How to Create a World

My entire style of writing changed from the second draft of TeaNovel to the third, I used to be a plot-driven, fast-paced writer. Characters were just on the page to provide reactions. The world just existed for me to, like a finger painter, to swipe a background behind a set. That’s how I wrote my first, and my second, and the first two drafts of my third novel. When I first wrote TeaNovel, I wrote it just to write the twists and turns of a plot. I hurriedly wrote about an opera and a palace, but never brought them alive.

The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater, changed everything.

In that book, I came for the plot and stayed for the world of Thisby. Yes, there were deadly horses that rose from the sea, but beyond that, there was the island. There was that rocky crag of civilization with the roots of a pagan culture. There was an untamed rawness to the cliffs and the November sea. And there was a fierce pride from the characters that you only feel when one’s culture is deep in his bones, a pride that I only can admire.

Oh, man. I’m failing so hard at describing this right now. But Maggie created a world and a home. A tangible home. She described things in a way that made Thisby very, very real to me. At times, the characters became the setting, and Thisby became a person.

And when I went back and reread that novel countless times, each time Thisby entranced me all over again. There was this soul, this essence to that place and the only way I can describe it is with that moment in The Night Circus, when you open a scent bottle and the entire essence of a place comes through. Like, when you get a whiff of sunscreen, and all your childhood summer camp memories flood you? That was it.

I always wondered how she did that. I went to TeaNovel, and I thought myself of how to do that. I knew I couldn’t just paint descriptions. I had to do something more. Maggie wrote this wonderful Printz speech, a passage of which I’d like to share with you:

“…the answer is this: 42 Century Butter-Pies. That’s right. Those imaginary pies that tormented me as a ten year old are also the solution to making a world. Because instead of baldly presenting a culture to me, Diana Wynne Jones showed me the symptoms of the culture. It wasn’t just the sights and the sounds. It was the taste in my mouth and the feeling on my skin and the sense that no matter where I turned my head in this book, I’d experience something new about the world. It was, as they say, the little things. So that’s what I did. I filled The Scorpio Races with as many of the little things as I could remember from my trips, and when I thought I was missing a little thing, I went looking for it. in the end, I feel like Thisby is a big place made of tiny, true sensations.”

-Maggie Stiefvater, YALSA Printz Honor Speech

That was it for me. Although I didn’t come across this speech until many many more drafts of TeaNovel, but I had also essentially focused on the little things. I had a lovely Opera and a magnificent, cutthroat Palace. What did I love about the Opera? What could I do to make the characters feel the same way? How do I make it so the characters don’t necessarily have worlds to save, but rather homes to fight for? The answer, for me, was in the little things. They add up. Believe me, they do.

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