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.

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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.