Guest post by my friend and fellow author, Jason Fuesting. He had a book come out yesterday, and I had asked him for a guest post. You should definitely look up his stuff, and there is more coming soon!
Even though I’d scribbled words many years before, I had no illusions when I stopped ignoring the urge to write not too long ago. I’d failed back then for a reason. I was convinced there must be some secret to putting things together. I canvased all the authors I knew and quickly discovered that every author does things at least subtly different from most of the others. Ask ten authors their secret, and you’ll probably get at least ten different answers. Worse yet for the beginning author, you’ll likely find at least two or three who insist their way is the One True Way. Unfortunately, that’s not really how this works.
Every author has their own reasons for adopting their methodology, but the one they use is generally the only one that works for them. Ultimately, any beginner needs to accept that they’re going to have to muddle through things until they find the combination that works for them, and that counts toward more than just world-building. Some write from start to finish, refusing to do anything resembling edits until they hit the end. Others, making forward progress becomes difficult because they can’t resist the temptation to keep fiddling with what they have.
Due to wide variation of styles, it helps to have points of reference for comparison. Most approaches tend to fall into two major categories. You have the pantsers, who literally don’t know what they’re going to write until they’re a sentence or three away from it, and the outliners, who tend to sit down and generate a massive outline before they ever write the first word in their manuscript.
From what I’ve seen, there’s a strong correlation between writing style and world-building approach. Pantsers are used to making things up on the fly, and fixing things in edit. Outliners tend to be very fond of doing things like building series bibles and huge swaths of description for their worlds. There’s one catch, though. Hybrids exist.
Until recently, I never saw myself as a writer. I’d always been a storyteller, and my outlet for that has always been DMing RPG campaigns. D&D, AD&D, Pathfinder, W40k, didn’t matter. I was a story-focused DM. I found pre-made modules too rigid, too limited. I’d fudge rolls, make up stats, creatures, and anything I thought would help the story along.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the help I had creating my first campaign world. It was the only group project I didn’t walk away angry from, even if they eventually ceded it to me since so much of it had my fingerprints everywhere. I just didn’t realize that I was learning my world-building and writing approach, too.
Ask any seasoned DM the wisdom in plotting out multi-session adventures, and you’ll receive a wince and more than a little colorful language. Running a session is like herding cats. Except the cats are on fire. And so is the tavern. Everything is on fire. That includes the plans you made for the next four sessions because, naturally, the party murderhobo killed the vital NPC you lined up the moment you introduced them, and somewhere toward the end of the night, the strategic overthinker who is probably secretly clairvoyant figured out a way to get to the big-bad you had planned. And the bastards killed him. Somehow. Miracle? Accident? Long, unlikely chain of nat-20s? Doesn’t matter because all those hours of work you put in just went up in smoke.
In my experience, writing a book isn’t any different, except every seat at the table is filled by you. Sure, you’re the DM, but you’re also the party murderhobo. And the rules lawyer. You’re even the guy who argues with everyone because he just wants to summon his griffon– Paladins can summon their mounts anywhere, dammit, so sewers shouldn’t matter! Most importantly, you’re supposed to be the overthinker, too, along with the guy who spent two weeks coming up with his character’s backstory and is hell-bent on method-acting his way through it all. It’s all you. Nobody to blame but yourself. No pressure.
Getting around that requires an immense amount of flexibility, and the ability to make things up on the fly. Certainly makes me sound like I’m a pantser, doesn’t it? When I start with a story, I come up with the general idea first. Maybe it’s space pirates. Maybe it’s swords and magic. It might even be just some guy with a gun and remarkably few spoons left. The only requirement is that it sounds like something I’d want to read. From there, I jump straight to world-building before I even try writing the story. I need to understand the world before I can write in it. Sounds like an outliner, right?
I’d say the process works like growing a pearl, except that’s an inside-out approach. I’d liken it to painting a room, except that’s usually more of a corners-to-doorway approach if you do it right. If I tried to get paid to paint a room the way I write, I’d get fired in the first half hour, because until I come up with something cohesive, my approach probably looks like someone set a bus full of third graders with ADHD loose with paint brushes.
I don’t start in the corners, the middle, the inside, or the outside. I start everywhere and let my little black heart go where it pleases until we have a serviceable base. I say we, because usually my muse is sitting on my shoulder the entire time, laughing. I’ll pick the first structural deficiency that comes to mind and spin up something to fill that gap. Rule of Cool might be used periodically, but the result gets examined and checked against previously existing stuff and the level of realism I’m aiming for before they’re added to the mix. Then I move to the next deficiency, ad infinitum. What I’m aiming for is enough detail to where I can justify my starting characters existing, motivations and all, with enough extra detail to fill out why the first scene that came to mind is happening. Consistency is key because consistency makes things understandable. If I understand the world well enough, then I don’t have to write the story. It writes itself.
From there, it’s effectively like watching a movie. Hit play, and do my best to write everything I see. I’ll write the first chapter or two. I might write more, or even less, but I will stop at some point to make sure that my characters are consistent and that the story is still hits the minimum bar for interesting. Throughout that writing, I’ll periodically drop back into worldbuilding mode when I need new details, and once they’re sanity checked, in they go. Unfortunately, this is a lot like spinning plates. The more detail you put in, the harder it is to keep track of things, so mistakes will happen. That’s why I’m not allergic to on-the-fly edits, but flies need to learn to stay away from the sticky paper.
While that’s effectively it in a nutshell, one trick I learned as a DM comes to mind, and it’s a dangerous one if used poorly. It’s not trolling, exactly. It started off as me messing with the party overthinker. I’d periodically toss something small, something nonstandard, in with their loot or as a reward from an NPC. Heck, sometimes the bauble would be given to the party as a quest item. The joke? The bauble was exactly that. Just enough detail to make the party overthinker go mad trying to figure out what it was and if it connected with anything else. It didn’t, but they didn’t know that. There’s a catch, though. There always is, right? I’d also periodically look over those little trinkets while we were doing things and decide that they weren’t just meaningless things.
My W40K RPG party had a Mechanicus inquisitor-equivalent gift them what was described as “A big red button with a plastic cover mounted on a device barely big enough for the button” when he sent them off on a mission. When they asked, he explained that it was something experimental he wanted them to use, but he also stressed, in no uncertain terms, that it should only be used when circumstances were absolutely dire. The party leader promptly put the thing in a safe on her ship to prevent certain other party members from fiddling with it. Smartly so, I might add. I didn’t know what it did, if anything, after all. Said party leader was an old hand when it came to how I ran games and had figured out the baubles thing already. She understood the dangers of giving me the opportunity to figure out what it did.
A little over two years later, real time, the party found a Necron tomb world. They didn’t know that’s what it was, but before they landed, said party leader passed me a note informing me she was taking the button. Things went about as you’d expect when you accidently wake the hive up, so smart move on her part. One after another, players and friendly NPCs are getting perma-dirtnaps, and then it’s just the party leader left: Dire circumstances achieved. Button pressed. And the next thing I tell her is that she’s standing on the bridge of her ship, looking at a desert planet as her sensors officer informs her that they’ve detected anomalous metallics just under the planet surface. Everyone at the table got wide-eyed, because they remembered this part from the beginning of the night. This was the point where she passed me the note about the button. There was one difference, though. The image on-screen evoked a curious, foreboding sense of certain doom, and after a few moments everyone who had went down to the surface the first trip through started remembering what happened. Someone made the case for using the nova cannon instead of landing. Right around the time it was agreed that they’d lay signal buoys, quarantine the system, and notify the inquisition, they found themselves on the receiving end of a rather long rant from some particularly upset Eldar about how monkeys shouldn’t play with forbidden technology that can break spacetime.
All the new players thought that was brilliant. It would’ve been, I guess, if I’d planned it that way. It wasn’t until the second character got turned into their component atoms that I’d figured the time skip was a possibility. By the fourth death, I’d finally figured out what I was going to go with the button and what the consequences were going to be. I’d just hoped the party leader would live long enough to press it, seeing as no one else knew she had it. Thing is, once the shooting started, I stopped fudging dice rolls. There was a real chance this was going to be a total wipe.
In my experience, using the bauble approach in writing is tremendously useful because, if done properly, it allows you to unpaint yourself out of a corner. Similarly, the baubles can be great jumping-off points and worldbuilding nuggets if you run low on ideas. They are dangerous, though, because many people have an expectation, thanks to Chekov’s Gun, that everything will be explained or used. Leave too many of these hanging and people will grouse about sloppy writing. Use them incorrectly, too out-of-context for the world you established, and they’ll complain about the same. It’s all up to you as the author, just like your writing style and worldbuilding approach, to decide how structured or not everything is, and just how much risk you’re willing to take on when it comes to irritating the people on the receiving end of the story. Keep in mind, no matter what you write, someone will complain, so don’t ruin a good thing by trying to satisfy everyone. That’s futile.