In case you missed our first part, this is a Worldbuilding Roundtable Discussion with Kait Feldmann at Arthur A. Levine Books, Stephanie Stein at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch Literary Services, and Jim McCarthy at Dystel, Goderich & Bourret as part of #DVpit’s Blog Hop.
During this part we’ll be talking about biases and worldbuilding based off existing places.
Let’s get started with question #4 (& question #5 is further below):
So we all have biases and in terms of worldbuilding it’s so easy to bring those to the table. And this isn’t just in terms of the writer, your readers have biases too (so even if you say build a non-heteronormative world your reader might not agree with it). In this vein, how do you make worldbuilding believable? What is the role of the writer in both checking themselves and their biases but also convincing others, who likely hold biases, that their matriarchal society, for example, is believable?
Yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense Saba! Don’t be didactic, don’t try to over-explain. If you show your characters interacting with their world and normalize the way they engage with each other, the reader will catch on.
In checking your own biases, the first step (and an ongoing one) is to perk up and pay attention. Daniel José Older noted at Kweli this year that there are so many courses on developing your voice, but no one teaches us how to listen. This is so, so important. There’s a lot of great dialogue happening right now about diversity in publishing. If you aren’t already breathing it, inhale! It’s important in general to be tuned in to conversations about the industry, because the context in which you publish can be key to your book’s success, but the conversation about diversity and inclusion is especially important because it’s not just about your book, it’s also about the readers. There’s no way to check all our biases—sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know—but it’s key to do our best not to alienate or other our audience. And I think by nature of being self-aware and aiming to be inclusive and mindful in the worlds that we build, the more those who need convincing will follow suit. Sometimes people hold onto biases because they’ve never been questioned or challenged.
Within the world, it comes down to consistency and character again, as Saba was saying. If the characters believe it, readers will find their way to believing it. But the world of your book doesn’t exist in a vacuum, so Daniel José Older’s point about listening, which Kait mentioned, is so key. You have to balance whatever world or message you want to send vs. the actual world your readers live in. When we talk about the loftier goals of literature and speculative fiction in particular, that’s the point—to reflect parts of our world back at us for further consideration. Fortunately there’s never been a better time to be doing that work. There are so many brilliant writers out there who have been breaking down biases and unexamined assumptions and challenging laziness, and putting all that homework out there for the rest of us to absorb and learn from.
No matter what perspective you’re coming from, it’s one perspective, and listening to other voices can help you add nuance and get a different angle on how readers will interact with your book. There may be some things that make perfect sense within your specific story, but when taken in context with the larger conversation, and with other books your target readers are likely to have read, they are part of a pattern that you didn’t mean to invoke. When that doesn’t match your world’s thesis statement, it can create tension between what you’re saying your characters believe and what it actually looks like they believe on the page—which, in turn, can make it harder for readers to buy in. So when you encounter an opportunity to challenge your assumptions and make a course correction, embrace it!
To add to what my esteemed colleagues have already stated, I will agree that it’s a time of great (and necessary) change in publishing in the way that we look at the lenses through which books are written and read. Publishing has long been a fairly un-diverse community which has led to a lot of the issues that we’re seeing reflected back at us now. It is a time of growing pains for the industry as we look inward at the biases that have gone unchecked for decades. We owe an enormous debt to the activists and educators bringing these problems to the forefront of our knowledge and demanding that we do better. As an industry, we don’t always get it right. And that speaks to broad issues of industry demographics, publishing policies, and other issues which are being explored more closely every day. I know that personally, it has been a time of much introspection and a lot of self-questioning and looking for ways to do better. In terms of looking at your own biases and how they may play a role in your world-building, it’s become increasingly obvious to me that having books read broadly (and truly listening to feedback) is an urgent part of the process. So yes, every author should be looking at where their own biases lie and making sure to challenge themselves to uncover as much as they can about them. And it is every agent’s role and every editor’s role and ever distributor’s role to do the same. I wish that I had a perfect answer to how to do this. Getting that broad array of sensitivity reads is helpful. Taking every single piece of feedback into consideration is as well. You should be dissecting your work as carefully as possible. And we should be doing the same. And that means diversifying the publishing industry not only in terms of authors published but editors, agents, publicists, editorial directors, and so on being hired. Mistakes have been made across the board (from which I certainly don’t exempt myself), so the bottom line for me is to listen to the incredible dialogue that is happening, learn from it, interrogate your own work, and keep pushing yourself (and us) to do better.
SUCH amazing answers. Now, question #5:
Going off this, let’s talk about basing your world off of existing places (whether contemporary or historical)! What are your thoughts and tips? Also, do you have any final words and resources?
For contemporary MG, I’m a huge fan of Lisa Graff’s work. She’s one of the rare authors who write books where every single character (even the minor ones) makes an impression on me, and I think it’s a testament to her incredible worldbuilding. Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING is fabulous (for many, many reasons) but also for its rich settings and details, given the economy of the prose. For fantasy, a steampunk MG called FLIGHTS AND CHIMES AND MYSTERIOUS TIMES by Emma Trevayne comes to mind — this one is like a textbook for worldbuilding, so pick it up if you can. Incredibly lush without being overwhelming, it was lovely.
I don’t work in Picture Books but I do have a one year old, and can I think that GOODNIGHT MOON is an utter triumph in worldbuilding. And my daughter agrees.
I agree, perception is key. And keep in mind that this applies to illustration, too. Can I just use Brendan Wenzel’s THEY ALL SAW A CAT as a mic drop? This is a picture book that is literally about how different perspectives shape the way the same thing can be perceived. There’s so much room in art to play with style and let that inform the story. And so my advice to aspiring picture book writers (who are not also illustrating) is to make sure the artist has room to play with this and bring their own vision of the world into the picture.
My final advice is exactly the same as Jim’s and Saba’s: READ! Spend a day at your library or local bookstore browsing and familiarizing yourself with what’s out there and take home the stories that get you excited, or hey, head straight to your own shelves and pull out your worn down favorites to curl up with and pore over. It’s all in the name of work. 😉
Thank you all for all of your hard work and time. These resources and tips and recommendations are so on point. Readers, I hope you’ve gained a ton from what these agents and editors have to say. Good luck to those of you participating in #DVpit! Thank you so much for joining us for Part Three, our final post.
About the participants:
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more worldbuilding links (including anything mentioned throughout this three part discussion) check out my Writer Resources page.