7 Quick and Dirty Worldbuilding Tips for Surviving NaNoWriMo

7 Quick and Dirty Tips to Survive NaNoWriMo

We’re already more than a week into the 50,000 word writing challenge madness that is NaNoWriMo, and that means that plots are picking up, rising actions are building, and characters are reacting to crises of conscience with all the subtlety and skill of a Walking Shovel of Death. It also means that your word count is probably behind, and you might soon be ready to start weeping in a corner.


Though there are lots of ideas out there for adding words to your novel by focusing on character and plot (Plot Bunny Adoption Society), it seems that one place that really suffers during the November madness is the one thing that I love to bits and pieces: the worldbuilding. Despite the huge numbers of NaNo scribblers that choose to write fantasy and sci-fi novels, NaNoWriMo, because of its emphasis on getting shit down on the page without mulling about details, is probably one of the worst times to suddenly realize that: OH SHIT, my characters are in a new city/kingdom/planet/universe/reality and I have NO IDEA what it’s like!

But never fear, brave writer. Here are three tips to help you continue building your world while racing to the NaNo finish line.

Tip #1: Pick Your Favorite Flavor

The easiest way to make world building easier during the month is to decide, right now, the broadest strokes of the world your novel is in. This big-picture decision is something you might call the flavor of the setting. In the same way that it’s impossible to confuse vanilla ice cream with pistachio, a novel feels very different depending on if it’s set in a place more like Feudal Japan, or more like Mars in the year 2067.

The flavor of any particular setting can be boiled down to three main things: the level of technology (or functional magic), the physical environment, and the culture (which can easily be based on any society throughout human history). Looking at it this way, most Steampunk settings can be seen as Victorian culture in an urban setting, just with the level of technology (based on cogs and steam) turned up to eleven. Similarly, most traditional fantasy novels feature some type of Western, feudal culture based in rural kingdoms with Medieval technology and some variable amount of magic.

In general, for NaNo, it’s best to treat this as a mix-and-match affair. So, for example, in my NaNo Project, the Celestial Verses, the level of magic-based technology is on par with modern developments–perhaps even stretching five minutes into the future of contemporary human development. The environment is basically a hyper-urbanized version of my Mediterranean home, while the culture–food, dress, and social interactions–is based loosely on a mish-mash of traditions from South Asia. So long as you’ve got these general strokes defining what the setting feels like (or, to continue our metaphor, tastes like), it’s not so difficult to fill in the details as you go along. Which brings us to…

Tip #2: Details are Your Wordcount’s Friend

Once you know the general shape of your world, it becomes a lot easier to wax poetic on its details, which, needless to say, is a great way to grab some extra words. This is especially true when it comes to the environment of your novel and the culture of your setting. Lingering on descriptions of buildings, clothing, smells, furniture, drinks, landscapes, and especially food will do wonders for your word count throughout the month. And it has the added bonus of making your setting even more vibrant for readers.

Writing Assignment: Write a scene for your NaNo Novel where an important development occurs over the course of a meal. Make sure to describe every detail of what your characters end up eating, and if appropriate, make your readers hungry.

Tip #3: But Don’t Get Hung Up

Of course, it’s easy to take your focus on details too far and to get hung up on exactly which shade of red, crimson, or scarlet would be most appropriate for royalty to wear to an execution–but the key here is to make up as much of it as possible and worry about the correctness of the details later. The one place where this becomes really difficult to do, I’ve found, is with your speculative elements–getting the technology and magic of the setting right.

It’s extremely tempting to fall into the trap of researching every single technological detail of your sci-fi setting, or to try to develop the outlier cases of your super-cool magic system. But believe me when I say that there is a time and a place for developing a twelve-point elemental glyph system for your wizards, and NaNoWriMo isn’t it. In general, it’s best with any first draft to fly loose and easy with the speculative technology and magic, and simply come up with the hard limits of what is absolutely not possible. Most of the time, the rest of it can be hand-waved away with some type of Phlebotinum, or changed around based on a bit more research after November.

BONUS TIP: Inspiration is Everywhere

fotor_147861584898878Finally, remember that our own world is full of super cool stuff, a lot of which might be useful for your latest masterpiece. Carrying around a notebook for sketching rough maps, or collecting names, or noting building and clothing details is just good writerly practice. And of course, snapping photos of interesting sights in your particular neighborhood can also be a great way to potentially add details to your novel’s world, even when you don’t have your novel in front of you.

Do you have a tip or novel excerpt from NaNoWriMo that you’d like to share? Go ahead and share it with us in the comments!

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