Morning, welcome back to Open Mic Mondays. Over the next few weeks you’ll see a range of writers talking about subjects close to their heart here and it gives me immense pleasure to introduce JC Hutchins to get us kicked off. Hutch is one of the reasons I got into podcasting. He, the Variant Frequencies team (Especially Matt Wallace) and Escape Artists were the first podcasts I listened to. It was a 56k dial up modem so it took about twenty minutes for one episode to stream but it was worth it every single time. Without those writers, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Now, Hutch is back with a new serial called The 33, the first part of which is available now. I invited him to talk about the worldbuilding process he uses for the series and he was kind enough to oblige. So, over to you Hutch.
I’m a fiction writer. I try, with varying degrees of success, to herd words in interesting ways to entertain strangers. If you’re keen to get into this weird profession, I’d like to share an insight from the trenches.
Last week, I finally flipped the switch on a project that had been making noise in my head for years. The first monthly episode of The 33 — my sci-fi / supernatural episodic short story series — went out into the wild. And so did a super-sized exhale from me. This thing had been in my head since 2008.
Veteran writers say ideas for things like The 33 are easy to concoct. I largely agree with that. I mean, how difficult is it to swipe inspiration from some of your favorite TV shows and comics, and throw them into your brain blender? (For The 33, it’s the A-Team and The X-Files, with a dash of Hellboy and Global Frequency added for apocalyptic spice.) And how tough is it to pour that frappe onto notebook pages, scribbling all kinds of messages for your future self to review and incorporate into his manuscript?
Have you ever done that? Worldbuilding? Oh man, it’s the shit. The stuff comes in wave after wave of buzzy creativity, an ecstatic drug high without the Tuesday blues, all those character origin stories and universe mythologies and plot lines you’ll someday write… The pen in your hand is an unstoppable idea machine, man. You’re so badass, you’re weaponized.
But ideas are cheap, they say. Executing on those ideas is everything, they say. It’s true.
By my reckoning, escaping the intoxicating lullaby of worldbuilding is — for so many writers-to-be — the key to execution. You gotta burn the safe, warm, worry-free security blanket that worldbuilding provides.
When you’re worldbuilding … when you’re cooking up “rules” and nuances that make your story’s universe unique from others … you’re certainly flexing creative muscles. You are, without question, crafting valuable resources in your mind. This is not wasted time.
But how much time are you spending doing this? How many notebooks are you filling with innovative, but ultimately cheap, ideas? (Remember: Execution is everything. Execution is what makes books and storytelling careers.) How many narrative blueprints of canon and continuity are you designing before ever laying down a single brick — writing a single word — for your manuscript?
Worldbuilding is unfulfilled writing. Do enough of it, and it becomes wankery, plain and simple.
Don’t wank, man. Write.
I’m guilty of this. I love the safety of worldbuilding, and wasted far too much time doing it for The 33. See, I love that cozy part of my braincave, the place where I let my imagination rocket and ricochet like a pinball. There it can zig and zag without judgment or reservation, picking up ideas as it goes. Here, I play What If? with abandon, riffing and scribbling it all down like I’m in some kind of fever dream. It’s bliss, but it’s not writing.
Ah, but it feels like writing. That’s the slinky seduction of it. But there’s nothing at stake for you as a creator. No accountability. No product to present to a sometimes-interested, but often disinterested, world of readers. There’s no skin in the game. There’s no rejection or criticism, for there’s nothing to consume.
Worldbuilding requires the act of putting words on paper, sure … but that’s not writing in the way writing a short story, novel or screenplay is writing. Plot, characters, conflict, dialogue, bleak second acts, knuckle-biting climaxes, reassuring denouements. All that stuff. That’s craft, man. That’s where you need to be, with your fingers flying and your ass on the line, daring the world to taste what you’ve got.
You can’t be there unless you burn the blanket.
How? I’ve found great success in embracing this philosophy: Know enough to write, but not enough to not write.
Put another way, don’t immobilize yourself by crafting monstrous story bibles and alternate histories. If you ever break free from the gravity of those things long enough to actually write your manuscript, you’ll likely find yourself a prisoner to this stuff. The stuff you thought would empower the creative process can shackle it, too. For god’s sake, stop trying to be Tolkien. Ditch the tweed jacket. Take off the tie. Untuck your shirt.
Keep the pipe. The pipe’s pretty rad.
But don’t become a slave to notebooks of make-believe history. Just make note of some high points of your ‘verse and get writing. Get loosey-goosey. In the end, this writing thing isn’t about the world you’ve made. It’s about the characters you put in it, and the interesting problems you give them to solve. The world is the proscenium, not the star of the show. Keep the spotlight — both in the planning stages of your writing, and in the writing itself — on the characters and conflict.
Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of time to inject details about your world, and illustrate what makes it special and different, as you write and revise your story. You just gotta start laying bricks, is all. Write, don’t wank.
When I think critically about worldbuilding, and think about what well-known stories do it properly, my mind always circles back to the first Star Wars movie. We learned just enough about that fictional universe to be intrigued by it, and to sense that it was much larger than what we were seeing on-screen. There were a few syllables about Clone Wars and decades-ago betrayal and Kessel Runs and some bad hombre named Jabba. Our imaginations did the rest.
N one talked about how the lightsabers and blaster pistols, or the hyperdrive — or even the Force — worked. They just did. Boom. Done.
Sometimes, you need to explain how things work in your stories. And sometimes you need to paint a more vivid picture of your storyworld’s history than some hand-wavy talk about patricide. But when all that yakking slows the narrative’s momentum — when it reads like a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual or Wookieepedia entry — you’ve got problems. You’ve become a slave to worldbuilding.
So. Know enough about your world to write in it, but not so much that you can’t write in it. The sweet, safe dreamland that worldbuilding presents has value, but stay there too long, and you risk snoozeville for your ambitions as a storyteller. It’s one thing to carve the chess pieces; it’s another to play the game.
Thanks, Hutch. If you want to find out more, click these links:
Next week, Jen Williams, author of the superb The Copper Promise, talks about one of her all time favorite characters. See you then.