World Building 101 with McCammon and Roberson


Continuity 1990, February 10, 1990

World Building 101

Featuring Robert R. McCammon and Jennifer Roberson; transcribed by Richard Alan Kaapke

Jennifer Roberson's website

Editor's Note: The following is a transcript of a panel discussion at the Continuity 1990 convention in Birmingham, Alabama. The panelists were Robert R. McCammon and Jennifer Roberson.


McCammon: Hello. This is world building 101; I'm Professor McCammon. Class is in session, shut up!

Audience: Do we have to?

McCammon: Yes, you have to. Did you bring an apple for your teacher? (Serious tone) Close that door, young man. You'll get demerits. Sit down in front!

My name is Rick McCammon, and we're going to talk about world building.

Roberson: I'm Jennifer Roberson, and I have two different fantasy series out right now: eight volumes in my Chronicles of the Cheysuli series, and three of my four-book Sword Dancer series ... all of which are available in the dealer's room. I also have some short fiction out, but I write primarily novels.

McCammon: I guess what we ought to do first of all is define what we mean by world building. How's it different from scene building, or character building? Jennifer, how does world building differ ... or does it differ? ... from scene building or character building?

Roberson: I think it's a bigger headache when you're building a world, but I don't think the process differs that much. If you're building a character, you have to think of all the ingredients ... the personality, physical appearance, and so on, and so forth. You do that when you're world building also. I think gamers do a much better job ... a more thorough job ... of developing a mythos, a culture, religion, dichotomy, the physical attributes of the world and everything, which are really necessary when you're gaming, because you're moving around through all of this. I think a lot of the times when you're writing a book or a short story, it is more like scene building, because you tend to plug your characters into just what you need for that particular scene. Certainly not all writers do this, because there are writers out there who do a very good job of describing everything, so you feel that the world is very alive as are the characters in the story. It really does differ, even though you're using a lot of imagery.

McCammon: It is much harder to develop a cohesive world in a short story than it is a novel, because of the time factor ... some of that's tough to do.

I think as a writer, you have to visual in a different way...

Roberson: I agree. The creative process in painting, drawing, illustrating and writing may be the same; I can't say, because I'm only a writer. I don't draw or paint or anything. When you're a writer, you paint with words. And you have to be very thorough. And you do think differently. You see an image, that doesn't mean I see a scene. But I've got sort of a mini-movie in my head. But when I actually start to write about it, the mini-movie story goes away, and it's just very spontaneous. I do the first couple of sentences in a paragraph in the opening chapter, and I don't know what's happening next ... other than it has to fit in with the general outlook I have for the whole story, the outline. I think it's much harder to do any kind of illustrating ... to have to get across the world in one little panel for one cover illustration. As novelists or short story writers, we have much more room to work with. It's a lot easier.

McCammon: I agree with the idea of a mini-movie. I think writing is like a movie, and a writer is a director. You pick the actors, you do the clothing, the wardrobe, the lighting, sound effects ... everything! So it is like you're creating a movie, in a way. How do you begin? Do you outline it? What's the nuts and bolts of putting it together?

Roberson: For the longest time, I didn't outline very much. When I started the Cheysuli series ... which was supposed to be one book ... I jotted down notes. That's what a lot of outlining will do for you ... change one book to eight! I started with a character, and I had this vague idea of what kind of world I wanted, which sort of solidified as I went along. My world got a little better with each succeeding book. I definitely suggest that people do outlining ... as thorough an outline as they can. You don't have to use all of it You don't have to put all your research in your work ... it could be very boring. For me, a lot of it is characters generating a byplay and banter, and it has to fit within the context of the plot that I wrote. For people who are really starting out right now ... try to be as thorough as possible. Talk about religion, develop your economy. Bob Asprin's often joked about the Thieve's World books ... where he says there is no economy in Sanctuary. When they run out of money, they have somebody ride in from another world who's very rich and everybody tries to steal his money. When you're just starting it out, you really need to be as thorough as you can on all aspects.

McCammon: In horror, you create worlds also. My book, Stinger, was a real place ... but if I had to create the economy of Inferno, Texas, and create what characters are locked ... all those things would to tough to do, because readers are pretty smart. I think they're going to know if you're fudging or something doesn't hook together quite properly. I haven't really done a lot of work in fantasy, but to me, that'd be tougher... To create an economic system ... that'd be tough, I think.

Roberson: You draw on bits and pieces of historical data. I read a great deal of history... Medieval history and that sort of thing appealed to me. You can't help but sort of draw on what you know. You can't lie to a reader, and ignorance can really do you in. The reader is smart. The reader is much more sophisticated than the reader used to be. They will catch you, and believe me, they write! They say, "You know, in such and such and such a time..." One fan wrote me a letter ... something to do with castration ... talking about the italian opera, Castriani ... and all this is like going on and on, lecturing me about all these things. I think, "You obviously know more about it than I do..." You really have to be careful even when you're doing a fantasy novel, because if you're going to draw on any historical facts, you'll really got to twist them and make them fit within the context of what you're doing. By the same token, you're dealing with a technology that isn't a technology. When you're dealing with swordmaking, there's a certain amount of technology that goes into making a sword. Your transportation is horseback, or feet. So, you sort of have an odd juxtaposition there, and it's really easy to trip over it if you're not careful.

McCammon: Did you have to study swordmaking?

Roberson: I did a little research on it, yeah. I didn't have to go into it in great detail, so I got away with not having to do lots and lots.

McCammon: It's amazing how much writers have to learn and have to know about their subjects. That can be dumbfounding, sometimes ... to go back to work that you've finished and realize that you had to do all this research. How do you do your research?

(Interruption for hurricane warning.)

Roberson: ...I used to rodeo, I know horses inside and out, and I had more fun when I was doing my Sword Dancer books, because I made a horse one of the integral characters. I did not romanticize this horse. He's not the sweet, little thing that you find in little girl's books; he could bite your head off! Nobody writes me and questions why did you have the book doing this on page whatever-it-was, because it's obvious that I knew. I had a background in it. If you have any special knowledge about anything and you can work it in, that's great.

McCammon: People always say when you ask their advice about writing, "Write what you know." Is that good advice?

Roberson: Part what you know, but also write what you like.

McCammon: Yeah. Write what you believe. Talking about difficulties ... where readers can catch you on things ... if you're ever writing about guns, that can be really tough. Guns and bullets and stuff ... and firearms. I wrote a book called They Thirst and I really messed up on the gun. I got a letter from a guy in Atlanta. He said that he'd be very happy to teach me everything I wanted about guns... He's a member of the Devil's Disciple motorcycle gang in Atlanta. Readers everywhere...

There's something about books that's sort of like tar babies. You get in the middle of a book with these problems, and you can't get out of it! I mean, you cannot set yourself free of this tar baby. You try to keep a book around 430 pages, and the tar baby won't let you finish up. You try to finish up, try to finish up ... stuff to do. You find that's true?

Roberson: My husband and I have a running joke, because I'll say I only need 450 pages ... and he looks at what I've jotted down, he laughs, and he says, "Oh, at least 500 or 550, minimum." And he's right. He's always right.

McCammon: ...The world grows and it takes off on its own...

Audience: Should a story stay within its original form from its outline?

Roberson: I've had two single books turn into a 4- and 8-book series. You can be true to your outline within the confines of that one particular book, but afterwards, your characters become so alive for you that they continue to have adventures in your head. So even if you may resolve that particular book, realize there's a lot more that you can do with them. I have had arguments with my characters before. Anybody who's written [long enough] has managed to bring alive their characters to the point where they really want to argue with them. I wanted to kill a character off in the first book and they said, "No, people are going to like me. You're going to need me, and you're going to be real sorry if you kill me off!" And it's true ... he's gone on to become the bigger character in the entire 8book series. If you view them with enough light and enough reality, they can take control. And that's good.

McCammon: As soon as you have an outline, and the outline jumps the tracks, doesn't mean that you're not disciplined. 'Cause you may let it follow its own course, but you know when it's getting too far out of line. You know what you need to cut, or you know when to let the story have its edge. I think it's true that characters do come alive. You hear that you're always in control of characters, that don't come alive ... but there is a point when they do become three-dimensional.

Roberson: You find your subconscious working on it a lot of the time. You may tell yourself, "I'm done for the day, I don't need to do any more..." And you go off and you do other things so you're not thinking about it at all, and then the next thing you know here's an idea that's popped into your head. You go, "Yeah, I can incorporate that here," whatever it is. You just can't keep control of yourself. Sometimes the imagination is a truly wonderful thing.

One question that every writer is asked is, "Where do you get all your ideas?" What I want to say is, "Don't you get any of your own? Don't you know where it comes from?" I understand the root behind that question ... it's "Tell me what I need to do to become a writer, whatever it is." Where does anybody get their ideas from? Believe me, writers don't need anybody else's ideas; they've got too many of their own. It's hard to discipline yourself, because it's this story then this story and then this story...

McCammon: I don't use an outline; I just have what I call "signpost scenes." Beginning scene, something in the middle, something that I want to gear myself toward the end. If the book jumps the tracks ... goes in a different direction ... I'm still going to keep it disciplined. Keep it in bounds. I think I'd get bored with an outline. I believe the outline has a purpose ... I outline mentally. I approach it as a reader would approach it...

Roberson: This is much closer to the way I work. Sword Dancer came out at about twelve points... I follow the signpost method, too.

McCammon: ...Every scene is outlined, everything anybody says is outlined ... writing a book like that would be boring, because you would already know what's going to happen, what everybody's going to say. Writing should be as much of a voyage of self-discovery for the writer as it is to the reader.

Roberson: By the same token, I caution newer writers, and I suggest that you do do a thorough outline, because it does take a tremendous amount of discipline. You have to develop a little editor that sits up here in your head who says, "You're getting off track; this isn't important." Basically, every scene has to move the plot along, even if all it does is develop your character. It may not be information that moves the plot ahead to the next step, but it gives you some idea of what the character is thinking about or feeling, and how that's going to impact on the story. You need to be thorough in the beginning just to get yourself in practice.

McCammon: The only way you can do that is by repetition. Stick with the writing; see it through. I know a lot of people who are writers ... they try to be writers ... they'll do maybe half of one book then go, "Oh, this other idea's more interesting; I think I'll go over and do this one." That way they'll never get anything done. Most writers will say (as you said) that a writer is always working. We're probably working here. Mentally. We're working on scenes; we're working on characters; we're working on future books.

Audience: Do you practice the fight scenes you write?

Roberson: I know there are people who choreograph a lot of stuff, and I've had a lot of people tell me I probably should. For instance, with the sword-dance, just to move it ahead, I don't do a blow-by-blow description. I'm not into martial arts, or anything like that. The tavern brawls are always very easy to do when you think about it. You've got bodies thrashing around, furniture, people jumping up and grabbing beams, and swinging through the air and stuff like that. You just sort of break it down step-by-step, so you know what plays, what moves, and what keeps the reader reading.

...Most of my fight scenes are probably more impressionistic, rather than by blow-by-blow descriptions. There is another author who as I understand it is really an expert swordsman. All of his fight scenes are real; he has to choreograph each and every single move and step that's involved in the scene as you're reading the book.

McCammon: I do a blow-by-blow, but I don't choreograph. I try to do a blow-by-blow as much as possible. Fight scenes are really tricky. You'd think that they're easy to write, but they're not. Even though you've got bodies falling around, people in collision ... you can really lead yourself to a scene where the hero cannot possibly survive this massive damage!

Audience: How do you approach writing a book?

McCammon: I go from beginning to end. I want to write as a reader's going to read a book. I want to start at page 1 and keep on going. If I have problems between page 1 and page 500 for instance, I've got to deal with it then. I'm not going to jump around. I think if you jump around you just have a bunch of scenes. You've got to have some sort of dramatic thread that runs through the book, and you do have to get excited (I think) about the book yourself. The excitement that you put into the book, the reader's going to feel. If it's not there, the reader's not going to get excited.

Roberson: There's something that we're aware of when you read; it's called pacing. When you're a writer, to accomplish pacing (which is the movement) ... there are times where you try to move fast; there are times when you want to slow the story down ... all are emotional reading. We create buttons and then we push them. We try to jerk the reader around emotionally. That's effective writing... For the most part, I work start to finish because there's a certain pace I want to keep. If you build up an anxiety within you, the writer ... it's going to translate itself to the reader, too, and the reader will (hopefully) get just as worked up as you... I really think you're hurting yourself if you do it terribly episodically, because you can break down internal tension.

McCammon: ...Writing from the middle or the end ... can be done, but I don't think it's done very often, or very well.

Do you do cliffhanger endings?

Roberson: ...The Cheysuli series is dynastic. What's in book one is only peripherally in book two, because I jump a generation each time, to help keep it alive. By the same token, in the Tiger and Del books, I use the same two characters each time. You can write a cliffhanger ending... Anytime you're dealing with the same characters, you're dealing with more of the immediacy, and more like old serials. In series where you're dealing with different people in each one, I don't think it's the same thing. You're introducing brand new characters, and sort of have cameo walk-ons by people that everybody already knows.

McCammon: Do you get bored with your characters? Do you ever feel like, "Oh gosh, if I have to deal with this character one more time, I'm going to scream!"

Roberson: I have characters for whatever reason don't come into like for me, and others ... man, it's hard for me to deal with them, because they don't interest me. I have to keep telling myself, "They don't interest me, they sure not going to interest the reader." ...They're characters that don't work for whatever reason.

McCammon: It's funny sometimes when you're writing and it doesn't work, it just seems flat; you know something's not working. When it does work, it's three-dimensional. It's really magical. It's really neat.

Roberson: (Inaudible question) ...Switching from first person to third person, I alternate so that the voice is not the same. There are certain rhythms I develop as a writer when I write as first person as opposed to third person. If I did the whole series in first person, it'd all sound the same, even though the characters are different.

McCammon: I'd like to talk a little bit about short stories, since most of you are probably interested in writing short stories. I don't know why, because I don't think it's easier than doing a book, really. It is harder. Why do you think it's harder?

Roberson: There are people who are born short story writers, and there are novels ... and some people may actually do both. I've published short stories, but I find it difficult, because you have to do it in this little, tiny microcosm ... you have to create a world, characters, mood, dialogue, and everything. But you can't go too far with it, because it's not a short story anymore. So that's why I write books.

McCammon: Actually, the short story market I think it's tougher to break into than the novel market. A good novel will more than likely sell, if it's a big surprise to the audience and publisher. It's harder to make a lot of money on short stories. When I began, I wrote a novel first, and then I did short stories later on. I found short stories very difficult to write, because you do have a limited canvas, a limited framework, and a limited number of characters you can bring on. Everything's got to be right there ... it's got to be so sharp, right there...

McCammon: (Repeating question) How hard was it for us to get published?

Roberson: Well, I wrote my first novel when I was 14 years old. I didn't get published until I was 28. So, I'm not an overnight success. Even then I wondered, did I need an agent, or do I not need an agent? Do I market it on my own? ...It was only after I got an agent did anything get sold. It took me 5 novels ... I wrote 5 novels between the age of 18 and when Shape Changers was picked up. So no, it was not easy for me to get published.

...[Publishers] do read the slush pile. They do need more all the time ... they're looking for new authors, they want to discover, because old ones die off. They've got to come from somewhere!

McCammon: In my case, I was working in a college on short stories, and I couldn't get anything published. I was sending out short stories, everything came back unpublished. So I was working at a Lovett's, and I decided to write a novel. I went to an agent, and my first novel was bought. The first book I ever wrote was Baal. Now that's great, but in another sense, it wasn't good, because I had to learn to write in public. By that I mean all my mistakes, all my screw-ups, are out there in public. And I still find it a little embarrassing. The first few books I did are OK, but basically I think they leave much to be desired. I think that reflects where I am now compared to where I was then. It's a hard business to get into. I think it's important as a writer, to keep doing your best, to keep growing ... because that's what it's all about. I can look back now and say, "Why did I do this? Why did I do that?" But I did the best I could at the time. That's important too ... do the very best you can do at the time.

Roberson: I think one of the things that all writers run into is when your early work is discovered later in your career. A reader will come along who's not familiar with you and they've got ... book one and go, "Are you serious?" and you, the writer, groan a lot. You know your later books are much better...

McCammon: (Repeating question) What part does formal education play in a writing profession?

Roberson: Most creative writing professors are failed writers. They're teaching because they could not make it in the field of publishing novels. I started as an English major and switched very quickly to journalism ... I have a B.S. in Journalism; I was investigative news reporter, and I was also an advertising copy writer... Advertising copy writing makes you write one-word paragraphs...

McCammon: I'm also a journalism major, but I couldn't get a job!

Roberson: ...I took a lot of classes in anthropology, psychology ... even though they had nothing to do with my major, they helped me develop techniques in writing.

McCammon: I was a journalism major at Alabama, but also took some great writing courses there. My creative writing teacher had a story published in Esquire in 1963 ... stories about trains. So, you write about trains, and you'd get an 'A'. I never wrote a story about trains; I've never written a story about trains since then ... as far as science fiction or fantasy was concerned ... forget that. You've got to write slice-of-life.

Southern writing... People get like, "Why don't you write a good Southern book? About a good ol' Southern family?" That just doesn't appeal to me at all. People ask me, "Why don't you write what you know?" ... that is, set a book in Birmingham, set a book in the South... Because you're a writer, you can go anywhere! Literally. You can go anywhere and be anybody for a short period of time... We live through our characters. The characters are all part of us ... the villains, even. The female characters, the male characters, are all part of us. I really don't like labels; I don't like the label "horror fiction." I say either it's a good book, or it's not a good book ... you like it or don't like it. I just don't like the labels of "science fiction" or "fantasy" or "horror" or "adult fantasy" or whatever. Either it's a good book or it's not.

Audience: Do you think about putting your novels into another media (comic books, etc.)?

Roberson: I think the Sword Dancer book would make a great comic book. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's Conan the Barbarian meets Gloria Steinem. Once they get together, they have adventures ... the man gets his consciousness raised... I haven't pursued it, but it's something that I'd like to pursue.

McCammon: Yeah, it'd be fun... I've thought about a computer game based on a book...

Roberson: ...Labels [fantasy, SF, etc.] are mostly for distribution... Distributors have to go in and sell a book in about two sentences to the bookstore buyer...

McCammon: The publishers are working to beat the system.

Roberson: (Inaudible question) There are certain things that male writers have women do that a woman would not do. But the only way to work it out is to have somebody read what you've done. I've had people think that because I ... wrote from a male point-of-view first person ... a 240-lb, male barbarian/sword slinger ... I've had people think that it's a man writing using a woman's pseudonym. It's not my fantasy ... to become a 240-lb male barbarian/sword-slinger... The thing you'll have to deal with [in characterization] is the people. Make them people first. Make the second characteristics secondary, unless it's something that absolutely has to have bearing on the scene that you're working with. I do more books from a male point-of-view than a woman's point-of-view. The strength in characterization is people. Now, I'm sure there are things I do that a man wouldn't do, but I can ask my husband...

McCammon: I think you also have to work as a method actor, too. You've got to learn method acting. You really do, because in my new book, two women are the lead characters. It's integral to the book that there's a childbirth scene. I talked to some friends of my wife about childbirth. I wanted to know about everything. The fluid, the pain... You've got to be a method actor ... as you write a scene, you've got to feel. You've really got to feel as much as possible... To get in the skin of your character.

Roberson: To illustrate a point, a friend of mine wrote a book, and had his woman villain lying naked on a bed with her legs rather wide apart ... which didn't fit the scene at the time, because a group of strangers burst through her door, he did not have her close her legs. I'd be willing to bet you there's not a woman alive who would remain on a bed with her legs spread. It's that sort of thing ... you can ask other women, "In a situation like this, how do you think a woman would react like?"

McCammon: Well, we're at the end... Thank you so much!

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