World-building and Being a SFF Writer

One of my goals for the next two months is to read through the edits I paid for to the first novel and see what I agree with and will take and what I don’t agree with and won’t take.  I already mentioned that I’m not necessarily convinced that I need to write my novel in such a way that it shows that I think the world I’m writing about is “a bad place.”

The other major high-level critique of the novel was about the level of world-building in the story itself.  I have about two pages of questions from the person who reviewed it about the world.  How did it come to be?  What is this person’s role?  etc.  I know most of the answers, but they aren’t directly relevant to the story so didn’t make it into the text itself. 

In a culture with no preserved history records that denies the merits of individuals, no one is going to walk around discussing the founding of the country.

Another example: the world where the story takes place includes a series of huts that travelers can stay at as they travel that have bunks to sleep on and emergency provisions.  Nowhere does the story discuss who maintains these huts.  To me, it wasn’t relevant to the story itself.  None of the characters are responsible for maintaining the huts and I didn’t see the point of wasting three paragraphs to have two characters discuss it.  The whole novel is in deep third person, so only two maybe three viewpoint characters would even think about it (and know the answer).

(Of course, as I wrote that paragraph I thought of about three different places where I could slip it into the story.  The question is, do I want to?)

And I think this circles back to how much of a SFF writer I actually am.  I’ve always read SFF.  It’s by far my preferred genre.  But the more I get into writing SFF, the more I realize that I am not in fact that deep into the genre as a reader nor am I that deep into the genre as a writer.  (Even though I’ve read hundreds of books in the genre…)

I just finished reading Ready Player One and a couple of months ago I read Among Others.  Both have received rave reviews, but reading them it occurred to me how little I actually am part of the SFF genre.  There was a whole layer of experience and meaning in those books that wasn’t relevant to me.  Sure, I’d played some of those games or read some of those books, but not at that level of intensity or focus.  So, one of those books still worked for me due to the story telling behind those allusions, but the other really didn’t.  Certainly not in the way it had for many others.

It reminds me of many, many years ago when I read the Waiting for the Galactic Bus series by Parke Godwin.  (Pretty sure it was that series…)  And there were people who were clearly meant to be historical figures in the books, but I (ten years old or whatever I was at the time) had no idea who they were.  It was like the book was full of a series of inside jokes that I just didn’t get.  I knew they were there to get, but I had no frame of reference for them.

So, when I think about my own writing, the question becomes how much I, a writer who maybe isn’t as firmly wrapped up in SFF as I might have thought, need to or want to honor the conventions of that genre.  I know I can’t please everyone, but if I can’t find a way to write that appeals to at least some readers, I’m never going to get anywhere with my writing.

But if I try to please the  core of SFF fandom, it’s quite possible I’ll actually lose the readers like myself who skirt the edges of it.  (But if I don’t try to do so, I may never find someone to publish what I write because it’ll be too speculative for the fiction section and not enough SFF for the genre section…)

I think it’s important to have enough world-building in the story so readers know that you know the answers to everything they aren’t seeing behind the scenes.  And I probably will include a bit more on those matters.  But, for me, as much as I am writing about a societal structure and wanted to explore that idea, I wrote this as the story of individuals in that world and I think I need to honor that and stick to what they know and care about.

(This is not Les Miserables where Hugo decides to stop and tell you the history of the sewers of Paris for a whole chapter.  Nor do I want it to be.)

Ah, if only this whole writing thing were as simple as just sitting down and writing…

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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4 Responses to World-building and Being a SFF Writer

  1. Keri Peardon says:

    Something I’ve found very helpful is writing what I call “apocrypha.” I have background information that explains how my vampires’ world works and their history. Then I have short stories involving my characters which happen outside the timeline of the series.

    Once I know what my characters were doing before they got into my story, I find little ways to slip in mentions of their past (most of the time they–not the omniscient narrator–mention their past; it can also help if you have one character that’s a bit behind everyone else, so someone has the opportunity to bring him–and the reader–up to speed).

    And, even when I don’t use all the information I have at my disposal, I think it helps my writing, because I write like I know what’s going on, even if I don’t explain it to the reader. Confidence in my world, I suppose you would say.

    (I also find writing apocrypha to be a good thing to do when you don’t feel like writing your book or are suffering writer’s block. Because it won’t be in your book, it’s a lot less stress; because it’s a short story, you don’t have to worry about plot or action–your characters can just interact; and it can give you ideas for your main book.)

    • mhleewriter says:

      Interesting approach. Might be worth trying.

      I do know a ton of backstory about my characters and world, I just don’t necessarily think it all needs to be in the novel…I think there’s a balance to be reached. Most of my “just readers” betas were fine with the level of detail. It was just this professional that wanted so much more…

  2. Dave Higgins says:

    Artistically, I feel you should keep as much of the commentary in-world as possible, so if everyone accepts a (to us) evil as right then keep it.

    Pragmatically, your manuscript will be more likely to make it past a publisher’s initial read if it is less contentious.

    Another example of it hitting major writers: the death of James Herbert brought to the surface an argument about his supposed hatred of the disabled. One of his books had a reincarnation theme where you got a body that fitted your past life, so the disabled had all been less than perfect in a past life. Despite being a trope with a long history (a similar idea occurs in Shakespeare) some readers managed to parley this into Herbert thinks the disabled are evil because the plot would have worked if some disabled people were not evil in a past life.

    I read widely and can handle sci-fi that is mostly character driven, and believe that many other people can also. Outside of the UK/US style sci-fi as proper writing first and genre second is almost expected.

    This is turning into a post in itself so I will exit with one horrifying thought: Victor Hugo wrote in a publishing culture that had a lock on entertainment so equated longer with better; if he wrote today his editor might not red pencil all mention of there being sewers – but only if they were critical to the plot.

    • mhleewriter says:

      Well, I’ve always been more of an optimist than a pragmatist. 🙂 I tend to acknowledge what I “should” do and then go do what I want to anyway.

      Agreed on Hugo. No way his book would get published the way it was written today. (I have to admit, as much as I loved that book, I never did finish it. I think I made it about 800 pages or so before I finally stopped.)

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