The WonderCon panel titled “Building Worlds with Words” gathered several writers to provide insight into their own methods for creating worlds. As the moderator, Cecil Castellucci (Moving Targets: Princess Leia) started off the introductions. Joining her were Aditi Khorana (Mirror in the Sky), Margaret Stohl (Black Widow: Forever Red), Victoria Schwab (A Gathering of Shadows), Lisa Lee (DC Superheroes Girls Series), Gretchen McNeil (Possess, Ten), and Caragh M. O’Brien (Vault of Dreamers).
Which comes first – the world or the characters that will inhabit the world? Schwab described herself as a fictional anthropologist and stated she starts with the setting, which she considers part of her cast of characters. Then, she develops characters within that setting and outside of it. As a mystery writer, McNeil said she first starts with the death and works her way back. For her, characters come last. Lee is opposite: characters are first in her world, since she needs to know how they will react and interact in the world she eventually creates for them. Stohl explained that she looks for a feeling – an eyeball prickle kind of sensation – that resonates with her as she starts her project. Castellucci said she gets her ideas from everyday people. Stohl added that it takes about 40 people to make one character. Lee said that she changes enough details of real people in her life. Khorana revealed that she starts with an event and then works out her characters which will be changed by that event. O’Brien makes connections between the world and the characters, considering the limits and rules of the worlds she creates.
Is the ending known when starting to write the world and characters? Most panelists said they did; however, O’Brien and Khorana said they did not. Khorana explained that she writes to know the end, which gives her a sense of urgency.
As a follow-up question, what does the writing process look like for each of the panelist? For Castellucci, she writes the beginning and end, usually a couple of sentences, then she writes her favorite scenes first. She adds placeholder scenes that she plans to flesh out later. She calls this her “skinny skeleton” and typically it can run anywhere from 30 to 70 pages. Schwab needs characters in order to know the beginning and end, which helps the middle. Lee said her process is motivated by fear, fear of not fulfilling her contract. Stohl became introspective of the process revealing to feelings of sucking. Castellucci agreed; she said she quits writing all of the time, but not for long. Stohl provided the analogy that if “if you are afraid to poop, you’ll never get poop in the bowl.” Panelists and audience members were chuckling, but the point was not lost. Schwab added that “your want has to outweigh your fear.” Lee revealed that it took her six years to write her first novel and she overcame her fear; she wrote five novels last year.
Dovetailing back to the question about writing process, McNeil said she uses an outline, especially for her murder mysteries. She does not want to get to the end and have it end up being the wrong person. She revealed that she writes in 12-minute intervals, because as an extrovert, she cannot stand sitting at a computer alone for long periods of time. Stohl takes a minimalist approach to her process; she writes one through thirty on one page and boils down to one word per line. From there, she builds her story. O’Brien stated she writes many drafts, but none of it necessarily makes sense until draft six. Layers develop and through the process, she gets to know the characters and events. She said that she gets asked what her favorite scene is and through her many drafts, to her, all of her favorite scenes are in her books. Hence, she is very satisfied.
What kind of research does each panelist conduct in building their worlds? Schwab starts with five critical points, while Lee typically develops a loose outline; however, she did add that with her DC series, she completes a detailed outline because of the requirements for the review process. Castellucci always creates her skinny skeleton. Stohl used her video game work as an example. She expressed how important it is to respect and honor the IP, because it is a property that you share with the fans. Because of that fact, Stohl explained the importance of being familiar with the property’s world and terminology. As a result, she collects words and descriptions that she can incorporate later.
As the hour was wrapping up, writer’s block was brought up. The majority of the panelists agreed that they re-focus their minds to get unstuck. O’Brien said she keeps writing and as a result, she is able to get through several dead ends. And with a couple of minutes left, McNeil mentioned that she uses character reactions to an event when she cannot describe the “it” – this is a technique that H.P. Lovecraft used in his own writing. Castellucci mentioned there are no punch clocks when writing; Lee added that deadlines help.
*Panel photo by Michele Brittany