On Real-World Worldbuilding: THE CALL TO ADVENTURE

I told you I’d share the BIG PROBLEM at the core of NEXT BOOK, and here it is:

You’ve probably figured out, if you’ve been reading carefully, that NEXT BOOK takes place in the real world, in our current present — and then, something unreal happens.

You’ve also figured out, because I’ve written it more than once this week, that one of the themes of NEXT BOOK is STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.

So. Here’s the problem.

Will NEXT BOOK imply that the only way out of the stuckness is an unreal event?

Am I creating a story in which the possibility given to the characters is an impossible possibility for the reader?

Am I suggesting that the only way out of our current stuck-and-possibly-dying world, the only path away from political cruelty and late capitalism and Millennial burnout, the only way these characters’ lives change is through A DOOR INTO NARNIA or AN INVITATION TO WIZARD SCHOOL or FIRST CONTACT FROM AN ALIEN SPECIES* or something like that?

I’ve been thinking about two of my favorite fantasy series, The Raven Cycle and The Magicians. Both are set in our current world, and both hinge on characters wanting something more (which is a specific Raven Cycle phrase, gotta cite your sources) and then finding it through a combination of hard work and emotional honesty and friendship and discovering that magic is real.

I guess the question is: if magic weren’t part of these stories, would these characters have found their something more?

I know that these types of stories include enough real-life experiences, like FACING YOUR FEARS and ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY and WORKING AS A TEAM, that readers can take the feelings that the characters have and the lessons they learn and apply them to their own lives.** No magic required (besides the magic of fiction, of course).

But if I’m specifically writing a story about people in their late 30s (aka Millennials, yes we are THAT OLD NOW) feeling stuck and then finding new possibilities, and if those possibilities are not available to the reader, what story am I actually telling them?

That, since they don’t have a Narnia or Hogwarts or Brakebills or Glendower, they have to stay stuck?

That’s the big problem at the core of NEXT BOOK.

I’m hoping I’ll discover the answer as I write it. ❤️

*We all know that first contact from an alien species would be disastrous, right? Look at how America treats the actual humans trying to cross its borders.

**How many times have I thought about what Henry says to Gansey in The Raven King? Or Julia, in The Magician King, becoming who she is becoming? (Also, yes I just noticed the way the two titles parallel each other.)

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On Real-World Worldbuilding: STYLE

When I wrote The Biographies of Ordinary People, I not only gave each chapter a title but specifically styled them in a way that both paid homage to previous works and told the reader what they could expect from this one: “Meredith writes about her worst fear” and “Anne gives Meredith advice” are echoes of Anne of Green Gables’ “Mrs. Rachel Lynde is surprised” and Little Women’s “Meg goes to Vanity Fair,” and The Biographies of Ordinary People is also an episodic, domestic narrative about artistically ambitious girls growing into adulthood.

(Quick side note: if you have not yet read The Annotated Little Women, which I did not realize existed until this year and just finished reading, GET YOURSELF A COPY. It includes so much information on how Louisa May Alcott structured her writing life, combined income-earning projects with passion projects, and balanced both writing and work— because she served as a Civil War Nurse — and writing and caretaking.* I found it hugely inspiring.)

When I started thinking about NEXT BOOK, I had a particular phrase in mind that I wanted to use as the first chapter title: The Leftover Christmas Family.

Except whenever I thought about starting the book with the words “The Leftover Christmas Family,” I kept hearing them read in Neil Gaiman’s voice, and the characters at the center of the narrative were suddenly twenty years younger. They were still themselves, thank goodness, which means I’ve done a solid job of creating them, but they were just… approaching the end of adolescence instead of the beginning of middle age.

Which, okay, I could definitely write a book about teenagers, and I could even have the adult characters reflect on the events of their youth, the way Gaiman does in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, if I wanted to pull the middle-age thing in there too.

But even if that story included all of the events I currently plan to include in this story, even if the plot were exactly the same, the style of the book wouldn’t help me address the central theme of STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.

That’s a middle-age conflict, after all (thanks, Erik Erikson). The adolescent version is more like LACK OF AGENCY vs. POSSIBILITY. Both of them are, in a sense, about being limited by external structures (family, money, time, societal expectations and prejudices, obligations to school/work) but one of them suggests that there’s a whole big world waiting for you as soon as you come of age, and the other… well, that’s what NEXT BOOK is going to be about.

So I thought really hard about what I wanted this book to be, and I also tried to make space for my mind to solve the problem without my thinking about it (MORE ON THIS NEXT WEEK), and then I realized that I could have one of the characters say the words “leftover Christmas family” instead, or think them, or maybe just describe the feeling of being left behind.

The point is that I recognized that making this choice (to use chapter titles, to use this specific phrase as the first chapter title) would lead me down a stylistic path that would not serve this story, so I threw out that choice and started looking for better ones.

I swear it made more sense in my head.

Tomorrow I’m going to address the big problem at the center of NEXT BOOK that I haven’t figured out yet.**

*According to The Annotated Little Women, Lizzie Alcott was going to be the family caretaker and remain at home as the Alcott parents aged. Louisa was going to be an independent spinster-by-choice and career woman. Then Lizzie died, and Louisa had to step into the caretaking role. Louisa also raised May Alcott Nieriker’s daughter Lulu after May died, because Lulu’s father was too busy traveling for work. (Yes, seriously.)

**No, not the problem of whether the setting should be in a real or ficticious city. That’s actually a small problem.

On Real-World Worldbuilding: TIME PERIOD

Yesterday I shared some thoughts on worldbuilding the NEXT BOOK, including whether it should take place in a specific location or a generalized/fictionalized place.

Today I’m going to ask myself the same question, only this time it’s about time period.

I already know that NEXT BOOK takes place in the present. But… which present?

Is this a generalized present where people have smartphones and use Wikipedia and Uber but don’t, like, reference President Trump?

Or is this a very specific present that did in fact exist, with all of its political concerns, viral articles, memes, etc.?

(I mean, I don’t really think I’m going to put memes in the book, but you get the idea.)

Setting the story in a generalized present might help the reader to feel like the events of the story — or the emotions of the story and the choices the characters make during the story, since the events themselves are a bit… unreal* — could also happen to them. Or also apply to them. Or also reflect the questions they’re currently asking themselves.

The generalized present also gives the story a bit more longevity before it starts to feel like something that happened in the past, though that happens to all stories eventually. (They may have updated Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret to include contemporary menstrual products,** but the Pre-Teen Sensations still don’t use YouTube or smartphones, still have the freedom to roam the neighborhood by themselves, and still wish they were named “Mavis.”)

The specific present, on the other hand, lets me get specific. The current outline has the story beginning at Christmas, for example; if I were to go ahead and say “okay, this is Christmas 2018,” I could include references to real-world events like the government shutdown and the viral Millennial burnout essay — both of which happened after I started plotting this story, but which fit all-too-neatly into the themes of STUCKNESS vs. POSSIBILITY.

Of course, the trouble with setting a story in the specific present if the present itself is literally at the same time you are writing the story is that you might have to rewrite the story if a world-changing event happens that you didn’t include in your outline. This happened in The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2: 2004-2016; I had to rework the planned ending thanks to the way 2016 actually ended.

The other trouble with setting a story in a specific present has to do with the huge lag time between writing and publication. I am very likely to indie-publish NEXT BOOK, which’ll cut at least a year off that lag, but even if I began my story at Christmas 2018 I would be unlikely to publish the story until Christmas 2019 at the earliest — which would be a nice parallel, and still within the range of recent past to feel contemporary, but once you start thinking about publishing around Christmas 2020 the whole thing becomes… well, it starts to feel like a historical piece.

Why should people in 2020 care about what characters thought in 2018? We’ll have had so much more to care about since then.

On the other hand, I could always create a generalized present in which the government is shut down, or in which there is another type of political or economic situation that makes everyone feel stuck, like they wish they were in a better world but they have to live in the one they’ve got now, which is also kind of DYING or is at least scheduled to become significantly more uninhabitable over the next 100-200 years, and they can’t figure out how to change or save it.

That’s where the story starts.

It also starts at Christmas, or at least I’m pretty sure it does.

And that’s where we’ll start tomorrow — with a discussion of style, and how the words you choose affect how you tell the story. ❤️

*NEXT BOOK may be set in the real world — at least in the beginning — but it’ll be shelved with the SF&F.

**While this choice was ostensibly made to avoid misleading young readers into thinking that menstruation involved belts, it weakens the book’s integrity as a piece of historical fiction — which, of course, is what all books eventually become.

Worldbuilding Is About Making Choices (and Understanding What Those Choices Mean)

So this week I want to look at worldbuilding, mostly because that’s where I’m at in terms of THE NEXT BOOK.

Unlike The Biographies of Ordinary People, where the world of the story was not only “the real world” but also a specific place in a specific time period, THE NEXT BOOK… well, it isn’t set in the small Missouri town where I grew up during the time period in which I grew up, so I’m having to do a little more thinking about where this story takes place and what that means.

Before we get into that, I want to share this excellent conversation on worldbuilding, from The Ezra Klein Show:


Speculative fiction author N.K. Jemisin, who recently won her third Hugo Award for the third volume in the Broken Earth Trilogy (volumes 1 and 2 also won the Hugo, and it was the first time an author won three years in a row), takes Klein through the initial steps in creating a world.

Klein, like many of us, bases his world on something he’s already familiar with — in this case, the Black Rock Desert where they host Burning Man. But even if you know an area’s topography, and even if you know what it feels like to watch the stars come out over the playa, you still might not know how the society who lives in this similar-but-fictional desert gets their food. Or how they practice basic hygiene in a land with very little water, and what that implies about beauty standards and what they find beautiful.

Jemisin urges both Klein and, by extension, all of us to think seriously about the worlds we are creating. Does a desert society need to develop a relationship with a society that has water? What does that relationship look like? How are governments organized? Who is systematically oppressed, and in what way does that oppression benefit those in power? What happens to individuals who try to step outside of the roles society has set for them?

Jemisin also urges us to do our research. Even if we are writing books set in non-Earth worlds, there’s still a lot we can learn from how societies on Earth have interacted; like, if you want to know how a desert society and a water society might interact, there are real-world analogues throughout history that you can study.

She recommends Jarod M. Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which I will admit I only read half of before I had to turn it back into the library (it’s not a quick read).

I’ll pair this recommendation with a different type of worldbuilding guide that I am also only halfway through: Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel.

This book, written in Lonely Planet-style, takes readers through what they might expect to find in your typical, cliché, not-fully-thought-out fantasy world:

HORSES are of a breed unique to Fantasyland. They are capable of galloping full-tilt all day without a rest. Sometimes they do not require food or water. They never cast shoes, go lame, or put their hooves down holes, except when Management deems it necessary, as when the forces of the DARK LORD are only half an hour behind. They never otherwise stumble. Nor do they ever make life difficult for Tourists by biting or kicking their riders or one another. They never resist being mounted or blow out so that their girths slip, or do any of the other things that make horses so chancy in this world. For instance, they never shy and seldom whinny or demand sugar at inopportune moments. But for some reason you cannot hold a conversation while riding them. If you want to say anything to another Tourist (or vice versa), both of you will have to rein to a stop and stand staring out over a VALLEY while you talk. Apart from this inexplicable quirk, Horse can be used just like bicycles, and usually are. Much research into how these exemplary animals come to exist has resulted in the following: no mare ever comes into season on the Tour and no STALLION ever shows an interest in a mare; and few Horses are described as geldings. It therefore seems probable that they breed by pollination. This theory seems to account for everything, since it is clear that the creatures do behave more like vegetables than mammals. It also explains why the ANGLO-SAXON COSSACKS and the DESERT NOMADS appear to have a monopoly on horse-breeding. They alone possess the secret of how to pollinate them.

I’ll stop here for today, because I’ve given you a pile of resources and a 90-minute podcast to listen to (and please please please listen to all 90 minutes, the last bit goes into the ways Americans rank each other and there is this whole section on why people feel nervous around their favorite authors that I very very much want to unpack*).

One final note, which will lead us into tomorrow’s discussion: just because you’re setting your book in “the real world” doesn’t mean you get to skip the worldbuilding process. My NEXT BOOK is real-world-based, but I’m still asking myself questions like “will this take place in an actual time period e.g. 2018 or a generic present, and what do both of these choices imply for the story and how it might resonate with a reader?”

That’s where we’ll start on Tuesday. ❤️

*I don’t think we get nervous around authors because we’ve culturally decided authors are more important than other types of people, as Jemisin argues (and finds baffling) — or, more specifically, I don’t think we get nervous around our favorite authors just because of that. There’s also this element of “you have created something that became very important to me, and I want to tell you how much I appreciate your work, and I know I only have 10 seconds to do this before you move on to the next person in the signing line and/or before it becomes socially inappropriate for me to continue talking to you in the airport/supermarket/wherever.”

Plus there’s often an extra dash of either “I have a parasocial relationship with you thanks to what you’ve posted about your life online, and maybe if I say the right combination of words you’ll find me interesting too and we can be friends”** OR “I don’t want you to know how much I know about you from reading your Twitter because I don’t want to come across as a creep or weirdo, so I am going to try to avoid making that obvious and that’s also making me nervous.”

**I have navigated the fan-friend route, though it did not derive from a single ten-second conversation and I doubt it ever could; it came from repeated positive interactions, the way most friendships form.*** It was also unexpected, in that I did not go in with the goal of forming a friendship. We just kept ending up at the same professional and social events, and there you go.

***NO YOU CAN’T FORCE THE REPEATED POSITIVE INTERACTIONS, THIS IS CALLED STALKING.

Read The Billfold’s First Book, Frugal and the Beast and Other Financial Fairy Tales

The Billfold’s first book, Frugal and the Beast and Other Financial Fairy Tales, is OFFICIALLY RELEASED! 🎉🎉🎉

Here’s what people are saying about Frugal and the Beast:

“The Billfold turns personal finance advice on its head, so it’s no wonder it would do such clever things with fairy tales. These stories reveal so much about who we are and how we live today.” — Mike Dang, co-founder of The Billfold and editor-in-chief of Longreads

“I never knew I need Rumpelstiltskin to involve Bitcoin or a parable about instant pots, but I’m so much happier now that I’ve read both. These stories will both delight and get you thinking about money.” — Lillian Karabaic, author of Get Your Money Together and host of Oh My Dollar!

The Kindle edition is $5.99 and the paperback edition is $10.99, but The Billfold earns roughly the same royalty either way so choose whichever one you prefer. Frugal and the Beast is also available for Kindle Unlimited, if that’s your thing! There are so many good ways to read this book, including reading the six fairy tales published for free on The Billfold (if you just want the free ones; if you want the full collection, you’ll need the whole book).

I am so excited to get Frugal and the Beast out to readers, and I hope you enjoy it. ❤️

Anthologies and Fairy Tales

This post was originally sent to my TinyLetter subscribers.

Two quick announcements!

I am FINALLY ABLE TO TELL YOU that a chapter from The Biographies of Ordinary People Vol. 1 has been included in the Greater Seattle Bureau of Fearless Ideas’ What to Read in the Rain 2018 anthology! When I lived in Seattle, I was a volunteer tutor with the Bureau of Fearless Ideas — and this anthology, which includes writing from BFI students as well as authors such as Tara Atkinson, Frances McCue, and Shin Yu Pai, helps fund BFI tutoring sessions and workshops. Plus it’s a great read.

If you’d like another great read, get ready for The Billfold’s FIRST-EVER BOOK: Frugal and the Beast and other Financial Fairy Tales. I wrote thirteen personal-finance fairy tales, some of which you can read on The Billfold and some of which you can ONLY READ BY BUYING THE BOOK.

The pre-order will launch soon. I’ll let you know. ❤️

On Revising My Novel While Reading Meg Howrey’s ‘The Wanderers,’ or: Books Are Supposed to Make You Think and Feel, Right?

I read Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers last week. To say that it was a book that made me forget the rest of the world existed might be a little on the nose, if you know what the story’s about, but I haven’t been this fully absorbed by a book in… I don’t even know how long.

I’ve loved a lot of books this year; Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1, Ali Smith’s Autumn, Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn stand out as some of my favorites. But in many cases I’m studying the language along with the story, which means I am both in the book and outside of it.

In The Wanderers‘ case I was all in.

I empathized with all of the characters—important, in a character-driven book—but felt the strongest pull towards Yoshi and Helen; with Helen, in particular, I felt like Howrey was writing truths about my own life that I was not yet ready to admit to myself.

But hey, it’s been a week. So here we go.


Mild spoilers, if you want to skip the rest of this post: Helen is an astronaut. She values her ability to perform complex tasks on command and knows that doing what she loves—that is, going to space—depends on her being able to function at top capacity at all times. This means discipline of body, of mind, and of emotions both internal and projected. Which is to say she cannot be misperceived, especially in public. Astronauts represent things, after all.

Helen is proud of her ability to maintain this discipline and geniality. The discipline, at least, comes naturally. If she had not become an astronaut she would have found another job that utilized similar skills.

I put the book down partway through—because I am also disciplined, and it was time to go to bed—and thought about how remarkable it was to be reading this story about a woman who has chosen a career that comes with certain requirements and constraints, is honest about what she has given up in order to work within those constraints, and admits that the choice is worth it.

It was also remarkable to finish the book and understand that Howrey had written a story about characters growing and changing and learning from each other without having to give up their discipline. This isn’t a story about uptight astronauts learning how to love before floating around in zero-gee soap-and-ketchup bubbles because it’s okay to be messy now, aren’t you glad we learned that?  (Not saying being messy is bad. Saying that’s the cliché.) This is a story of highly qualified people who do know how to love, who share an intense experience that teaches them how to be more specific with their love and with themselves.


I made the burndown chart for The Biographies of Ordinary People: Volume 2 today. It’s divided into the following sections:

  • Revisions
  • Rewrites
  • Checks
  • Permissions
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Prep
  • Reviews
  • Publicity
  • Awards
  • Promos
  • Ads
  • Appearances
  • Longterm
  • Maybe

For the book to publish in May 2018, I need to get Revisions through Prep done by March, in addition to my writing and editing work at The Billfold and my work for other freelance clients.

I write about 40,000 freelance words a month and edit 40 pieces, which might not require the same discipline as an astronaut but certainly requires me to function at top capacity at all times. (Or, at least, never drop below 85%.) Part of me thinks this isn’t anything worth remarking on; don’t all careers assume that we’ll show up on time, ready to go?

But other people, when I mention what I do, tend to remark on it. Generally along the lines of “I don’t know how you do it.”

I do it the same way that Helen does it: discipline, skill, compartmentalization. (And, by this point, years of practice.)

I also know what I am giving up. Not necessarily to have this career, but definitely to do all of this and get The Biographies of Ordinary People ready for publication. To do all of this, get Biographies ready, and prioritize the exercise-nutrition-sleep required to do all of this and get Biographies ready means a lot of saying no—whether it’s out loud, or internally before anyone has even asked.

This is where I’m supposed to write something about how I feel a little badly, the way the characters in The Wanderers occasionally remember to say that they feel a little badly, about this choice.

But the truth is that I want it more than anything. I have structured my entire life to have this choice. My job is to be good enough to get to keep making this choice for as long as I can.


Now I do feel badly, because I’ve written something that is both true and could be perceived as callous or careerist or lacking love, and part of what I do—you knew I was going to bring this up—involves not being misperceived.

This is both the literal definition of writing and the more contemporary definition of not being disliked. I know that telling you something true about myself is actually more likely to make us feel connected to each other, but I also know that admitting that I avoid some types of typical everyday stuff in order to focus more fully on my work might make you feel disconnected from me.

I could try to reconnect us by saying that we all make choices like this; we choose what we want to move towards and we choose what we want to move away from. (Sometimes we wish we could move towards or away from something, but there are circumstances or obstacles preventing us.) But that runs the risk of being doubly misperceived; in this case, the assumption that I’m saying my choices are better.

They’re not. I’m writing this because I’m putting a lot of intense focus on my novel right now, so I’m very interested in the choices I’m making.

I’m also writing this because I know that other people like to read about how writers work, and this is how I do it.

Mostly I’m writing this because I can’t get The Wanderers out of my head.


Back to the revisions. The reason that I am fairly sure I can complete everything on that list by March—assuming I keep the health stats up—is because this part of the writing process is mostly about discipline. It’s about me thinking critically about my writing: Is it clear?  Is every word the best possible choice, within some kind of 80:20 Pareto Principle? (Knowing which words for sure need to be the best possible choice is also part of revision.) Do the characters move in understandable ways through the narrative?

The most difficult part of that checklist will be REWRITES, which is the list of scenes I need to either rewrite in full or create from scratch. That requires emotion and sense memory and a presence of mind that is very different from the part of me that thinks “is this person a minister or a pastor?”

Which means that for the next several months, I have to be ready to jump on REWRITES on the days that I feel most emotionally capable of doing them. I already know that I’ll only have certain times free to do REWRITES (and everything else on the list), and I’ve blocked those times off on my calendar the way you’re supposed to, and I’ve already told multiple people that I won’t be available on certain weekend days because I need them, a month from now, for Biographies.

This is part of what it means to structure your life to be able to make the choices I am currently making (and knowing what you’re giving up in the process, like being less available to family, friends, the non-profit at which I tutor, etc.).

I know this isn’t the only way to revise a book. But it’s the way I’ve figured out how to revise mine. This is the second book revision process I’ve ever done, and it’s different from a lot of other writers’ first because of the way Biographies is published and second because all writers are different. We aren’t all Helens, or Pearls, or Berts, or any of the other characters that have ever helped me understand myself.

(That’s a terrible way to wrap up this post, though. Let’s revise it.)

I do want to be more specific with my love, and with myself, and with my work. I could tell you, if I weren’t coming to the end of this post, about the time I did an intensive class with Anne Bogart and learned how very specific a person could be when telling a story—and how much work it takes. (And how much love.)

And specificity requires choice, which means saying no to something in order to say yes to something else.

And now I will admit, honestly, that I do feel regret—or, more specifically, disappointment that I cannot be everything to everyone, that I am failing both them and my ideal version of myself—about the things I say no to. Right in this moment, as I write this, of course I do. ❤️

Photo credit: Ian D. Keating, CC BY 2.0.