Write Like the Prose: I Only Have a Mustard Seed
Today’s topic applies heavily to world-building but also to plot. And, given that world-building is typically a bigger issue for a fantasy, scifi, or historical writer, you might find this more helpful if one of those is your genre. It addresses something I hear a lot from aspiring writers (and I say “aspiring writers” because most of them haven’t started writing), that they want to tell a story, but their idea isn’t big enough. As if they can’t start writing unless they have a Brandon Sanderson-sized world and plot completely outlined.
Here’s the thing – you really, really, REALLY don’t. I promise even Sanderson's ideas start simple. (Of course, simple for him is probably more complicated than most. My point is he doesn't have everything from the beginning.)
Seeds are just seeds unless you encourage them to grow. Until you nurture them and feed them, they can’t become the mighty plant that doesn’t even resemble the seed it came from. That doesn’t mean you should sit down and try to write Game of Thrones strictly from the idea of a world where seasons, particularly winter, can last a decade or longer. But it’s a start.
Take your tiny idea - be it a character, a world or a feature of a world, a situation - and just think about it. I advise taking notes so you don’t forget stuff. Ask yourself: if I had this character, what kind of family and experiences would have produced them? What kind of world would they fit into, or NOT fit into? What would be their biggest challenge or danger?
If the world has this bizarre feature, how would that affect a society’s development? What resources would be abundant or scarce and who would have the most power? What kind of religions would be popular? How would X occurrence affect different people of different walks of life?
A useful exercise is to take a book you admire and try to figure out where the idea started. Then seek out articles and interviews with the author to see if you are right. If you can’t find any reference to that, write to the author and ask. Seriously. You’re more likely to get an answer from someone like me than from Brandon Sanderson or George R.R. Martin or Stephen King, so choose wisely, but most authors are pretty nice, and it’s worth a shot. Chances are, if you get an answer, you’ll find it’s a ridiculously simple one.
Don’t worry that your wisp of an idea isn’t enough. Simple ideas are often more complex than you realize if you think about them. And if your pondering takes you in a completely different direction or to an unrelated idea that you like, then follow it! I’ve heard of authors who started with one concept but then realized a consequential side issue was far more interesting. The Traitor’s Trilogy came from simply asking myself if, in a historical context where it was the norm, would my father have put me forth for an arranged marriage? Would he himself have submitted to one?
That’s it. Those are the two questions that that kicked off a three book series, one that has volumes of unwritten backstory, side stories, and future stories. If I can do it, so can you.
So nurture that idea nugget. Play with it. It doesn’t have to be epic and huge to be interesting. In fact, sometimes simple is more compelling.
Discuss it with trusted friends, but don’t let them push you in directions you don’t want to go. Encourage it to grow roots and branches naturally until it’s strong enough to stand on its own. Shape it with elements you love (kissing! dragons!) but only if they fit. Compile information until you are in your comfort zone between pantsing and plotting.
Write but be willing to change and evolve. Write but be willing to set it aside if it’s not working or if it does need to be bigger than you’ve built it so far. That’s okay. You can come back to it or cannibalize it for parts of another, stronger idea. Any author will tell you nothing they’ve ever done in this process, ending in publication or not, is ever truly wasted. Just don’t leave it uncompleted because of a Shiny New Idea or fear it/you aren’t good enough. A simple and complete idea beats a complicated epic with a hundred loose ends and plot holes every time, and a hundred half-written books aren’t worth a single finished one.