The Dirty Little Secret to “Imaginative” Worldbuilding

I’m continuously tinkering with my draft of RAPTURE right now, banging my head against some chapters set in Ras Tieg, which is a country that readers of the Bel Dame Apocrypha haven’t really seen before. It’s no surprise, then, that I haven’t seen it either.

No, really. I’ve never been to Ras Teig either. I’m MAKING THIS ALL UP, you guys. Shocking, right?

Thing is, when you’re building a place from the ground up, you have to take a lot of stuff into account. It’s not just about where these people came from, what they believe, how they view the world and their place in it, it’s also about creating a place that could not exist anywhere else. It shouldn’t remind you of other countries in the same world, like Nasheen, or Chenja, or Tirhan, even though they may share some tech and some moons and a couple of suns. It needs to be something all together different, and not only because it’s got a totally different climate and socially strange people than anything I’ve written about on that world before. But to do that, to create something I haven’t seen before – and hopefully something the reader hasn’t seen before – takes a tremendous amount of mental effort.

I think people forget that sometimes.

I’m keenly aware of this effort when I’m asked to flex the same creative muscles at the day job for marketing campaigns and then go home and flesh out Ras Tiegan settings. By the end of the day, my head hurts, and everything I’m doing – day job or night job – feels like crap.

I tend to focus on writing my rough draft first, then build in the more insane details of a world around the story. That ensures that the story comes first, which helps avoid that problem of leaning too heavily on worldbuilding.

I don’t know about you, but my brain is lazy. I don’t do drugs. I only have the occasional vivid dream anymore. Everything I yank out and scrunch up and mix together on paper is stuff that I’ve often consciously remixed. Every time I hit a place that feels lazy – a kitchen that looks like something out of a middle-class suburb in the U.S. , or a dinner menu straight from Crackerbarrel, I have to stop, go back, and interrogate it. I have to totally rethink it:

“Ok, in the level of tech this world has, and the way the country works, with these politics and these economics, and in the hands of these characters, how would this thing really work?”

That’s a heavy question to ask at every step in the writing process, and it slows you down (another reason I wait until I’ve got most everything done before I do it). But, for me, it’s necessary. I got tired of reading unimaginative fiction that claimed to be fantastic. If I just wanted a story about people who lived and loved, I’d read more lit fiction. I come to the SF/F for the worldbuilding, for the ways things can be different. I write what I like to read. And hence – I’m in this brain-wrenching exhausted state right now.

Because, like, whoa.

But the alternative is that I’d just be writing stories like everyone else is writing. And if you could just pull in any old writer to write a Kameron Hurley story, then it’s not really a Kameron Hurley story, is it?

Sometimes, like today, I get so angry at the whole damn thing that I want to fling it across the room. Which is really tough when you’re working from an electronic manuscript. I expect much of my anger is a manifestation of my own laziness. My brain rebels against creative thinking in the same way my body rebels against leveling up my fitness routine. Thinking outside the box – pushing beyond your boundaries – is difficult and uncomfortable, and for me, it’s not something I naturally do anymore. I spent the better part of my childhood trying to figure out how to be a “successful” person who made money, and that involved following all the rules and drawing inside all the lines. Sometimes I fear that old age and expectations and my too-easy mimicry will calcify my brain. It’s another reason I want to finish putting up a fence around our house this year.

What, don’t think that segue makes sense? Think of it this way – I’m an introvert. I do my best thinking alone, isolated from people, when I don’t have to worry about what anyone is saying or thinking. When I try to go out onto my back porch and relax and instead find myself on display to the whole street, it’s… weirdly stressful. I always wanted to live in a cabin in the woods, maybe near a lake or a river. Instead, I’ve settled for a very affordable place on 1/3 acre, just a few blocks from a river, but it also happens to be a place that has actual neighbors. Sometimes I wish I didn’t find people so stressful.

This rant was actually inspired by reading about some grumps folks had about poor worldbuilding in some of the fiction they were reading, and how it seemed so impossible that people writing SF/F could write such boring worlds. But here’s the thing – if you want a book a year (or! More!) from a writer, the chances that you’re going to get an intense worldbuilding experience every single time are greatly reduced. Why? Simple:

It’s really fucking hard. It takes a stupid amount of brain energy. Of second-guessing. Of re-thinking. Of going back and running around and savagely attacking something from a totally new angle. It’s questioning all your old assumptions, and a lot of your new ones, too.

The dirty secret is, worldbuilding is really hard work. It’s work you do on top of everything else that a book does, and sometimes, I can tell you, it’s really exhausting.

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