2020 Novel-Editing Challenge: I took a worldbuilding class!

This past weekend, I took my first creative writing class in years!

It took me a couple of days to decide which one I wanted to sign up for, because as I scrolled through the Grub Street catalog, I realized I wanted to take all the classes. I was especially interested in the several weeks-long Novel Revision courses (especially the online ones, since I travel a bunch), but they’re quite expensive.

But the fabulous course I wound up taking was “Part of Your World: Character-Focused Worldbuilding in YA,” which promised to help me “explore how tight world-building can help shape character arcs and introduce natural points of plot and friction, plus dive into simple ways to apply this to your work in progress.” While I’m not totally sure my work is a young adult novel — or if I want to make it into one — world-building is important to my story, which starts out in a far-future Boston whose historic treasures, thanks to climate change, are deep underwater.

All through my academic career — from elementary school through college — creative writing classes and workshops were where I always felt at home. After college, I helped found and run Wordplay, a Boston-based writing group that met biweekly, once to exchange prompts and once to work quietly together on individual projects. As I struggled to figure out what I wanted to do as a post-grad, Wordplay became my refuge.

When I made the decision to transition to a career in tech and attend a web development bootcamp, I stepped down from co-leading Wordplay. Even after I found my first job, suffering from imposter syndrome, I felt like I needed to spend all my spare time outside of work hustling, building web applications, brushing up my skills, and networking with others in my new industry. A few years went by, and I lost touch with the Wordplay community and, consequently, my sense of belonging as a writer.

So I felt a touch of imposter syndrome once again as I tugged off my backpack and sat down in the Grub Street classroom. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, I found I was the only software engineer in the room. There was a part of me that wondered, Do I deserve to be here?

But the feeling quickly wore off, thanks to our friendly instructor, Allison Pottern Hoch. Allison was incredibly nice and facilitated a thought-provoking discussion, taking us through several excerpts from YA novels and challenging us to identify the ways the characters and their worlds intersected. “You can’t really have worldbuilding without characters,” she explained, “and you can’t have characters without worldbuilding.” We talked about the dangers of lumping worldbuilding details into long exposition that keeps the story from moving, and how to strike a balance. We also discussed the different things first and third person narrators — as well as multiple points of view — can bring to the table when it comes to worldbuilding and character development.

Allison also took us through a few different writing exercises, once of which included describing the room around us in as as much detail as we could. As we shared excerpts afterwards, the results revealed that no one wrote their description the same way or even noticed all the same things! It underscored how much one’s personal perspective can play into worldbuilding, and vice versa.

I came away from the class feeling good about some choices I’ve made for my novel, so far, including my “close third person” narration and recent decision to add two more character POVs. I’m also excited to apply the new things I’ve learned about worldbuilding as I continue writing and editing.

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