World Builder’s Disease: Knowing the Sickness

World Builder's Disease.jpgWorking as an editor, I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with other writers.  For me, getting to be a part of the process of creation is very rewarding.  However, it doesn’t come without peril.  Part of being an editor, much like being a doctor, is that you have to develop a sort of bedside manner.  When you look into the eyes of a vulnerable writer during review and utter, “My concern is that you have developed late stage World Builder’s Disease,” you need to be able to at least explain the nature of the sickness.  (Okay, I might not say it just like that — but I’m trying to make a point).

Some of you may already know, but World Builder’s Disease is basically when a writer gets so lost in the backstory of the world they are creating that they produce endless pages of history, character background, cultural information, and setting.  The characters, conflicts, and actual telling of the story become secondary to this grand history and complex world.  The book begins to look like an anthropological dissertation, instead of a story.

If you are completely unfamiliar with this term (or concerned that rash on your neck is actually World Builder’s Disease manifesting physically) there are a few sources I would recommend checking out.

The first thing to do would be to swing over to Writing Excuses and listen to the Season 3, Episode 1 podcast titled World Building History.  I’ve mentioned this website in a few of my posts already and will continue to do so.  There’s a reason the website is listed as one of the top 101 websites for writers by Writer’s Digest.  It’s an awesome source of information.

Gentleman World Builder.jpgNext, you should review, (The Dreaded) World Builder’s Disease from The Writersaurus blog. It’s a fun read and a very descriptive look at the menace.  This blog is loaded with some fun, writing specific, content.

Finally, check out the article The Truth About World Building Disease, from the website, The Worldbuilding School.  The article offers a basic explanation of World Builder’s Disease and explains some causes.  If you wanted to get a map illustrated for your work, this would be a good place to check out.  Additionally, if you are suffering from a lack of world building, this is a good place to start getting the gears moving.

Now for my two cents.  I feel writers have the most trouble recovering from this because the words are coming easily.  We hear this all the time: “Just write.  Meet those daily goals. You’re right if you just write.”  I still agree with these statements.  Just because you have a stack of paper with no real story, doesn’t mean its useless.  It just doesn’t have use as a publishable story just yet.

history.jpgSo if you have sat down and blasted out inches worth of unrelated historical information regarding a world, character, or item — don’t despair.  Set it aside and use it as part of your reference material.  Try sprinkling in some of it as descriptive beats and reveal the history throughout the course of your book.  Maybe you can set up a wiki page for your readers on your blog or website that lists this extra information after the book drops?  Or you could use this extra info to market your book before release, like I’ve been doing with my Wasteland Wednesday posts.

Regardless, unless you are working against a deadline, or have finished the book only to realize half of it is historical information (i.e. not characters dealing with conflicts), then don’t stress it.  Everyone’s creative process works differently.  Some people have the easiest time writing their characters, some people surge when they write conflicts, and other people create unbelievably complex worlds, histories, and cultures.  A blending of these things is what we need.

question-markAre you a sufferer of this affliction?  Do you know someone who is?  Do you have a cure that works for you?  Let me know.  While I don’t have a magic elixir, sometimes just addressing it works as a soothing balm.  Thanks for reading and be sure to stop by tomorrow.  Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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23 responses

  1. Such awesome advice here! I know I have a tendency to do this, I’m bad 😦 I try to get the base of my world down but then I get carried away with it. When it comes to creating new worlds, we have endless possibilities, but everything needs to be balanced.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think we all do it to a certain degree. It can be very challenging to not get carried away when you are putting it all together. Even for those who aren’t creating a whole new world it can be hard to navigate.

      A good example would be a client/friend I edit for who writes historic fiction. So fiction based (albeit loosely) on world history. He has a tendency to fall into the world building trap because he is absolutely in love with history and has the written history of the world available to him. The challenge becomes – what is relevant to the story, versus, what is relevant to you as the author.

      Ultimately, if the backstory isn’t driving your character’s actions and emotions, or shaping the conflicts they are dealing with, then it is probably less essential. Again, this isn’t a written in stone rule, but more of a guideline. Thanks for stopping by and posting and good luck fighting the sickness!

      Liked by 4 people

    • I’m the same way. It’s a byproduct of being too close to the work I think. I often see the details in my mind when I write, but fail to write them down. I usually don’t realize it until an alpha or beta readers gives me the heads up.

      Good luck finding the balance 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As long as you are producing stories and not just pages of documents suited only for some fictional anthropologist in your world, I think more is better than less. I know my Halcrest setting backward and forward–and the stories I write in it are stronger for it.

    For Crevlock Tower, I just created a few setting hooks and ran with it. And, while that’s been fun, the “rough and ready” version of that story will need a ton of edits before it’s good to publish. So many little inconsistencies–stuff that would never happen when I write in Halcrest!

    So, having tried a minimalist approach, I want to go back to really planning out a world–or whatever small part of it the story takes place in. (Arguably, of course, there is a middle ground!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you are right in saying there is some sort of middle ground. But you are also right in that the middle ground is highly contested and spans widely. A lot of it, as you sort of hinted toward, is based on reader expectation. As the author, we sort of set the benchmark. Our own style and level of world building often sets the tone for our books and gives repeat readers an idea of what they are going to be getting.

      I know for my own work (Wastelander) I have spent more than a few of my writing days breaking down the globe and working on world building. I want to write a series, and to do this I needed to have a grasp of the world at large. What I like about this first book being first person, is that is allowed me to introduce the concept, without forcing me to reveal the scope of world events. Now as I presumably more forward (i.e. my soul doesn’t get too shattered by reviews), I can start revealing more pieces of the larger world.

      In this way, I like to think of my world building disease as a manageable sickness that I medicate over time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think anyone can CURE World Builder’s Disease, but you can learn to MANAGE it. That is, you can let it take over your life so it doesn’t take over your writing. 🙂

    The key, I think, is to find some non-writing outlet for all that research, all those facts and ideas churning in your creative brain.

    Make maps. Design clothing/armor based on how the people in your story dress, and then MAKE those things, if you have the skill. Cook food from that culture, too. Draw/paint pictures of people and places from your fiction… in an art style prevalent in that setting. Heck, draw pictures of their weapons, if that’s your thing. Compose music. Convert to the religion you invented just for your fantasy novel, and make sure you celebrate the relevant holidays appropriately.

    You get the idea. When you have something to do with those details OTHER than put them in your novel, you suddenly feel less pressure to WRITE about literally everything you know about your story’s world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are a bunch of things I love about this comment. First, the idea of letting your story spill into the real world is genius. Secondly, I’m now imagining myself wandering around the neighborhood covered in religious tattoos and purging the faithless.

      In all seriousness, I agree with what you are saying. There are a number of elements I couldn’t include in my current book, and I often find myself sketching, writing vignettes, and doing other things to expel them from my brain and keep them from bogging down my story. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll find a use for them. (I don’t know how my wife would feel if a I started digging a fallout shelter in the backyard…or how the local HOA might react. So for now, I’ll stick to drawing and writing.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I found my solution was to make basic notes of the world first, then write the first draft. This way, any divergences in my story still have room to occur and I have an easier time adapting the background information to the new content. Just as has been said dozens of times, world building should serve the story, not vice versa.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. As reading 1,200 has shown you, my fear of world building has caused the opposite issue. Some of my scenes, characters and ideas are too hard to see because I’m just BURNING through the outline. I’m working to do a better job of lacing in the more useful information (and 1,200 was chronologically my fifth book, and the last that I discovery wrote). Those pages are dear because when MY editor asks questions like “Why don’t they?” or “When did they?” or “How is that possible?” I know that I can go back to my notes or thoughts and plug them in. You really don’t want EDITORS being the ones to point that out though.

    Liked by 1 person

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