World-building is one of the fun parts of writing, at least usually. World-building is entering a world of pure imagination and just going ham on it, inventing everything from the shoe sizing system to the weather. For me, it often involves drawing maps and writing history essays and the like, and like a lot of writers I can spend a lot of time building that world without actually writing anything that even slightly resembles a novel.
Sometimes, though, I get much more excited about the story idea itself, or the character that has popped into my head, and I want to start writing immediately. I don’t want to figure out the propulsion system of the starships, or the precise magic system, or the climate. I just want to tell the story that’s roaring between my ears, and world-building will just slow everything down.
So I skip it.
World-building always seems like it has to be Step One of the thirty-three billion required to write a novel (Step 16,567: Sacrifice goat by moonlight; Step 234,667,557: delete all instances of the word “that”; Step 1,334,556,735: Spellcheck), but it doesn’t have to be. All you need, really, is a vague sense of what your universe will be like. Sci-fi, reality, or fantasy? Broad strokes of the characters’ daily experience? Inciting incident for the bit you’re working on right now? That’s it, that’s all you need. You can fake your world-building for a very long time with these basic, primal pieces of your universe.
In the mean-time, you’re writing, you’re creating characters, and you’re getting your inspiration down. It’s a lot of fun to let everyone talk mysteriously about details you haven’t quite thought of yet, and this sort of work also fills in your world-building subconsciously, I think.
So, if you’ve got a great idea or a great character but you haven’t created the universe yet, you can certainly spend a few weeks or months doing the heavy lifting—or you can fake it for a while, and see what happens. Both approaches work for me. Then again, so does day drinking and waking up to discover I somehow wrote 3,000 words of history for my book.