Introduction by Patrice Caldwell
Hi all, I am so incredibly excited to be hosting the kickoff to the #DVpit blog hop! Thank you, Beth for trusting me to begin, thank you readers and visitors, and many many thanks to the participants!
This is a worldbuilding roundtable featuring:
Editors: Kait Feldmann at Arthur A. Levine Books and Stephanie Stein at HarperCollins Children’s Books
Agents: Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch Literary Services and Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret
Learn more about all of them at the bottom of this post!
I love these guys and I love worldbuilding and what better way to discuss worldbuilding than to hear from an amazing group of publishing professionals each overlapping yet representing different categories and genres. In other words, whether you write picture books, YA romance, or Adult fantasy this roundtable is for you <3
FYI, this is in 3 parts. Part One is here & now, Part Two is at 4PM EST, and Part Three is at 8PM EST! I will update this post with the links as the other parts go live! For each part, I asked our participants various questions, I divide their responses into these three parts and their responses will be listed in the order they gave them. (Think of this less as a series of interviews and more a larger conversation.)
As we all know, it’s all about the beginning and those first impressions so, to kick things off, I began by asking:
Why is worldbuilding important no matter what genre you’re writing? How should writers start? (e.g. starting with a lie, a glimpse of the world, or the character)
I always like to start with a “what if?” A lot of writers are familiar with the idea of a “what if” in a fantasy or science fiction context, but it’s really the kernel at the heart of any story. What if your supergenius grandpa created a way to reverse aging, and got stuck in a kid’s body (Jennifer L. Holm’s The Fourteenth Goldfish)? What if you could travel to any time and place as long as you had a map (Heidi Heilig’s The Girl from Everywhere)? What if you fell in love with someone you shouldn’t be with? (I’ll let you pick your favorite reference for that one. I know I have a few!) But that’s just the first question you need to ask, and it’s the easy part. I can always tell when an author has hit on a great question that’s big and bold enough to support an entire world, because it inspires them to keep asking questions. How does Grandpa deal with being perceived as a kid again when he’s used to being a respected adult scientist? What do you do if you can’t find a map? If you did try to be with this person you love, who would try to stop you? In this world, whether it’s ours or something you’re making up out of whole cloth, what do relationships look like, what are the expectations, what happens when your character upsets them?
Some of these questions will lead you in directions that help you plot the book; some will help reveal truths about your characters; some will have answers that never make it onto the page. It may not all feel like worldbuilding, especially when you’re writing a contemporary realistic story. But in my experience that’s where the best worldbuilding happens—where the background isn’t just there because the book needed a setting, it’s there because it’s inextricably connected to the story you wanted to tell.
Stories and worlds need to “feel” true, even if they aren’t true. Characters need to be fully-realized and multi-dimensional, both emotionally and psychological, and it can often really all be in the minor details. Quirks, habits, random tastes, what have you — these things are absolutely essential to an authentic world, even if it isn’t Fantasy.
Personally, I like really character-driven narratives, so I’m not too concerned with the veracity of the narrative world — I care more about the veracity of the protagonist’s experience of that world.
I identify with the notion that every society is hiding something. As every person likely is as well. Characters are influenced by their worlds which is why you can’t have character without world-building. I would argue the best world-building (and the best fiction) relies on an author starting with an idea of what may be hidden, or what may be at stake, and writing towards it, creating the world of the story around an ultimate revelation of that thought. In the realm of fiction, one person’s lie is another person’s fact. It’s simply a matter of perspective. For example, Can we say that Octavia Butler started Kindred with the lie that time travel was possible or whether she started with the truth of American slavery? We can’t. But we can still read Kindred as an account of a world that is both searingly realistic historically and which plays with conventions of normalcy in present life (via the introduction of time travel).
I’m fascinated by the concepts of lies and masks and how we present and perceive reality. I think Jim is spot-on when he asks whether a lie might simply be a truth that has been created. What are lies anyways, but another form of story? And aren’t all stories getting at some sort of truth? Even—or perhaps especially—fantasy? I believe that when we read, we seek to understand ourselves and our worlds, whether we’re making direct connections or figuring out how we fit into the fabric.
In order to do that, there needs to be context. How does the world of the story reflect or differ from my own? That’s where wordlbuilding comes into play. And Saba captures this perfectly when she talks about stories needing to feel true even if they aren’t. Shaun Tan does a phenomenal job of this in his picture books. I am constantly in awe of his ability to depict worlds that are at once fantastical and familiar. In his graphic novel-picture book, The Arrival, we follow a man as he emigrates to a foreign city to make a new home for his family. His journey, told entirely without words, explores a setting that is culturally rich, and entirely made up! But it works because Shaun layers his imagination over basics that exist in any world—language, transportation, food, animals, botany. He’s put extensive thought into every detail on the page. It helps that the main character is exploring the world alongside us, as we both use visual clues piece it all together. In one panel, a woman holds an object that we might not be able to make heads or tails of if it were lying on the table, but when we see it perched against her lips, with her elbows up and fingers positioned over key holes, it is an instrument!
This is a visually immersive example of worldbuilding, but there’s no one right way for writers or illustrators to approach it. Pay attention to the details—these are what make a world feel authentic as Saba pointed out—but also remember that the details are not the story, they simply add texture to the bigger picture. Find that one kernel of truth that drives the story for you, whether it’s emotional, social, personal, political, whatever. Stephanie talked about the “what if” that drives the story, and I might even take a step further back to ask yourself why did this particular “what if” come to mind? Use that as your foundation and build up around it. Easy-peasy, right??
These guys are amazing, aren’t they? Thank you so much for joining us for Part One.
The Worldbuilding Roundtable continues at 4PM EST today with Part Two!
About the participants:
Stephanie Stein is an editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books. She acquires and edits young adult and middle grade books, and is generally a huge fantasy and science fiction nerd who likes to frustrate her authors by endlessly asking them why and how and but then wouldn’t…? Some books she’s worked on include Erin Hunter’s Warriors and Survivors series, Cynthia Hand’s My Lady Jane (with Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows) and The Afterlife of Holly Chase, Dan Jolley’s Five Elements trilogy, and Anna Priemaza’s Kat and Meg Conquer the World. Follow her on Twitter @stephlystein.
Saba Sulaiman is an agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, a boutique agency located in Milford, CT. She holds a BA from Wellesley College and an MA from the University of Chicago, where she studied modern Persian literature. She is looking primarily to build her Middle Grade and Young Adult lists, and is particularly interested in contemporary realistic stories. She’s also open to category romance (all sub-genres except paranormal), literary, upmarket, and commercial fiction, tightly plotted, character-driven psychological thrillers, cozy mysteries à la Agatha Christie, and memoir. Being a first generation immigrant who is constantly negotiating her own identity and sense of belonging in a place she now calls “home,” she is committed to highlighting more diverse voices with compelling stories to tell; stories that demonstrate the true range of perspectives that exist in this world, and address urgent and often underexplored issues in both fiction and non-fiction with veracity and heart. Follow her on Twitter @agentsaba.
Jim McCarthy is an agent and VP with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret where he’s been for 18 years. 18 years! In that time, his list has developed to be more than half young adult fiction with smatterings of middle grade and adult fiction and nonfiction. While he works on contemporary and historical fiction as well, much of his list occupies the sci-fi and fantasy spaces like Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy, Fonda Lee’s Exo and Zeroboxer, Livia Blackburne’s Midnight Thief, Robin Talley’s As I Descended, and many more. He loves fiction that takes place anywhere from a slightly twisted version of our own world through epic high fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @JimMcCarthy528.
Kait Feldmann is an associate editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic, where she’s focused on building AAL’s picture book and international publishing list. She’s looking for meaningful, character-driven stories with humor and heart from diverse, #ownvoices authors and illustrators. You can follow her as she tries to figure out Twitter @kaitfeldmann.
Patrice Caldwell is an Editorial Assistant at Scholastic, where she has most recently acquired at auction Kiranmala and the Kingdom of Serpents by Sayantani DasGupta—a middle grade fantasy drawing from the traditional folktales of West Bengal. She also holds a BA from Wellesley College (& considers Saba Sulaiman her Wellesley career big sister), and is especially interested in fantasy, science fiction, and horror (& everything in between!) that’s diverse in terms of the content and creator. She works on numerous chapter books, middle grade, and young adult novels. When she’s not editing, she’s baking tasty treats or writing novels of her own. You can learn more about Patrice, her favorite books, and general musings at her website, patricecaldwell.com, and Twitter, @whimsicallyours, her secondary home.
For more worldbuilding links (including anything mentioned throughout this three part discussion) check out my Writer Resources page.