I’m making the slow and sometimes rather painful transition from a full-on pantser to an outliner. The changes aren’t just about the outline, though. I used to be on much more of a need-to-know basis with not only what was going to happen in the book, but with the back stories of my characters and my worlds.
Sometimes, I’d start writing an entire book with no more forethought than a single scene. A single conversation. Hmm…. Okay, so there’s this boy hidden in a tree, trying to keep quiet as this mass of white-hooded figures glide through the woods below him, moving to some unheard music. Suddenly, one of the figures stops moving. It’s a girl, snapped out of some kind of trance. She begins freaking out, trying to push out of the mass of humanity around her. The boy watches, mystified and helpless…and that’s it. I know nothing else, not even the character’s names or why they’re in the woods or what the heck is happening with the girl or the white-hooded people.
It was a fun way to write, and I loved learning about the story as I wrote it, developing the plot and the characters as I went along. But it was a tangled process, and more often than not, I’d get caught up in one mess after another, write myself into corners, and realize that I don’t really know the motivations behind my character’s actions or the laws of my world.
I was sort of doing things backwards. Instead of cause and effect, I was writing the effect first and then scrambling to figure out the cause. Sometimes it worked out great. Other times, not so much–especially if the world was complicated.
Enter the world-building document. I’d had “random notes” documents before, and moleskines are always handy, but I’ve recently put together my real world-building document. Now, I didn’t even start working on it until I was well past my first draft, but my second world-building doc is for an unfinished WIP.
I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to go about making a doc like this. I like to write about worlds unlike our own, so I start out by outlining all the important history of this world. Basically, what has happened in the past that leads up to events in your books? This section doesn’t directly mention my characters, only the world they live in.
I then have sections for each of the main characters and write their backstories. What has happened in their lives to make them them? What motivates them to perform the actions they undertake in the novel proper? How did they get to be where they are?
I don’t know about you, but I actually adore this kind of stuff, so I can go on for 10k just in the world-building doc alone. I never thought it would be so useful–not only for checking up on facts to make sure they stay straight in the book, but just to make things more concrete.
I had nebulous ideas about much of the history and backstory included in my world-building doc, but typing it all out really helped me see where the potential plot holes lay and where I needed to strengthen motivation or some such. Plus, it was so much fun!
I highly recommend it 😀
Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and spends most of her free time whipping HYBRID–a book about a girl with two souls–into shape for submission to publishers. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.