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Precision Improvising (or, making up stuff on the hoof and hoping it looks planned)

I had a good question from a reader recently, and being shy of a blog topic, latched onto it like a squid who's been bathing in super-glue. The question went like this:

I'm curious as to how much world building you did and how complete this amazingly detailed world was before you started the series? Was it mapped out before you considered a storyline?

Thank you, James Plant, for the questions.

There seems to be a division among writers between those who plan meticulously, and those who just start writing and see what emerges (although I suspect even the most off-the-cuff writer does a certain amount of preparation and planning). I place myself very much in the 'Planner' group: I map things out quite carefully, including writing detailed essays on important world-building matters. Most prominently those include world history (of whatever world I'm writing about), population, climate, seasons, and where relevant, special vocabulary and jargon.

I write a background for each of the protagonists: their looks, what they wear, how they speak, what they believe, their personal histories and affiliations, their enemies and personal motivations, etc. It's all about making them real enough that I can "hear" them in my head: once I feel I know them, I can tell their story.

I also write extensively about anything unique to the story world. As a fantasy writer, that especially means codifying the magic in the story: where does it come from, how does it work, what can and can't be done with it, how it is regarded by non-magicians, etcetera. Those essays are usually pretty long and involved. Whilst a sense of mystery around magic is desirable, as the writer I need to know what can and can't be done by whom. There are few things I find more irritating than inconsistent and inexplicable use of magic in a fantasy story or movie - like when a hero or villain uses a deadly power in one scene, but seems to forget to use it in others, or develops powers or immunities without good rationale. When that happens, I begin to disengage. I try to get all of that straight in my head before I start writing.

Commencing the actual writing, I work to a chapter plan that maps every scene, with a guide to who's present and involved, what they each do and say, whose point of view the scene is delivered from, and how it is resolved. Continuity is vital: when characters pop up in the wrong place or with the wrong weapon my proof-readers are immediately on my case and a lot of rewriting ensues.

So, the answer to James's first question is "heaps, but it wasn't 100% built". In the specific case of the Moontide Quartet, I had mapped out the histories, the cultural and religious customs and attitudes, the racial groups, the military organisation and the nature of the gnosis before I started the story, as well as all the major events for all four books in the projected series. Otherwise I couldn't have foreshadowed in Book One some of the events of the later books (including Book Four), or had the confidence to call the series a quartet from the beginning.

BUT... (there's always a 'but'...although I am continually told not to start sentences with that word,) I ALWAYS allow myself a LOT of wriggle room (hence the 'not 100%' above). I've learnt from experience that I'm not going to have all my best ideas before starting a book. There are often better ways to write a scene, or to resolve a situation, than the one initially envisaged. As I take the journey of writing the story, seeing the events through the eyes of the characters, I always see better ways to do things. Sometimes a character develops traits I hadn't anticipated, as the process of writing about them brings them more solidly to life. Often a more exciting way to resolve an action scene emerges right in the middle of the fray. I try to let characters develop naturally, even if that means sometimes "bending" the story around their altered role. In Moontide, Seth, Cym and Huriya all developed larger roles than in my original plan, as did Zaqri's Souldrinker clan. That's part of the "magic" of creating a story.

So my plan is more of a guide. Certain outcomes are usually fixed, but often the 'how' is left open, and the flow of the dialogue is also not specified, so that when I come to those scenes, I give myself license to use the best idea I have to hand.

The wonderful thing is that situations that look to the reader to be meticulously planned, can often be moments of serendipity that have evolved somewhere between the planning and the execution. What enables that, though, is the time I've spent getting to know the story world in the first place.

Now quickly on to the second question: Was it mapped out before you considered a storyline? The answer is 'no': the world-building developed concurrently to the fleshing out of plot and character. As I created the pivotal events and phases that the series would go through, new topics emerged that needed to be world-built. The concept of the series came first, and then the plot, setting and characters were created to serve that tale. Any themes or meanings were by-products of that process.

James, I hope that answers your questions, and for anyone else who's made it this far, I hope you found it interesting!


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