I’ve built some worlds. In fact, I’m participating in a panel on the subject of Worldbuilding at this year’s Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in new York, so you know I’m internationally recognized as a World Builder.
Worldbuilding is fun, in my opinion—it’s the “Weee! Let’s go!” aspect of writing. Making up an entire universe? That’s fun, and that’s one reason why a lot of people are very good at creating a complex universe in their heads, but not so good at filling that universe with believable and relatable characters, or mapping it all onto a plot that compels and makes sense. Worldbuilding is the Willie Wonka Pure Imagination part of writing, and coming up with an ending is the engineering that involves a lot of math part of it.
Worldbuilding can be a bit overwhelming for some, though. Some writers think you have to have that world 100% built before you can start writing the story. They are, in a word, wrong.
The problem here stems from the hidden work that goes into every novel. When you buy a new fantasy or sci-fi book and it reveals a complex, detailed universe, it seems like the author just has this preternatural skill at worldbuilding, which can be discouraging. But the truth is that universe probably took a long time to get into that sort of shape. Books are icebergs, and universes often date back years or decades, slowly crafted over that time until it arrives, polished and gem-like, in your hands.
When starting a book, you don’t need more than a single room or other discrete setting. Your universe can be that small. Focusing in on a single space is basically just breaking the work of inventing a universe into smaller and smaller chunks. Don’t worry about how detailed your universe will be when you finish the draft—just concentrate on creating one space, one room. Then create another. Keep moving. In the end, you’ll have a draft—and you can fill in details and add shading and work on ancillary materials for your worldbuilding later, as you revise.
Just about any intimidating work can be made easier simply by breaking it down into smaller steps. Write a word, make a sentence, form a paragraph, finish a chapter. It’s that easy.