Sometimes revelation comes in the tiniest of exchanges. In the middle of a discussion with a beta partner, she commented that in my book she’s currently critiquing (Federation Cowboy), I know the world too well.
That kind of rocked me back, because one of the stumbling blocks I’ve encountered in that particular world while writing that story is that I know too little about it. And the comment kept niggling at me until I spent some time thinking about why would knowing too little about a world appear to be knowing the world too well?
The book in question is a far-future political space opera with a lot of different sentient species running around in it. It’s really my first long-form attempt at far-future work (I’ve done this in short stories but this is the first novel), and one thing I quickly discovered is that worldbuilding for far-future space opera is just as complex as worldbuilding for epic fantasy. At least if you want to do it right, and, well, I kind of like doing it right and not being cheesy about it (I probably worry too much about my work appearing to be too cheesy and, I dunno, I think I might be too fussy).
However, for me, doing it right isn’t all about maps and moodboards and character sheets and all that stuff (I have massive problems with visualization, especially since I don’t like watching a lot of video and I don’t visualize scenes when I read–I hear it read instead. Yes, I’m one of those). Instead, doing it right is the little pieces that add a bit of authenticity to the story that resonates with a reader. The emotional set pieces that bring it to life. Not the layout of a palace or house or even anything more than a rough doodle of what lies where, but the bits and pieces of everyday life in that world. I’ve seen too many writers get sucked down the rathole of worldbuilding and end up with a massive pile of information about their creation but no story.
Not for me. I want to get the story bones set, then I can go back and figure out what adds those touches of verisimilitude to make the story relatable when I do edits. Lay down those beats and fill in the blanks later.
It’s easy enough to come up with that stuff in historical or contemporary work. Sure, you might need to research to get facts right, but the bits and pieces? Easy enough to set up and describe, but you don’t need to necessarily sit down and think about what does that look like and what function does it have? In most fantasy, once you have the setting together, then you can visualize based on the setting because most of it is going to be in a world close enough to ours. Far-future, however…
I really, really wrestled with this in drafting (which will probably mean significant editing when I get the book back from my beta readers), and made the decision to plug on ahead and just tell my story. I knew what I didn’t want to do, which was stall out when this was just going to be a short book (originally conceived to be a novella). But I knew when drafting that this decision meant a lot more work when I settled in to do those edits and revisions.
I’ve heard this “the writer knows the world too well” critique about books and made it myself about other writers I’ve critiqued, as well as received that critique myself. However, it wasn’t until this particular book that I realized that the opposite could be true…what looks like knowing the world too well so that it doesn’t show up on the page can also be a case of knowing too little about the world in question. But…that’s why you have beta readers and/or developmental editors. Sometimes, as in this case, you already know that this is a potential issue and that you’ll need to spend time on it. Other times, you don’t realize that you’ve fallen into the “I know the story but not everything I need to know about the world” trap until the beta or the editor draws it to your attention.
So how best to deal with it?
This wasn’t my first go-round with novelizing the short story in question. I quickly got bogged down in worldbuilding and put it aside for other work (namely, completing a near-future science fiction series and a fantasy series set in an analog of the Pacific Northwest). This time around, I made it a Kindle Vella project which meant I had deadlines and a schedule to keep. Which also meant–forging ahead with the story and drafting the story bones, while throwing in enough about the world to make it work. At the same time, I was working on a near-future science fiction western with romance and corporate skullduggery and a multiverse and…not only was that book set in a world I knew very well, but I didn’t have to keep creating new environments and new worlds and new species (I will not not not not NOT call differing sentient species “races.” Period. That is its own rant. I dislike using the word “race” when talking about differences between sentients, and WILL NOT use it). The differences between the two stories really made me exquisitely aware of the “knowing more about the story than my world” tendency that I can fall into, so when I heard that critique, I realized (after some thought) that what was really going on was that I don’t know that much about that world except to push the story ahead, and that what was going on was that I really knew too little about that world to fill in a bunch of minor details that would help others visualize the world, not that I knew too much about the world and was leaving things out.
With my process, I’m not sure that sitting down and trying to build the world completely first works. I’ve never been able to construct worlds in that manner. I’m not into worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, but I respect those folx who really get into it. So for me, I guess I’m locked into redrafting and filling in the details in revisions.
But first I’ve gotta make sure that the story bones come together properly. Otherwise, I just lose track of story while building up the background, and that doesn’t work, either. Process is process, and everyone’s process differs.
All the same, this is something to keep in mind–sometimes, when the critique is that “the writer knows the world too well” and is skimming through necessary details that help the reader visualize the world better, the reality might well be that “the writer doesn’t know as much about the world as they do about the story.”
At least this time I knew this about the story when drafting.
Ah, the writing life. Always evolving. Always changing.