 200 pages learning to anticipate.

Suzanne said...

Any idea on how this translates to children's books? Would agents expect historical MG and YA to be longer to account for world-building?

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

In everyday conversation, I have trouble making accurate assumptions about what knowledge I can rely on people having, and as a result, I feel writing historical fiction must be particularly difficult.

If writing fictionally about historical periods (or events, or characters), I've got to really assume people are not necessarily going to know what I'm referencing And then I must find the balance between infodump and world building and telling just enough without becoming condescending or repetative.

Anonymous said...

@Patty Blount - thanks for that! For example, I know one of my fave series (Boardwalk Empire) has that strong element of world do many other shows on TV...but understanding how or what made it different than setting was a head scratcher - until your mention of rules.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Cascade Range and a pissed off Helen.
If there is a volcano it helps to know the core of your world is filled with hot stuff. If all you see is mountains, trees and pyroclastic flow how the hell do you (the reader) know to run (the tension) your ass off or you will be blistered (the threat) to death.

But then again what the hell do I know? My non-fiction world, (columns) is all about me.

Anonymous said...

Science fiction and fantasy short stories have to build worlds in limited space all the time. It is possible, but not easy.

Kari Lynn Dell said...

My current favorite for world-building: I'm reading a book called Sirens by Janet Fox that's set in New York in the 1920's. She has done a superb job of creating that era, the social mores and upheaval that were going on, so much so I'd read this book solely for the experience, even if the plotting and characters weren't equally well done.

Elissa M said...

As tomalanbrosz said, world building is the heart of SF/F. That's the main reason people can sometimes get away with door-stop sized books in those genre.

BTW, I loved "Trickster" and heartily recommend it to anyone researching world building-- or just wanting a fantastic read.

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

Interesting post. I'm just wondering, how many words beyond 70k would it take, in your opinion? I have been complimented on my world building and my novel comes in at about 98,000 words. I'm not saying you can do a good job of it in 70k, but I'm wondering if 100k would tip the balance for you or do you feel you have to go all the way to epic with about 120k?

Helen DeWitt said...

I wonder if it's a bit more complicated. If you look at, on the one hand, Jane Austen, and, on the other hand, Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, Georgette Heyer, the latter do something we perceive as world building, because they signal the distance between what the reader takes for granted and what the characters take for granted. Austen naturally doesn't do this.

In theory, a historical or SF novel could look no different from an Austen novel - one that wrote as if for an audience which took for granted what the characters took for granted. In practice, the writer from a distance seems to offer more detail, not because knowing what people wore or how they furnished their houses or how they got from A to B was needed to make the story work, but because it was needed to make the irony work. The pleasure of the book is different, it lies in part in the reader's awareness of the gap between what the reader knows and what the characters know, and that particular pleasure does beef up a word count.