It’s time for yet another great World Builders interview! Today, Inshares Sword and Laser Collection contest winner JF Dubeau takes the stage.
Between having a rare species of bacteria named after him and ascending Mount Everest, there is a long list of things JF Dubeau has never done. In fact, writing a book might have been part of that list if he hadn’t one day decided to knock that particular feat off of his bucket list. Halfway through what should have been a throwaway achievement, however, he fell in love with the process of creating worlds and characters and having them collide, collecting stories from the debris. Despite a solid career in graphic design and brand management it was decided that this would be his goal; to write books for a living. So far, JF has written half a dozen books, self-published one work of science fiction which then proceeded to win the Sword & Laser Collection contest on Inkshares (The Life Engineered). Regardless of achievements or failures, JF will continue writing if only because he can’t stop.
I asked JF to tell me more about his world building process, so here are the answers to some of my questions. Be sure to also check out his Inkshares project, A God In the Shed, now funding on Inkshares.
What is the appeal of world-building to you? How does it compare to the importance of character and plot?
I’m probably disturbing the corpse of some cliché by saying this, but to me the world is a character all it’s own. So already, world-building has all the starting appeal of creating a character. Where it stands out as its own challenge with its unique rewards though is that if the story is a great experiment, then the world is the lab and its construction is vital to the success of the experiment. It’s pointless to write a story that doesn’t try to answer a question, even if it’s with more questions, and the world is where that process begins.
What aspects of the world do you have to figure out before you start a story? What do you allow to unfold as you write?
I rarely have the whole world figured out when I start a first draft. I need some wiggle room to adjust as the plot unfolds. However, I always have a foundation. An underlying structure upon which to build the story. It’s that structure that serves as the bones of the narrative, where I hang the conceits and the many plots I need for the narration. For The Life Engineered, I knew I wanted to write a book about robots in a future devoid of humanity but I needed to first decide what that would look like and how such a civilization would come to be. However, several of the cultural elements and naming conventions that are now an important part of the world only came later as I was deeper in my first draft.
Do you have a technique for keeping track of world building as you go? How do you ensure your material is easily retrievable and easy to modify?
No. Unless that applies to endless notes and computer files piled up in my computer. I do use a piece of software called Storyist that has setting and character specific templates that I can organize into folders and I’ve been trying to be good about keeping those in order. After each draft of a book I do clean those up as best as I can before moving on. With various levels of success.
How do you avoid excessive world building and balance it with the act of writing the story?
My mantra is: “the story above all”. Not because I’m some kind of purist, I’m just not smart enough to write profound character studies or build worlds that are too intricate. So it’s pretty easy for me to ease on the throttle when I see that my setting is becoming too calcified to work with. I guess my own personal limitations keep me in check.
What do you enjoy the most about world building?
When I come up with something that makes me look smarter than I am. Essentially those moments when I find a piece of the world that solves a bunch of plot problems, moves the story along and looks like it was planned from the beginning. When that happens I feel like I got away with murder. It’s a good feeling.
Have you learned tips on world building from other authors in your genre? If so, what are they?
Definitely, though I’d be hard pressed to remember what I learned from where. I know that every time I read or hear Jim Butcher’s thoughts on the subject I end up taking notes. The one tip I wish I could remember who I stole it from was to delegate some of the work to your characters. Meaning that as a character moves through the story and his background gets refined, bits of the world will shine through their words and actions and to hold on to those bits. Use them later. When a throwaway comment from the main character in book one becomes a major plot point in book three you look like a freaking genius.
Describe your world building method. Do you have forms that you fill in? How do you organize your notes? Do you use a wiki or some other software?
I start with a conceit or basic premise. What is the one thing I think I want the readers to walk away with once they’re done with the book? I have a document with a long list of these proto-stories to draw from. Then, I take a walk with some music in my ears and I think. I think of set pieces that would be cool in that story, character concepts that I feel would be neat and I think of the larger problem of the premise and I try to find solutions to it. How do we get to that premise? What kind of environment would allow it to take place? As I add pieces to the puzzle I find answers and new questions and I try to answer those questions, etc. Sometimes I’ll go too far down one rabbit hole and pull back or I’ll forget an important aspect and go back to it later. Once I’m back from my walk I’ll write down what I’ve got and use that as a starting point and put together some of those files in Storyist.
Do you use diagrams? If so, what kind? What about charts, schematics, or other visual representations of your world beyond textual material?
It really depends on what I’m working on. For The Life Engineered I used a ton of lists to keep track of characters, their motivations, political affiliations, etc. The chronology however was very simple so I could keep that one in my head. The technological ideas in the setting however were the most challenging. I had to, at some point, decide what each piece of tech could do and especially what it couldn’t do and then find a plausible scientific explanation for each of them. A God In the Shed is even more complicated and requires a tight timeline to make sure the events evolve in the right sequence and I don’t have a character do nothing for too long or be in two places at once. So I have a diagram in Adobe Illustrator for that so I can move blocks easily. I’ve also been experimenting with Mind Maps which is cool.
How has your world building process evolved over time?
It’s become less bloated, more efficient. I’ve learned to spend less time on setting elements that aren’t immediately useful to the story, filing those away for later use. I tend to build less of the world before the first draft but instead have a very efficient model to work with and a long list of garbage ideas I can pull from when I need to fill in a blank.
How do you balance realism with magic or other world building elements that allow for departure from the ordinary?
A lot of it depends on the story I’m trying to write. Some stories don’t need magic to be explained in too much details. Like Harry Potter; there’s no system that dictates in detail what requires a potion and what requires a wand, but that’s not important to the story. A God In the Shed has a very strict, three-pronged magic system because it needs to align itself with reality in a much stricter sense. Characters coming to terms with the existence of gods, ghosts and magic in a realistic way require a “realistic” magic system, so it was important there. The same goes for ‘The Life Engineered’.The Life Engineered. I want people to read that book and walk away hungry for that future. Hungry for the stars. In order to do that I needed to make it feel somewhat real. So while there are certainly liberties with the technologies in that story, they’re all based on at least a touch of realism.
On the other hand, I have an idea for a book that has some fantastical elements that would ruin the book if they were explained even a little.
What are some fundamental rules to world building you would say are important to every writer in the fantasy genre?
Keep everything internally consistent. It doesn’t matter how unrealistic your setting is or how bizarre your worlds are, readers will accept what you give them, but if you don’t follow your own rules they will notice and will have a hard time forgiving you.
Are you modifying your world building process? Do you have any particular things you’d like to improve on?
I’m improving all the time. I hope. I’d love to be more organized. I waste an inordinate amount of time trying to find forgotten details from a previous chapter that I should have written down somewhere. That wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t so disorganized. Technology is helping me with that, but I feel like I have a long way to go. I think that’s the one thing I’d love most, apart from being able to write more, about having Rowling or Martin levels of success; someone would build a Wiki of my worlds and I could just use that once in a while.
In your opinion, what is it that makes a believable and immersive world for a fantasy story?
I think for fantasy in particular, the stranger your world, the more human your characters must be. Not necessarily in appearance or physiology but in personality. There needs to always be something the reader can identify with. A point of reference or anchor. That’s why “fish out of water” works so well with truly alien environments. It gives us a familiar lens to observe the world through. If you’ve got that and you can keep your world cohesive and internally consistent you can get away with all sorts of weird things and remain believable and immersive.
How do you deal with contradictions in your story that require large changes to your world? Have you run into this kind of difficult situation and if so how did you resolve it?
I have run into those situations in almost all my books and the solution is always to have a drink, finish the first draft, then sit down with a blank notepad and while revising the draft take copious notes of where the contradictions are. It’s important for me to finish the draft first so that I don’t have to deal with this process too many times and I can take care of big contradictions all at once. Once I’ve got all issues excised from the book, I can look at them in a “big picture” kind of way and decide if the setting has to be changed or if the plot needs to be changed. When I write the next draft, those modifications will be part of the rewriting process.
Describe your world and some of the considerations behind it that you feel give your stories a solid sense of realism:
I’ll talk about God In the Shed since it’s the one I’m currently elbow deep in.
God In the Shed is set in contemporary North America. It’s my attempt to introduce magic to a modern setting but I wanted to avoid having a second world to deal with. No underground with monsters, no alternate dimension. All the magic happens here and has an impact on the now. This created an interesting challenge; why, if magic is real, isn’t it wide spread? Why don’t people know about it? Why aren’t we using it more? The answers to those questions are what informed the magic system of the story. Magic is difficult. It is dangerous. It doesn’t always have good returns on investment. Most of all, our history is full of magic and there are important reasons why we abandoned it.
The fact that there’s an old god that breathes death and hate loose in a small village of Quebec makes magic a necessity in keeping the thing contained and trying to somehow eliminate it.
The realism comes from how I built the magic system. A lot of the spells and tricks are either so low impact as to be pointless. Others simply become part of the natural order of things when used. Others still are so powerful as to rewrite history. I don’t know how much of a spoiler it is, but in the history of God In the Shed, science is a result of magic.
What tips do you have for aspiring fantasy writers on how to create a solid, believable world?
I’m no expert but let’s see what I’ve got.
One; settle down. Your world isn’t that cool. Yet. Get the important elements done and ready. Work on what’s necessary for you to write your story and then do that. Until your world comes alive with characters and events it’s just a list of static elements and you can (and some have) spend years adding details to a world that will remain dead until you start putting things in motion. The mating rituals of the orc nations of the southern steppes and the detailed language of the half-elf, half-dragon people of the High Court of WhoCares can wait until your story is in its second or third draft. You’re going to be writing that book a few times, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to add depth to the world as you go along.
Two; let the world describe itself to you. You can draw maps and create background characters until the wyverns come home, you’ll never have as much of a sense of the world as when you write the stories that happen within. That’s where fanfic comes from; reading a compelling story and being inspired to add more to the world. Let your story do that to you. It’s not just useful, it’s glorious when it happens.
I’m telling these two tips because I know too many people that will tell me about their world and what would happen if there was a story happening there. That’s not a book, that’s a D&D module.
Thanks, JF, for sharing your insights on world building!
Now here’s more of his current book, God In the Shed:
Saint-Ferdinand : The idyllic farm village. Houses on large, wild properties radiate from a single main street. There you’ll find a small police precinct, a single gas station and truck stop, a few restaurants diners and cafes. Bergeron’s traditional general store and Ms. Amanda’s flower shop. The most unusual thing about Saint-Ferdinand however is the cemetery. It is too large and too full and it is mostly because of the efforts of one man, a monster that has eluded police for over two decades.
… but no more.
When Sam Finnegan, the local weirdo, is finally caught for the murder of over sixty victims, it is the first in a series of events that have been waiting two decades to unfold. Those best informed on how to deal with the rapidly escalating situation have left town for the most part. The residents of Saint-Ferdinanad are faced with a past they had tried to bury and forget. The clumsy spells they had cast to keep an ancient god contained have failed. Time and captivity have bred infinite bitterness in the creature and now its hatred is equal only to its power.
It’s only through the accidental use of an ancient oath that Venus McKenzy manages to trap the creature in her parents backyard shed. She and her friends struggle to understand what they’ve caught and how to deal with it. Meanwhile, even trapped, the creature’s power and legacy still manages to spread terror through the small town.
You can also listen to the Prologue of A God in the Shed, read by Inkshares author, Paul Inman, here.
If you enjoyed what you read here and would like to help bring this book to life, please go over to Inkshares cast your vote by pre-ordering a copy.
Inkshares is a crowdfunding publisher who chooses which books to publish based on whether enough readers have shown interest in them. Successful projects have been reviewed in the NYT, US Today, and Washington Post, and have been distributed to numerous bookstores including Indigo and Barnes & Noble.
You can also connected with JF on his website at: jfdubeau.com