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I am a planner in the extreme. I tend to drift toward fantasy oriented novels when writing; it's just what comes out. This means that I do quite a bit of planning for the world that the story will be set in. I know that's not a bad thing, but I have noticed that I have a tendency to get bogged down in specific events - especially historical events. I'll find myself describing entire battles or diplomatic missions or even important local events as though they were the story itself - and almost none of that is ever going to even show up in the story!

I really enjoy that preparation, but eventually my notes become so unwieldy, it's hard to actually sit down and write the story while keeping it all straight. Not to mention that it's kind of wasting time when I could be writing.

My questions are: Is there a helpful way to gauge when "enough is enough"? How do I put an end to this world builder's syndrome I've got? Or at least keep it in check? Does anyone have any advice on how know when it might be necessary to do some more fleshed-out preparation and when it's just wasting time (and accumulating too many notes)?

By the way, my average preparation results in something on the order of 150,000+ words (the most I've ever written is 300,000). In other words, I consistently find myself writing a novel before I even write my novel. And I know it's hindering more than helping me. I just don't even realize I'm doing it most of the time until it's too late.

[And, of course, less than a month after asking this question, there is a wonderful post which answers most all of my questions on Patricia Wrede's blog: http://pcwrede.com/blog/obsessive-overbuilding/ - it is well worth reading if you're interested in this topic.]

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You do keep those notes, right? Then when you're dead (after having established yourself as an author, maybe), they will be a source of income for your heirs. ^Tolkien ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 11 '10 at 17:22

9 Answers 9

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Having more details than you need, is not a bad thing per se. Many writers do that, and it often leads to an authentic world, even if the reader isn't aware of all these details. It is especially helpful, if you plan a long series of books for the same world.

But you are describing procrastination. You do not want to start, so you do other things, which seem more important. That's how I find the time to clean my bathroom. It's a useful thing to do, but the truth is, you are deferring your real work: writing.

I have two suggestions for your situation:

  1. Short term approach: Despotic rule: Start writing your novels without any rules. Play the capricious Almighty of your fantasy world and make rules up as you go. If you have become obsessed with one thing, try the complete opposite approach. Then hopefully you find the middle course yourself.

  2. Long term approach: There are a lot of books out there dealing with procrastination. Pick one (and only one; do not read one after the other; that's procrastination again). Look at the advice and take out of the book what you need. There will be no single book, which is exactly suitable for your situation. They are only useful to give you some ideas, how to get back to work. (If you have no idea, which book you should take: "Getting Things done" is one of the most popular - meritedly or not).

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I might agree with you if I wasn't getting any writing done, except that I usually have two novels going at the same time. I do write. On one I write the actual story, while on the other I do prep work for the next story. I have two different blocks of time set up to do both. When I finish the story I'm writing, I hope to be ready to start the next one. That's usually the case. I think my problem is in the prep work, though, not that I'm putting the story off... –  Nathan Fischer Dec 11 '10 at 17:19
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@Nathan: Your problem description sounded different to me. I would still try my first point. Start one novel without making up any rules up-front. Doing the opposite thing of what you normally do, can be a helpful experience. Maybe your problem is how you organise your material. With a different organisation method you could get the overview to say: now it's done, I can start writing the novel. –  John Smithers Dec 11 '10 at 18:14
    
Instead of writing lengthy notes, I maintain a separate timeline for each character or entity in the story from beginning to end. I also mark interactions between them. This allows me to keep the story consistent. E.g. like knowing that a certain character was only fifteen when a certain battle took place so he could not have been married at the time, etc. –  HNL Jan 22 '12 at 7:52
    
@HNL: Like this? xkcd.com/657 –  naught101 Aug 1 '13 at 10:53
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I just did the short term approach myself: I took part in NaNoWriMo for fun and found that I could write a first draft of a great book in ten days. –  what Jan 5 at 11:47

If you're still getting novels written, and don't have a pressing need to write them faster, I'd just go with what you're doing. Make the world real to you, and it'll show up in the story. Have maps (just don't be afraid to mess with them as needed) and backstory.

One of the things that stands out in Tolkien's work is the feel that Middle-Earth is a real place, and that is because of all the back story he did. You may not be as good a writer (most people aren't), but you can still emulate some of the good stuff he did. Another fantasy writer who had a truly extensive background is M.A.R. Barker.

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Reuse the worlds! Force yourself to write novels within the worlds you have created until the number of background pages is eclipsed by the number of story pages. Surely that much detail will give you more than one story. Let the stories be unrelated, you don't have to write a series, just stay on the same planet/in the same universe.

This has the additional benefit of allowing readers to be shown the rules one time and then never have to be told again. Specific examples include using Tolken elves, dwarves, etc. without having to explain what it means to be an elf/dwarf. credit => Nathan C. Tresch

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This was my answer to the problem. I have started writing short stories contained in the universe I am describing as the rules take shape to illustrate the rules that I am writing. This has the additional benefit of my readers being shown the rules and I'll never have to tell them the rules. Perhaps you could include this as part of your answer for me? If not, I'm going to make a new answer and include yours and give credit. –  Nathan C. Tresch Apr 28 '12 at 18:51

Some people like just reading about fictional worlds. Most readers care about people they can relate to. Your problem is to make people who live in these immense worlds you write about characters people can relate to who are reading in this world.

If you limit yourself in terms of handing out information to the bare minimum to let an audience understand why we should care about character x's situation and motivation that should help draw a line between what is necessary and what is indulgent.

Of course that does depend what you are trying to achieve through your writing but it seems you want a good, honest fantasy adventure yarn. In which case sympathetic characters are a must.

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Perhaps you need to play to your strength: building detailed settings. You sound like someone who could build quite a career with franchises built around your storyworlds... and in a world where transmedia entertainment is rapidly becoming the standard model, this is an advantage, believe me.

So... build your worlds. In fact, always be building your worlds. At a certain point, expose them to the public and invite others to create content with your storyworld as the setting. Publish the results.

I wrote about this in a guest blog post for the Dead Robots Society podcast, if you're interested.

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Many writers - all too many, in fact - have the exact opposite problem; their worlds are undeveloped.

Find such a writer, and team up! There are many successful novels written by more than one author (take Dragonlance, for example).

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Fabulous idea! Successful collaborations abound in literature, especially fantasy and SciFi. Be glad you have such a capacity to actually write instead of glaring unmeaningfully at a keyboard for hours upon hours! –  John Tobler Jan 23 '12 at 18:19

my average preparation results in something on the order of 150,000+ words (the most I've ever written is 300,000). In other words, I consistently find myself writing a novel before I even write my novel.

Dude, that is so freaking awesome.

Haven't you pretty much answered your own question? You think of the 150,000 words as "notes," thus freeing yourself lavish care and attention and all of your imaginative energy on them. Since, being merely notes, they have a sort second-rate status -- not real writing -- there's no anxiety attached to them or to the process of writing them and you can go wild.

In the end, perhaps, the notes become the novel.

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I agree that building worlds of this size is impressive. But "notes become the novel" is how "The Silmarillion" was written and it makes a pretty bad novel. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 23 '12 at 20:10
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Maybe it's a bad novel, but it's an interesting book, and it expands the universe of Middle-Earth. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 18 '12 at 10:05

The problem with Tolkien is that he wrote a fantasy land without it being explicitly a basis for a novel - the novel came out of it, almost accidentally. That is not a good way to go if you do not have another job that allows you to do that.

The other side is that, if you are working on a series of novels, then the stuff you work on now may end up very useful in another novel. it is not wasted, it might inspire something else, or it might never be used, but provide depth to your work anyway.

You may spend 50K words and many hours on a scene that ends up with an oblique reference in one sentence. But it will be a right and relevant reference.

You may spend the same time and realise that you can work this into an entire novel.

So enjoy making the world real. You seem to be writing enough anyway, so lose yourself in it, because the more you believe it, the more your readers will.

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The question to me is what you want. If you want to publish novels, then write novels. Bestselling author Elle Casey pumps out one novel per month. You need to get your priorities straight.

If you enjoy worldbuilding, maybe that is your way of relaxing from writing. Other writers go jogging, play the guitar, or visit friends. You build worlds. So it just happens that your hobby, that you indulge in when you take time off of your job as a writer, is related to your writing. No problem.

But if worldbuilding gets in the way of your writing, keeping you from doing the 2000 words a day you aim for ... oh, you didn't define your writing goals? Why the hell not!? Do you do any other job without having a clear goal? No. You know what you need to do and when you need to have it done. If you have no goals, you cannot meet them.

All prolific writers either write a certain number of words per day or a certain number of hours. Set yourself a goal and meet it every day. The rest of the day you are free to goof off and design the insignia on the uniforms of your orcs.

And if writing is not your job but only your hobby, then what does it matter how much you write? Enjoy!

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