The Well Loved World


Imagine you were born with a suit of clothes attached to you.  It grew with you. it never needed washing. And in such a way, you imagined it a part of you, part of who you were.  “I’m so and so, and my suit is yellow with a frill around the middle.”

It wouldn’t be so much that you loved the suit, as that it was a part of you. People who decided to buy new suits were just enough to keep a garment industry growing, and people would gossip “Look at Jane, that’s her THIRD suit. Why does she keep changing?”

Okay, you’re saying, that’s silly.

But the truth is there is a strong temptation among writers to stay with the first world they create.

Granted, the analogy is not perfect.  You’re not born with the world, as such.

But many of us do create our world so early one we might as well have.  Most of us — me included — created the world before the idea of writing and writers was very clear, and when we were mostly making up stories to amuse ourselves.  Then it grew with us, and our first, (second, third, up to eighth with me) books are set in it.

First worlds have an undeniable charm. I have read books written in them by authors who were lucky enough to sell their first world. They have odd spaces, odd assumptions, inflect at strange points, all of it due to the fact that they were created by children with very little idea of the world as such.

BUT  not all of us were so lucky.  In fact, in the old, not so great days of traditional publishing as the only outlet, most of us learned to create world after world.

Actually, forget that lucky. I think it was unlucky to sell your first book, your first world (or in indie terms, to go huge with it.)  Yes, the world had a certain and peculiar charm, but the writer never learned her job properly.

In 2003, many publishing houses gave most of their writers their marching papers (yes, 9-11 crashing printruns and their stupid decision that this was due to the writers doing a poor job, and therefore the next book would have a lower printrun was, of course, the writers’ fault, and the writers had to be gone, and new blood brought in.  It was around this time, when I was 41 that after years of telling in interviews and talks that no one was mature enough to write a proper world/book/novel before 40 (which btw, I also thought was bullshit) the publishing establishment turned on a dime and decided they needed new blood and only 20 somethings would be bought. (Apparently missing that writers are not actors, no one sees you or your age, and in the long history of literature the big names of YA were never under 20.)  In retrospect this was part of their illusion that readers want to see themselves reflected back at them exactly, race, size, looks and of course age.  This is completely insane in any gennre — I really don’t read romances with dumpy middle aged Portuguese-born women.  Though it would be hilarious to give one of those a very miopic suitor. Never mind — but particularly in science fiction.  If it were a thing, then we’d have no aliens, since some of us might be alienated, but we’re not aliens.)

Anyway, when houses let writers go by the score, I was in a writers-only email list, and oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth coming over the screen.  “My agent says I have to create, not just a different character, but a whole other world. She wants three proposals, each with a world of its own.  How am I to do that? What does she think I am? A machine.

And I’d look and sigh, and think “thank heavens my first world was unpublishable” (by old standards. I’m actually reworking a novel set in it for other reasons.  Sometime next year, unless I start writing “like a machine” which might very well happen after the middle of the year, mind) because otherwise I’d be stuck there, and not have any idea how to move sideways, upwards, or downwards at need.

While people whined I wrote seventeen proposals, each in its own world.  And while that might be too much and just a symptom of how I’m broken, it did get me working again.

It has served me well ever since.  For instance, (say, totally randomly) if your publisher decides the  series aren’t selling, but they’re not giving you your IP back, no way no how, because the non-selling books make them too much money to give up, (Yeah. I believe that with my whole heart. Don’t you?) you might want to abandon those worlds and series utterly, rather than risk the continuing series making them more money as people buy the previous books in the world. (Look, writers aren’t precisely the least petty or sanest people around. As I told DIL, “neurotic goes with the territory. And if you weren’t before, you will after doing this professionally for a while.”)  And then you’ll be glad you can write new worlds out of whole cloth.

I suppose the same thing applies, if you have a well-selling indie series which suddenly, inexplicably stop selling. I’ve heard to it happening. If you don’t know how to create a new world, you’ll be stuck forever.

But it goes well beyond that.

Building new worlds.  Knowing how to do it, and how to invest yourself in them, will not only free you to continue writing and making money when a world fails.

It will also develop your abilities as never before. Rather than uncritically wearing the same suit of clothes and believing it’s the only one, you start analyzing cut, fit, color, and perhaps you’ll choose to wear jeans. Or a ball gown.

And if your first world was fatally flawed, maybe it will allow you to go back and fix the issues, and rewrite it so it really sells.

Writing is an art. Like all other arts, it benefits from practicing.  Practice enhances everything related to writing, including the exercise of your imagination.  Until you know how you created that world, how to make more at will, you’re a baby who’s learned some sounds get a reactioon, but not what they mean.

I know you love your first world. It’s fascinating. it’s familiar. It’s like going home.

But sometimes, as Dave Freer puts it, you have to walk past where the street lamps end.

Don’t worry. That world won’t die. It will always be there to come back to. And when you come back, it will be richer, stronger, more beautiful, for your having been away a while.

Now pack your metaphoric bags, bank the fire in the fireplace.

Leave your home world behind and go create a few more.  Trust me, you — and that world — will be better for it.


  1. I think that the idea that every story must be part of a series is incredibly destructive to creativity. Granted, I wrote a four novel series myself, and I don’t think it’s terrible, but I am very glad that I resisted the pressure to write book 5–the story is over, and if I tried to force out another book it would be just a rehash of one of the others, or self-parody. (Abbott and Costello meet Catskinner.)

    Now that I concentrate on short fiction I have written a number set in the same world –I have one book of seven stories in that world, and several more slated for upcoming anthologies.

    But that’s not all I write, and most of my output is one-off short fiction. I invent a world for one story, then invent another for the next.

    I like doing that. It means my work is always new and fresh, and it frees me up from having to worry about continuity. ( “Wait… wasn’t that guy left handed in the last book?” )

    1. Some of us find it STUNNINGLY damaging to creativity.

      I find it incredibly difficult to write series. As in, I have yet to manage a publishable second story in a series.

      My stories are like oysters, they need their own shells.

      Though, just like I did manage to write novels after many years of short stories, I am poking around with a few ideas.

  2. I do realize that many readers don’t follow writers from genre to genre (“I love her police procedurals but that fantasy kissing stuff is icky,” as I overheard in the book store a few months back.) But having books in different worlds and even genres is good if one booms and others taper back or plateau. I’m thinking of how the BIg Six, er Five, ah, Whatever saturated the markets with girl meets vampire, teens with diseases, and zombie EOTWAWKI books. Those writers trapped in contracts got slammed when the fad passed.

  3. The world building is one of the fun parts of writing a story! (For me.) Even when I write in my North-lands, I’m often exploring a different time period or a different geographic region, so more world building is involved.

    For stories that are not set in my North-lands, I build a new world for each one (like Misha Burnett upthread). 😀

  4. Sarah said: “For instance, (say, totally randomly) if your publisher decides the series aren’t selling, but they’re not giving you your IP back, no way no how, because the non-selling books make them too much money to give up, (Yeah. I believe that with my whole heart. Don’t you?) you might want to abandon those worlds and series utterly, rather than risk the continuing series making them more money as people buy the previous books in the world.”

    This is what I hear out there sometimes. You wrote a hit trilogy, it made money, but then the publisher said it was a loser and they won’t print any more. But no, you don’t get your IP back you wretched scribbler.

    I’ve heard it other places than here.

    I consider the coming destruction of Big Publishing to be just deserts. I write a book, but THEY have the rights to it? Nuh uh, not happening.

    Even in the furniture world that’s not true. You make a chair, you sell it, you have no more rights to -that- chair. But you didn’t sell the design, or the jigs, or the rest of what went into it. You can make another chair.

    My world is not done with me. Those rowdy girls still have some tales to tell and some trouble to cause. Maybe if they get bored with me, then there will be new worlds.

    I did write something in feudal Japan. 10,000 year old space alien meets young samurai in dire straits. Its a giggle, but I can’t get the ending going. Fricking samurai. 😡

  5. I remember reading a comment about Stephen Donaldson to the effect that Donaldson really didn’t have any fans: Thomas Covenant had fans*, and all Donaldson could do was give Thomas Covenant fans more of what they wanted. I suspect that’s a danger for any writer who has a series that “goes big”: there will be fans of that series who want “more, more, more” and regard anything done outside the series as a personal betrayal by the author.

    I’m not sure that I have a world like the one you’re describing. The world I created in high school is one I now look back on with embarrassment (let’s just say I was a much bigger believer in doomsday environmentalism back then). The one I’m about to publish in was an idle thought that I had while waking along Elizabeth Street in Ft. Collins. I have characters that stay with me, including some I need to rescue from the high school world, but I don’t know that I have universes that do.

  6. I remember the world of my late teens. Was very much not my first world. I’ve since realized that a core element of the sociological world building is no longer something I find plausible.

    Worlds I got fairly good at; It’s plot and character that seem to be the core of my messes and shortcomings now.

  7. Well . . . yep, I’m pretty stuck in a single world.

    But I do step out regularly for something totally different. In fact I’ve got one that needs a cover (dragons are bloody hard to draw!) and two that have informed me that they’ll be at least trilogies. All three very different worlds.

    And yeah, a refreshing break from a series is good, and sometimes they need to end.

      1. I think this series has only been able to go this long because I don’t keep to the same main characters, and there are very few problems that aren’t solved in one or two books. There’s no over-arching huge looming problem that, once solved, leaves the series at a loss for direction. 🙂 They’re all that way.

        1. Yeah, Schrodinger’s Worlds has the potential for all sorts of different cultures and clashes between them. We need to end the lock down for no other reason than to get you writing.

    1. Are you trying to draw the dragon yourself? I know someone who by preference draws dragons, or could point you to how she learned, and that person I believe does commisions…?

      1. Yes. My dragons aren’t much like any pictures I can find, and since it’s just two dragons fighting in mid air over a modern city, they’re pretty small. Mostly I just haven’t gotten around to it.

        1. I have a bunch of dragons that I can mix and match, as well. What do they look like?

  8. I’ve been GM/DMing for a long time, and have developed 100’s of worlds, but they don’t last long. I do love world building! My writing worlds I only have two stories that are in the same world. All others are in different worlds. Though I have intent to commit Series in at least 2 of them, maybe 3. IF I can ever get them finished!

  9. As a reader, I’d like to point out that writers can go overboard with world-building. I’ve read far too many books where the author had obviously crafted an entire world, geography, culture, history… I knew this from odd comments in the text, but apparently the author was so familiar with that world he forgot that his eventual readers were *not*. Sometimes, they simply forgot to tell me some basic things that were critical to the story, while bombing me with irrelevant detail never referred to again. Sometimes, they eventually told me the critical bits, but apparently by accident, far too late.

    As a reader, I need enough to make what’s going on meaningful.

    The character is running because the bad guys are chasing him. OK.

    The character is running because the priests of Al’Hazur have declared vengeance upon him for whatever. OK.

    The character is running because, four thousand yahren ago, in the land of Bleem, the harvest… [30 pages redacted, as they never connect to anything else in the story] [and likely as not, there’s a scene cut and the chasers never reappear either] NOT OK.

    Excess of detail may show how much work you’ve put into things, but if it’s slowing the story down, you might want to reconsider whether it’s actually necessary. Or maybe you’re telling the wrong story. But getting caught in one of those books is like getting my foot stuck in a bucket of roofing tar.

    1. Exactly. I don’t need to know that the man running is the 14th Earl Of Gurney and the heir to the Hidden Dingus of Dildor, or that monster chasing him is the result of secret experiments conducted by the Silent Monks Of The Omnipresent Pretzel, all I want to know is–does the monster eat the man or not?

  10. I honestly think that after the ACW novel (halfway written), and maybe the American Revolution one (which is only in the planning stages) that I’m done with the Adelsverein/Germans in Texas series. I just don’t see how much farther I can go with it. It’s seeming more like a chore to be done than something fun and interesting to write.
    The Luna City series is currently more rewarding, and much more fun to write. Looking forward to sitting down and writing – that’s the ticket. Not thinking of it as a glum duty to get so-many-words to get through.
    Maybe I ought to revisit the WWII Occupation resistance plot that I was venturing into, early on …

  11. trying to build a new world (well, worlds) and built characters (and multiple iterations of the same characters)

  12. You missed an opportunity by not titling this post “First World Problems”. 😀

Comments are closed.