So, while I’ve enjoyed talking productivity and reading habits pretty continuously over the past month or so, I feel that I’ve gotten a bit burnt out over the topic and am ready for a shift. Worry not, for we will return to those things—just not today. Today, I’d like to harken back to a sort of comfort topic for me, which is worldbuilding. Specifically, I want to talk a bit about when it’s time for you, the author, to put aside the worldbuilding tools and get to work on the actual story.
This is a topic that I myself have struggled with. This short post will be a kind of reflection of personal experience, supplemented with online advice I’ve read concerning the topic.
This is the third in a series of writing-based worldbuilding posts which I plan on continuing this year. It’s been very fun so far; I hope you all continue the journey with me. Just remember that whatever I say here is, ultimately, subjective. When it comes down to it, worldbuilding is for you. Do with it as you wish, and don’t let me limit that.
Limit the Time You Spend Worldbuilding
At the forefront of the advice surrounding this topic is the sentiment that you should limit the time you spend worldbuilding if you ever wish to publish a novel. And for the most part, I agree. This is a fundamentally significant step to take—setting boundaries, telling yourself that “okay, after this date, I’m going to start actually writing the book, no matter what.” Of course, this is significantly more important if your income depends on you finishing the book. If you’re only worldbuilding/writing as a hobby, there’s obviously more flexibility in how you spend your time.
Alternatively, you could be like Brandon Sanderson in his early career, spending months on his worldbuilding for “The Stormlight Archive” prior to starting the first book.
Sanderson only did this on one occasion, which he often speaks about when recalling the beginning of his career as a writer. In his lectures on writing and worldbuilding, he presents a much more advisable system of setting design, in which you limit the time you spend constructing your world, giving yourself a set number of days or weeks to achieve this goal. To paraphrase a saying common within productivity circles, the time a task will take shrinks to fit into the time that you allot to it. So when worldbuilding, if you follow this sentiment, limit the time you spend on prewriting, and maybe you’ll finally get it done.
Gardeners vs. Architects
One important thing to remember is the distinction between “gardeners” and “architects,” as fantasy author George R. R. Martin puts it. Which of these you feel you fit into may impact how you go about the worldbuilding process, just as it impacts other areas of writing.
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”George R. R. Martin
When applied to the topic of worldbuilding and setting design, this comparison shines. Some, like Sanderson (a self-proclaimed architect) like to plan out everything beforehand. They’ll spend time building out their world and plot, and so once they get around to writing the story, they’re able to hit the ground running. Others take a different approach, discovering aspects of their world as they write, aspects they never could have imagined until they were really in the characters’ heads. These types of writers are often called gardeners, or discovery writers.
I plan on doing a longer post in the future covering this topic; I think Martin’s analysis is fascinating, and I’d like to use it to compare and contrast popular authors, seeing where they stand. I’d also be curious to know which of the two you think you fall into—are you more of a gardener or more of an architect? Let me know in the comments.
There are a ton of resources online surrounding the art of worldbuilding itself, and so that’s not something I want to get into here, lest I wage a near impossible competition. I do believe the argument of “when to stop,” however, is something that’s rarely been explored.
In the end, how you build your world is your choice. Maybe you’re doing it for a story. Maybe it’s for a roleplaying game, or maybe it’s just for fun. Anyway, you’ve heard my two cents, and take what I’ve said as you will—but now is when your job comes in. Have a plan, stick to it, and get worldbuilding. Let yourself enjoy it, if you can.
If you can’t, what’s the point?