Thursday, 29 April 2010

Building a world from scratch

Yesterday, I had an email back from the agent who had been considering the full manuscript of ECHOES. It was a rejection (and yes, I'm fairly gutted, but also determined to keep trying), but as far as rejections go, it was an encouraging one. The agent made an excellent point: he told me he couldn't invest himself wholly in the story because he found himself asking too many questions about my echoes and the world they exist in.

This got me thinking about world-building, and how important it really is. ECHOES is urban fantasy, which means I haven't created a world from scratch, I've simply re-created our world to incorporate echoes, Weavers and everything associated with them. Nevertheless, I've created a concept from scratch, and so, it must be fleshed out.

As it happens, I know the world I've created. I know almost everything there is to know about echoes, Weavers, the process, the materials, the tricks, the hunters, etc, etc. But, obviously, most of this information won't make it into the text. It never will. Some information, if you're writing a series, will only be revealed later.

But as my rejection shows, balance is key. Yes, I have questions that will only be answered in later books. Yes, some information I'll never actually use. But at the same time, there's a lot I haven't explored in the text that I should have. The agent in question pointed out a few questions that, while the answers seemed obvious to me, obviously weren't addressed skilfully enough in the actual novel. 

I think that's the ultimate struggle for a writer. Because we know our stories so well, we tend to leave out information that might not seem necessary because it seems to obvious to us. And yet it's information the reader needs filled in.

If a reader can't believe completely, wholly in your world, the book won't work. At least, in my opinion and, based on what I've just learned.

Backdrop is essential, but again, it's about balance. You don't want to bombard and bore your readers with unnecessary details. I think Jacqueline Carey does this beautifully in her books set in the fictional Terre d'Ange. I've only read the first Kushiel trilogy (which I love), but I have no doubt this holds true for all of her novels. A skewed, fantastical version of France and Europe, this world feels completely real to the reader because questions about it are answered. Slowly, skilfully, and without any unnecessary details that you might not give a toss about. 

If you're struggling with providing a solid backdrop for your fictional or recreated world that doesn't bog the reader down, I reckon it's a great idea to look carefully at your favourite book that creates or recreates a world. Try and pinpoint exactly how that writer provides backdrop, world-detail and information effectively.

So, for example, how does Jacqueline Carey flesh out her world for us? Briefly, I think she:

1. Tells stories within the story. Instead of saying, 'right, look, so Elua came to Terre d'Ange and loved it, because it was the first place the people welcomed him', she weaves the history into a beautiful story, detailing Elua's struggles, and conflicts, before reaching the resolution. This gives the reader plenty of character detail, background information and also keeps us interested through the device of storytelling.

2. Gives us things we can relate to. By using familiar words, even if used in a different context, she makes us aware of exactly what she means. For instance, it's unnecessary for her to delve deeply into exactly how 'ancient Tiberium' is the equivalent of the Roman Empire. The very name 'Tiberium' puts us in mind of it. Similarly, naming the Skaldi 'Gunter' and 'Hedwig' makes it fairly clear that they are loosely based on Germany. 

This is a key instance of balance, where the author gives us information, but allows us to use our own knowledge to supply the analogy. This is where you trust your reader to know that 'Gunter' is a generally German name, for example. But the balance here is artful because, ultimately, even if the reader doesn't know this, it doesn't in any way hamper their understanding of the story.

I think this is where I failed in my balance; I expect readers to rapidly understand more than they possibly could of my fictional world, and when they don't, it does bring up too many questions.

So this is my opinion of how world-building can or should work, and do feel free to disagree with me or to add anything you think I've missed out. Do you create worlds? How do you go about it and how do you find that 'balance'?

With that, I'll leave you to it, and go off to a) wonder if other agents considering ECHOES will feel differently, and b) ponder how I'm going to revise it.


  1. poor sangu! still got one out there though!

    hopefully you can make it more appealing for agentses and publisherers and readers (obv.) ?

  2. this is a brilliant post, and really usefull. and as a fellow jacqueline carey fan, thank you for so cleverly pointing out how her worldbuilding works. i'm sure yours is better than you think!