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Author Topic: Do you start big or start small?  (Read 3076 times)

Offline Eli_Freysson

Do you start big or start small?
« on: May 01, 2017, 04:04:30 PM »
Yesterday I got into a conversation with a fellow about ten years my junior, who has aspirations of sci-fi/fantasy authordom. The big obstacle blocking his path is that he gets really into worldbuilding, creating a centuries-long history for a setting, but stumbles and tends to lose interest when it comes to finally write about little stuff, ie the protagonist and their adventures.

My approach to creating a new story is pretty much exactly the opposite. I start with a character, or a basic concept that fits into a single, short sentence ("high fantasy kingdom in space", "old-school vampire story," "spaghetti western fantasy,", and then slowly fill in around that initial idea, to create a setting that allows for it.

This does mean that I regularly have to stop to have a long think about the larger context, and how to have it all make sense, I find I just can't go into detail about a setting except through the eyes of someone who lives there.

The encounter made me a bit curious about different approaches to writing. How do you do it?
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Offline eclipse

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Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2017, 05:05:25 PM »
You should do an experiment and team up!see what happens
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Offline Lanko

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Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #2 on: May 01, 2017, 05:27:35 PM »
Starting with worldbuilding is the biggest possible trap, for me at least.

I remember when I was doing NaNo a few years back. You have to write 50k in a month. Saw people doing 100k, 200k and even more than 300k.

When later the groups reunited and discussed what they had done, you can guess what most of those stories were. Worldbuilding or fanfic.

Because let's face it, it's so much easier to imagine and create worlds with floating continents, countries with their own unique perks at conflict with each other, gigantic wars and battles, new races, cultural customs, mythological backstories with the world's greatest conflicts, deities, fantastical creatures, pantheons of gods and whatever else that made the world what it is today than it is to create deep, conflicted and developed characters and give them  great, but recognizable, external and internal challenges adapted to a fictional setting. 

Months or a year later those people couldn't develop a story because the worldbuilding and all the rules they had created actually hampered their progress with characters and plot.
They have a personal encyclopedia or History essay, but not a story. They often had to check if their characters and plot weren't contradicting what they had already created.

For me, it always begins with a character, or a situation, or both. Worldbuilding is expanded as I go (though I do make notes of things I might want to explore, but it's mostly not the priority).

Again, for me, it's much easier to keep going if I have characters and situations clearly, or at least reasonably clear in my mind and then create, expand and explore the worldbuilding with said characters and situations than it is to create characters and situations based on established worldbuilding, as flexible as one can be with it.
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Offline JMack

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Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #3 on: May 01, 2017, 05:31:01 PM »
Have to agree.
Start "small", or start "big and small".

Small = a character, a conflict, a first sentence, and build an actual story from there.
Big and Small = let yourself imagine the big world and build a small part of it; then write an actual story about that.

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Offline JRTroughton

Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #4 on: May 01, 2017, 05:58:36 PM »
I start small. Think of an interesting scene and paint a picture. This could be a girl killing monsters in the woods (T'Mothgate) or two sirens sitting on a rock watching a storm break over the sea (Mother Salt). I then make lots of subtle hints about the wider world - let's called them broad and formless brush strokes - and let the reader fill in the details if they choose to.

I have no time for grandiose world building. I enjoy painting characters and scenes that organically grow as I create and the rest of the painting gets done as we zoom out - if we ever do. If not, I'll put some blurry shapes in and let the reader infer or project.

I was going to make a joke about starting small and then getting smaller but I seem to have done a sensible comment instead. You'll just have to imagine the hilarity that would have ensued had I pursued such a joke. Haha. Ha. H. A.

Offline cupiscent

Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #5 on: May 01, 2017, 09:58:28 PM »
My initial idea is usually small: I conceive of a character, or a conflict, or even a single scene.

But I don't write from that. I put it in the mental pot and stir it around and let it mingle with dozens of other small ideas. I see what it fits together with, and when I have a bundle of bits and pieces, I let myself get wildly creative about what sort of world would enable a story with all those elements. And then when I have a whole heap of character ideas and story ideas and world ideas, I start hammering it into an outline-y sort of shape from which I can write.

So maybe my approach is: grow small to at least medium before writing. ;)

Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #6 on: May 01, 2017, 10:17:28 PM »
My creative brain is like my back yard. The grass and the weeds grow fast, and most of the weeds have a tendency to climb. The trees are of two kinds: slow-growing, and fast growing, the latter are also unstable and sometimes fall and squish things.

I create big ideas with lots of holes where I can grow smaller ideas, or transplant concepts, characters, situations, etc., from elsewhere to fill them up. Sometimes I have a jewel of an idea, but nowhere to hang it, and it just sort of hangs around in limbo until I find one.

I always wanted to write a story of someone making a truly daunting free-climb, one where they suffered. There's no rest, no water, no shade, no warmth. Just death in every direction but one - up. That's my biggest idea still in limbo. It will be satisfying to write that oldest and still homeless idea.
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Offline CameronJohnston

Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #7 on: May 03, 2017, 06:01:35 PM »
Er...I start medium. Helpfeul, eh?

I always have a world and setting in mind when I start something, but it's flexible. It wraps around and moulds to the character rather than forcing the character to play in a static created world. The world evolves as my characters make their way through the story. I find my best world building comes after I've thought out and written part of the plot, a sort of filling in the gaps thing.

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Offline K.B. Adams

Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #8 on: May 03, 2017, 08:54:15 PM »
In a way, both -- starting small but with just a segment of the bigger world. The segment of the bigger world does have its set of life conditions and rules which are restrictive to the character but not restrictive to the story itself because they are what give conflict and challenge for the characters to negotiate through, rather than letting the world change on a whim to fit the character's latest desires or need to be heroic. But the segment of that world can then expand as the smaller details unwind.

On the other hand, Tolkien is known for saying he "started with a map, and made the story fit," and said about its reverse, “to compose a map from a story” is “weary work.”

Offline Elfy

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Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #9 on: May 03, 2017, 10:47:07 PM »
I tend to start small. I have an idea, which could be a scene, or it could be a random thought (more often it is) and then expand on it. My current WiP was born out of the thought 'elves would have made really good fighter pilots'. It spawned a bunch of characters on a treasure hunt in the Caucasus mountains in a post WW2 alternate Earth.
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Offline Dan D Jones

Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #10 on: May 04, 2017, 12:26:13 AM »
I start small.  My ideas almost always start with a character.  I generally have a rough idea of the setting in terms of technology level, societal type, etc. but very little idea of the details. 

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Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #11 on: May 05, 2017, 11:30:22 AM »
I might start with and idea, or a plot, or scenario, or a character.
Then I'd try to do an outline, but sometimes I might just start writing. I use a basic text editor (no formatting or spelling) with a separate files for places, characters, events & Plot. Also each scene is a separate file. The places, character and event/plot files get updated as the writing progresses. If there is to be a deletion, I start a new version number. If I rename places or characters I leave the originals in brackets.

I only think about "world building" after the first draft. I use text files and copy/paste to a wiki (The Media Wiki SW is free and can be installed on a Windows or Linux laptop).

I like a series, for several reasons.
  • Writing the subsequent books clarifies the first, so best not to release or submit first till two or three are done. Maybe they might combine.
  • Series sell better (60 books in Chalet School series, though Wheel of Time would be better cut down to five or 6! :) )
  • You spend time writing the story and developing characters, at the end of the day the "World building" is merely context and scenery.
Story, characters, dialog are all more important than plot, some very good novels have very little to no plot. Worldbuilding is an aid, not an end in itself.

After all the fragments are complete (all in a subfolder, of the "series" or "world" subfolder), they are assembled in LibreOffice Writer (I ditched MS word over a year ago), formatted, spelling checked and then I use Calibre to make an eBook in Mobi for Kindle and ePub for everything else. I then read entire book making notes on the eReader, which can be read back by Calibre to a text file.
Then the original is saved with an incremented version number and re-written. Eventually I decide no more "edit versions" and concentrate purely on proofing on the eReader, resisting temptation to re-write.
Amazon Kindle, Google Play Store, Smashwords (and thus all partner stores such as Apple, Kobo etc) only differ on copyright page.  The paper back version uses different resolution images, more heading styles and different fonts etc as well as a different contents page, header and footer.

Worldbuilding is simply a background activity for me that grows as the story is shaped. Otherwise it looks like fanfic. TBH a lot of the big franchises have rubbish inconsistent "world building" anyway, so success isn't based on worldbuilding.
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Offline CuRoi

Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #12 on: May 05, 2017, 02:09:49 PM »
I can't get myself to lay too much groundwork or stick to it when I do. World building on the fly sorta and it can get pretty messy. Pretty much how I ran DnD games - some loose structure, maybe a map, and I'm good for an entire campaign. There's plenty of thinking/building outside game time (or in this case, writing time) but I tend to let my imagination roam pretty freely during the drafting process. I will say, when it comes to plot and consistency, I very quickly build up lots of moving parts which I may or may not be tracking well. :D The upside is, unlike world builder's disease, the mess is made as a full draft gets completed.  I've simply accepted revisions will be a b!tch.  :D

Offline Ray McCarthy

Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #13 on: May 06, 2017, 04:34:56 PM »
Warning Will Robinson! Long rambling post.
I treat a first draft as a "proof of concept". It might get changed hugely after then considering the "world consistency". The first two to three versions can be quite different. By about version 3 or 4 it's clearer what the "world" and characters are. The first version might even skip a lot of scenes and chapters. With the 2nd and 3rd, the Novella gets filled in and adapted and becomes a Novel.
IMO the "Worldbuilding" has to be subservient to Story. For example "Caves of Steel" by Asimov is actually a pretty conventional detective story and could even be re-done as 1940s California or maybe New York is better, "Noir" style.
While the original Star Wars draws on a huge lot of ideas and characters in Dune, it's a more mystic almost medieval  Japanese style of fantasy story (IMO while I'm fond of SF and even "Space Opera" like EE Doc Smith, Lucas lost it when he tried to explain stuff after the first few films). Actually "Willow" is maybe Lucas at his best. There is almost no worldbuilding, just familiar tropes.

Often stereotypes and tropes work better than explicit worldbuilding. If it's wonderful description and exposition (Badger's house in Wind in the Willows), that's fine. But if either "info dump" or ST-TNG style explanations it's boring or silly.
Too much Worldbuilding before writing and it looks like Fan Fic, unless you are Tolkien! Don't try to copy Tolkien's World, as he spent nearly 30 years building it and it relied on scholarship. Go back to Norse, Germanic, Celtic, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian stories, even 17th C. Fairy Tales and use that to build your world instead of tinkering with Tolkien's!
You see this in Raymond Fiest. The original "Magician" starts a bit like a "Dungeons & Dragons" novelisation rip off of Tolkien, then about 1/2  through he finds his own voice and in the Rift War series builds his own World.
Also I can't believe that Modsitt (Magic of Recluse) worked it all out first.
We know that Lewis didn't really do "World building" for "The Lion the Witch and the Wardobe", and that Tolkien and others laughed at the beaver's sewing machine and marmalade. Check out the order the books were actually written! The Magician's Nephew is a clever sort of "recon" as he thought about how could it have started, long after even the "Silver Chair" (IMO one of the best actually) was written.

I started "Under the Stone of Destiny" in about 1995. But I wrote four more in the series before publishing in September 2016. My conception of the Inamok, Fay (Sidhe, Elves, Faerie) and Tuath Dé as well as some of the characters changed, so it was only during 2016 that I "finalised" the Worldbuilding  for the series. I've got to version 3 to 6 on three books in the series that probably won't start to be published till 2018, they are much more constrained because of what has gone before, BUT ALSO the worldbuilding. It's hard to change the "world" when documented and detailed. This seriously limits your imagination when writing the stories.
An extreme example is my later (but published earlier) "Talents Universe" Series. Before writing it I decided:
1) What the Seven Circles of Talent are.
2) How Starship Jump drive would work (based on a 1970s discussion with my mum and 1992 "lost in space" sort of story.
3) That the main setting would be like a Boarding School that you can't leave (even for weekends) without "passing".
I've done eight stories on that, but folded one into another. I've outlines for two more, which may never be done. The "world building" ultimately limits the series.
But never fear! I've a 2nd draft of an unconnected fantasy (with NO world building done, though I had to make a map for me to judge times). Also started an unconnected SF that's much more "hard SF" than "Talents" which is about 3 to 3.5 on SF Moh scale. (4 is no fantasy science and no Jump Drive or wormholes).   
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Offline Ryan Mueller

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Re: Do you start big or start small?
« Reply #14 on: May 06, 2017, 08:19:04 PM »
In terms of big-scale worldbuilding, I usually sketch out a few basics that I need. Usually, these are the big things that make my world different: things like magic, creatures, etc.

More often than not, the characters come to me before anything. Then I have to figure out what world and story to put them into. Really, my process is different for every book. Sometimes the world comes to me first. Sometimes it's the character. Sometimes it's the story.

I'm similar in the whole planning vs. seat-of-the-pants thing. It differs for every book. I let my process do whatever it needs to do, and it works pretty well for me.