Read Highlights From TorCon’s “A Whole Universe in Pages” Worldbuilding Panel

Virtual convention TorCon took place this earlier this month, featuring a number of Tor authors additional special guests, including authors such as Christopher Paolini, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and others.

On Saturday, June 13th, authors P. Djèlí Clark (Ring Shout), Charlotte Nicole Davis (The Good Luck Girls), Bethany C. Morrow (A Song Below Water), Tochi Onyebuchi (Riot Baby), joined moderator Saraciea Fennell to discuss worldbuilding, craft, and the fun of creating limitless new universes contained within the pages of their works.

The following quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.


On whether or not to use craft books (like Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook):

P. Djeli Clark: It’s interesting that you brought up VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, which is a phenomenal book, it’s very pretty and it has all these great things—all these great prompts and lessons for writing. I own it, I’ve told people to go and buy it. The secret is however, I’ve never used it. It looks so fascinating, it’s like an imaginative wonderland textbook, it’s the best thing ever. All that to say that, I haven’t really used those kinds of tools and craft books to worldbuild. They certainly look as if they would help me rebuild if I had time to do it, and I may in the future look to one of those books to help me in building.

But a lot of my worldbuilding comes from being at the gym, when we used to go to gyms in those ancient times. Me running, me walking, me walking the dog, me with my twin girls and what have you. Things just coming to light, and luckily I have a phone where I can now make notes and quickly jot down an idea. Worldbuilding for me, does take a lot of research, that’s the most technical it comes to. I saw Tochi had a tweet the other day that said “close those tabs, beloved” and I was like, that’s me! Cuz I got 50 tabs right now cuz I’m trying to figure out something to go into a story. I think worldbuilding is always gonna get technical once you get down to the nitty gritty of it, but in the beginning simply thinking about the world and knowing very general things, those more so come from the imagination and my thoughts. That’s just the way I do it anyway.

Tochi Onyebuchi: Self care, brother, self care. I’m just lookin out for you with those browser tabs. So, many of my stories start out with a single image, right? And this is what happens when you’re part of the Toonami generation—you’re just raised on anime, there’s just so much dope stuff that I see. So there will be a single image that ends up being the jumping off point for a lot of the story and the worldbuilding often sprouts out of that. One thing that I’ve always been thinking about but haven’t really been able to articulate until I saw N.K. Jemisin’s wonderful worldbuilding workshop that she did, that I think is somewhere on —but thinking about power systems, think that is a very intrinsic element of the world for me. Because somebody’s always winning and somebody’s always losing, and particularly if I’m writing a story in the western tradition based off of conflict, I gotta figure out where exactly people fall on that. And then also too, big element is just me throwing dope stuff in there that’s just like, let me throw in giant robots and then let me throw in bees coming out of somebody’s hair, and then oh, there’s this really cool thing i saw in ghost in the shell that i liked and let me throw that in there too, and so after a certain point it’s just me trying to make it all work.

Charlotte Nicole Davis: I would probably be one of the research freaks. The technical side of it for me really is reading up way too much about the background of whatever world I’m trying to build. In the case of The Good Luck Girls, it’s a western so I learned way too much about the Old West. But for me, that’s fun. I enjoy researching so, a map in the front of the book and a bibliography in the back to me is like, ideal, so you know exactly where to do your further readings. I havent really read any craft books on worldbuilding, but I don’t really feel comfortable starting until I have read like 5 or 6 sources that I feel like I can draw from and I feel like okay, now I really can get the details right cuz that’s what makes it to me, more so than the big picture stuff, just the little details.

Bethany C Morrow: I think for me, it depends on which project I guess. Because my first speculative publication was also historical. So of course, as Charlotte said, there’s a lot of research. I think i was saying to somebody the other day, I get more actual wordcount out of like, flora and fauna of that region when I look up hyper-specific stuff like that, that actually adds to my wordcount more than these historical actual events. Because what am I gonna do, transcribe like, exactly what happened, that you could read about in this other book? It’s interesting the amount of research that I do that I get really excited about for historical speculative stuff that I say, maybe because I’m a student of sociology, all of that goes into my imagination, and our imaginations are not created in a vacuum, concepts come in and come out of that, so I think everything that I write comes out of research. I don’t know when I did it, but it all comes out of that. I’m just collecting these things all through my life.

With A Song Below Water, it’s contemporary fantasy and I think that people might think that means you did less worldbuilding, but the reality is that I live, and we all—on this panel—live a reality that’s not recorded, so it’s like finding a way to eliminate the actual reality of the world we live in is extremely difficult, because you’re immediately coming up against people who disbelieve it from jump. And figuring out a way to make it real to somebody who acts like they didn’t see it. So I’ve never read any craft books, I don’t own any craft books, I probably sound really horrible when I say stuff like that but it just never crossed my mind to read what somebody else does. I think everybody else does it but me, I just don’t do that.

PDC: In defense of craft books, I’ll say this: what’s interesting about craft books, is that when i do sit down and I do finally read a section on how to do something what’s always fascinating to me is I go, oh, I’m already doing something like that. And I think it’s sometimes validating to know, okay, I didn’t go get an MFA or anything but I’m doing that process, I’m following these story structures, I’m building the world in this way. And I think perhaps some of that comes from, I think, all of us—if we’re writers, we’re probably avid readers. You kind of pick up the cadence and tempo of how a story should be and the ideas of worldbuilding from what you’ve read, and the things you pick up can be good and bad. I think there are ways that craft books are probably going to be really helpful for people who want certain structures. And it’s also good for me to know that I’m following the same path, perhaps there’s a way I can tick it up a notch. Like, people trying to get me to use Scrivener.


On building magical systems and power dynamics:

CND: Well there’s no magic, per say, in The Good Luck Girls but there’s definitely a lot of examination of power. The core of my fantasy element comes from, you know, people always say they start with the “what if” question. My “what if” question was, what if ghost towns were literally towns filled with ghosts. And so I started building this whole alternate old west in which there’s just these spirits on the loose of the wronged dead. They’re called Vengeance because they’re vengeful. And I kind of used that to be a metaphor for our bloody history that we have not reckoned with yet, so in the same way we have this really dark history that we have not really reckoned with and yet it continued to have an effect and create cycles of violence in the present in this world, but then literally there is this violent force that will not be resolved until the underlying insult has been reckoned with. I’m sort of trying to use a fantasy element to talk about something that’s a little more abstract in our world. And I had a lot of fun with it, it also just gave me an excuse to have some horror elements, cuz I love horror. And so it was like, well, the people in power are aware of the fact that these dead, these Vengeance are causing violence in certain communities but they let it happen because it keeps them down. Just trying to use the fantasy element to talk about the real world.

TO: So this actually jumps off of what Charlotte and what Bethany said in response to the previous question. With Riot Baby, that was the first time I thought of the magic system in terms of a literary device, as opposed to something that purely drives plot. Cuz I knew with Riot Baby I wanted to cover a wide swath of history and a wide swath of experience and subject matter, but I didn’t want it to just be about incarceration. I didn’t want it to just be about police violence i didn’t want it to be just about what the carceral state might look like in the near future. I also wanted to show this continuity. There’s Rodney King, there’s Dylan Root. There’s all these different instances of Black anguish that I wanted to cover and then also too, you have the moments where Ella travels astrally into the past, and so it was really cool because Ella’s powers allowed me to—it felt like I was leveling up as a writer. Because all of a sudden I could do things on the sentence level that I used to not be able to do. It just felt really really really good to write into that. And so I think that was an interesting part of my evolution as a writer, where there’s of course the power/powerless dynamic. Ella’s essentially the idea of God as a Black Woman, but she’s in this world that is trying to strip her, and everyone who looks like her, of power and agency. And what does that look like when you have a character who’s sort of spinning against the way that the world turns.

And so that was really interesting to me to think about the magic system in terms of literary device. It was sort of like when you’re using simile and you’ll say like, “his eyes are brown like the hardwood floor’ or something like that. You could just say oh, “his eyes are hardwood floor brown.” It’s just little things like that where you can take out a world and instantly make an image more evocative, or you can switch the order of words. And I feel like what Ella allowed me to do with her powers was, do that to the nth degree. My sentences could just go anywhere now.

BCM: I always start concept, concept always comes first, and then character. In this case, concept was the character. Black women are sirens, and only Black women are sirens. And then the character goes into the world and that’s when I start learning about the world. And immediately, because I know she’s a siren, I know she has power, so it wasn’t about okay, this is a world where we don’t have power, it was literally like oh, I’m just gonna talk about the actual real world. So we are treated this way because of our power, and so there has to be, on the other side of it, the powerful group doesn’t actually have to have power. They don’t actually have to have real power, they have to have social and cultural capital, and political capital, but they don’t actually have to have power.

So in the book, if you really were trying to do a binary that sort of reflects what we experience with white and Black in a world, sirens of course being our side of experience, the Eloko—and I realize that when I say this, people are like, why did you make it from Central African myth? Because I’m decentralizing the European mythos in my book and I wasn’t gonna use somebody else—it’s still Blackity Black. But so, the Elokos don’t actually have any power. So they’re in a position of power and therefore it’s constantly being informed. You constantly have to tell me that you are powerful that they are the best that they are superior, because if we just stacked it up according to whose voices actually have a huge cultural impact, who actual has informed the landscape of music and movies and culture and literature, if we actually looked at what people are contributing and what we’re all feeding off of, there’s no competition there. So I wanted in the book to really make it more like the real world than I think we usually do, which is to say the power dynamic is not actually reflecting power. It’s reflecting control, and who has the control not who has the power. So that’s how it works in my world and that’s what I see in the real world.

PDC: I guess when it comes to power, when I’m looking at things, whether I do it consciously or I notice that these themes may flow through some of my works…I’m thinking of A Dead Djinn In Cairo or The Haunting of Tram Car 015, that world—there isn’t a name for that world, so somebody somewhere on the internet called it the Dead Djinn World, okay—and I’m thinking of my novella The Black God’s Drums, and in both of those, I noticed I was doing this, they’re both in their own ways anti-colonial narratives. And there is this reimagining of the past, using steampunk, a type of retrofuturism to reimagine what the past is, and to change those power dynamics. I vibe with the artist Kehinde Wile, how he does work by taking these figures that you would not think of as powerful and then transposing them on western European art that often depicts images of power. He has a great one up in the Brooklyn Museum, people just stop and watch in awe—the guy who looks like Ghostface [Killah] but he’s supposed to be Napoleon crossing the Alps, and it’s one of the greatest pictures. And I think in both of those worlds, I’m trying to flip the power dynamics.

In Black God’s Drums it’s not only centering the Haitian revolution as the focal points that makes that an alternate world, but it makes the Haitian revolution a greater victory, where Haiti itself is a global power in this time and it’s managed to actually end slavery in the Caribbean and elsewhere. So there was that going on, then in the world of A Dead Djinn in Cairo—I was trying to think of this as an anti-colonial, postcolonial world where through magic and djinn, Egypt has kicked out the British; they are not colonized. And as you see in further works, this is happening globally, the colonial European powers are all on their heels as various different places in West Africa and Asian and elsewhere are pushing back. And so both of these were imaginings of power and how it might be different. And on the one hand doing it, but centering the lives of people in these worlds.

As I talked about on another panel, it’s not fully stories about struggle, it’s about what happens after. They made it postcolonial, they made an anti-colonial move, what societies do they build in the aftermath of that, how do they survive in those societies. In A Dead Djinn in Cairo it’s all about a bureaucracy that’s created to manage this new world, in The Black God’s Drums its about the character that is the underdog, who is also gifted with this goddess residing in her head. And so in both of those i think I’m playing with power in different ways and certainly in both of these magic and power often resides in a few, and it’s also how people react to that. In A Dead Djinn in Cairo, how do we react as human beings if these other sentient beings who are much more powerful than us show up and now live amongst us, so we have to deal with that. In The Black God’s Drums, how does the young girl—she’s thirteen—deal with having all of this power when she just wants to be thirteen and deal with these other things when this goddess has these greater designs for her. How do we wrestle with that?


On Ring Shout:

PDC: This book came out of a lot of things, it came out of my growing up in Houston. It’s something that’s been on my mind a lot. It actually would germinate more and more as i was listening to ring shouts, actual ring shouts—I would turn on a certain ring shout and I would just listen to it while i was driving and the ideas would just pop in there. And I knew I wanted to make it about resistance in many ways, how perfect for our times then. I knew I wanted to involve the Klan, the rise of the second Klan, and I knew I wanted it to be about Birth Of A Nation—it was all of those various things that I wanted to throw in here.

It’s actually a struggle about power. It’s a story about resisting, in many ways, hate, and then in many ways trying to involve yourself in that resistance without becoming caught up in it as well. There’s a scene in there that’s very much about how power is something that eludes the marginalized, and what we’ll do for that power in the end. How much do we want that power and how much are we willing to give away to gain that power? Because anyone who’s grown up in the Black community enough, we can get a thousand conversations that start, “what Black people need to be doing….”—like if we do this one thing, your uncle is gonna bring up this one thing, he has it perfect. And it’s always about achieving power. So I wanted to talk about what are we willing to do to achieve this power. How far are we willing to go, and perhaps is it too far?


On tackling the Black experience in writing and the challenges of heavy topics:

CND: So this was definitely the hardest part about writing The Good Luck Girls for me, was striking that balancing act between telling the truth and not wanting to be too traumatic, or really enjoying the trauma the way some books seem to. I sort of fudged it by using fantasy elements to represent some some of the real world problems, so in this world there’s no racism based on skin color it’s based on whether or not you have a shadow, but there’s really no denying that it’s inspired by anti-Blackness and the US’s history with racism. I’m sure that there are readers that see some of the racism on the page and they feel some kinda way about it, which is intentional. You should feel the character’s anger and sympathize with it but at the same time I didn’t want to subject anyone to the actual hatred of Black skin or Black culture because I was so tired as a kid I just didn’t want to see it. I have no idea if I succeeded in striking that balance but it was definitely the hardest part because, you know, you need to have fun. We don’t get that fun, as Black girls, I really wanted to see these characters triumphing over the struggles that they have but I also didn’t want to make it too light because this is a serious topic that we’re trying to deal with.

TO: This question made me think of The Last of Us Part 2, and the reviews have just started coming out and they’re all like “uh, this game made feel so depressed, I’m so anguished.. amazing stuff 10/10” and so it’s funny because with Riot Baby, that almost claustrophobic sense of oppressiveness is completely intentional. And I think the format, it being a novella, very much lends itself to that. It’s just horror after horror after horror that people are experiencing and that the reader is witnessing. But I think there are a couple of ways that I was able to make it so that it wasn’t just like, you were ingesting a spiked bat, like, turn this into an actual meal. And one of the ways that I was able to do that was with pretty sentences.

I think there’s something about, at least for me as a reader, beautiful prose can take me through so much. It’s the boat that can get me through the choppiest waters. So it was important for me in that story to have sentences that I was very proud of, and sentences that felt like me, all engines firing. And I think the other element is that, I’m not very good at writing comedy but my characters have jokes. So I think that was a very big part of it, too. The peanuts scene in the Harlem chapter, and then the Bronx Monopoly part in Watts, those were so much fun to write because that’s almost what I heard verbatim in real life. I’ve heard those conversations, I was basically transcribing them from stuff that I’ve heard in real life. And even just writing those scenes, I would fall out of my chair laughing.

I think that’s a really important part. It’s not necessarily having moments of levity in the form of comedic relief, but I think it goes to show your character’s full humanity. And that was a big part of me writing Rikers the way that i did, all these portrayals of jail and prison on TV and in film and books, portray it as this place where there are only animals. It’s omnidirectional violence it’s just the worst of the worst, but there are human beings in there. There are people who love and who have friendships and do book clubs, and who wish they could garden, and who have jokes. These are fully fleshed out human beings in this place and I think being able to tell jokes is a big part of that.

BCM: I would agree a lot with what everyone has said. And I think for me, I believe that writing speculative work, for Black authors especially, is a way to elevate in terms of elevating things that people act like they can’t see. And it’s also a way to alleviate for the Black reader especially, that this is real, this is real life, this is stuff that you deal with, but there’s also some sort of fantastical element that takes the burden of the trauma or takes some of the burden of reading it. But the biggest thing for me in A Song Below Water is Black women in relationship with Black women saves the day a lot of the time. I know that happens in Charlotte’s book, that happens in Ring Shout. Allowing Black women to have other Black women means you don’t have to worry about inserting comedy, you don’t have to worry about that—because that happens amongst them. If you have a community, you’re going to go there. Cuz this is our real life, the trauma, the tragedy whatever, we see that for real, you still see us dancing and singing. It’s not because we forgot that stuff happened, it’s because we’re real human beings. We’re fully fleshed out.

Something that I’ve always disliked with not having proper inclusion in, specifically in spaces like YA, is that if you take a Black character and you pluck them out and you put them in a nearly all white setting, they do have to carry the entire burden of explanation, of processing, of all of that stuff. As soon as Tavia and Effie have each other, we can change the subject. Cuz I already know you get it, I already know you know what just happened, let’s talk about this sexy gargoyle. Because we already understand this other stuff. The burden is taken off just by giving us community, just by allowing us to exist as we actually do with our people. So I don’t have to plan to have those moments. And there’s a scene that I can’t spoil because it’s for the end of A Song Below Water, but a reveal happens and it’s… everything that you should be afraid of basically. But because it happens between these two sisters, because her sister is there when it happens, her sister is there to take a time out on the world responding to this and be like, you’re doing it, you’re giving me life right now, and just decide for her that this is amazing, you absolute queen. So before the world gets to respond to the revelation, the sisters respond. And that is super duper important to me. Because I’m not thinking about non-Black girls when I’m writing Black girls, I’m thinking about Black girls. I’m not thinking about how can I make this an After School Special, where I teach you such and such. I think that seeing us fully formed the way you should have, the way we haven’t existed in your imagination will do that work on it’s own, but I’m not trying to have like a glossary to explain to you every step of this. You need to just be quiet and see how we love and see we interact with each other and see how we speak amongst ourselves, without needing to insert into that. And that is how that cultural competency develops, and so I just focus on Black girls and then the rest will take care of itself.

PDC: I’m an academic historian and I study slavery, and when I was trying to decide what I was going to focus on, whether it was going be that or the “nadir” era of lynchings from 1890 and the anti-Black riots, so, one of my friends said, “you really like the pain, don’t you?” and I said, it’s not about that, it’s what interests me when studying. So, I bring some of that, of course, definitely into Ring Shout, I’m bringing that one era, certainly I deal with issues of slavery in several different works that I’ve done. I guess I bring this over from teaching, I always have to find that balance where—I don’t want to say desensitized, I’m not desensitized to any of it—but it is almost normative to me, sitting and reading 18th century, 17th century documents on slavery. I’ve read terrible terrible things, and so I have to make certain when I give this to students that I’m not overdoing it, that it doesn’t then become exploitative. How many scenes do I get to show somebody being whipped, how many photographs do I need to show of a lynching, a lynched body. And so I kind of became aware of this.

In my writing, I know I’m often dealing with issues of trauma and pain, and so in Ring Shout I tried to find a way to balance that: how do I talk about these issues of trauma and pain? How do I, in The Black God’s Drums, talk about slavery, and yet at the same time, find ways that somebody who is reading it doesn’t have to close the book and walk away? I find this by, as Bethany said very well, creating fully fleshed out characters, creating resistance. And so I always have characters that are fighting back in various ways, and so I just try to find this balance because I realize that I’m touching on these issues that are in the real world. I’m touching on these issues that are going to affect people and impact people in different ways when they read it. So I just always try to be cognizant of that. Because it’s fiction, in a way we’re dealing with entertainment, and I don’t ever want it to fall into exploitative—I don’t want it to go Tarantino. I don’t want it to seem like I’m using the pain to be exploitative. If I’m going to do these things, i want it to have reason and purpose, so when people walk away they’re not like, did he really have to do all that? They feel like I’ve treated it, even if it’s something traumatic, that I’ve handled it somewhat carefully. Maybe I won’t always do so, but I strive to do so.


On worldbuilding following plot-building:

PDC: I’ll often have a story that’s created, and then I may build a larger world around that story to flesh it out, to give that story depth, but then once I have that world fleshed out, then it’s just me trying to tell stories in that world. That can often happen, where it starts off as one story, and maybe the story you end up seeing in the end has nothing to do with the first story. I wrote a song called “The Things My Mother Left Me” and that world was created around a completely different story. So, by the way, was The Black God’s Drums. The original story was not the story that people saw, it was a completely different story that actually revolved around a ship captain. And so there are ways the world can start off because of a story, but once it’s there, you can just dive into it and take out what you want. I think of someone like Tolkien for instance, massive world and then tells you these little stories from it, The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit or what have you.


On when real life starts to reflect fiction:

CND: it is really honestly surreal at this point. My book 2 is working on the girls kinda trying to organize these uprisings, and then I’m looking at the news these past couple of weeks, and it’s like, wait a minute…! The ending I have in mind is pretty hopeless, not a spoiler I don’t think, YA tends to be hopeful but I’m looking at the news like, is it gonna go that way? I’m stressing myself out. But it is good to see, and I think maybe this book will help people, because it clearly is relevant.

BCM: With A Song Below Water it’s funny, because people keep on saying this was the perfect time to write this and I was like, baby I wrote this in 2017, that’s how publishing works. So what I’m trying to tell you is, we’ve been talking about this for a while. Somebody just found a quote actually while they were reading that was talking about, like, I don’t know, whether I should be happy that people are finally listening or upset at how long the conversation’s been going on. And just understand, if the book just came out, I wrote it years ago.

TO: I first started writing Riot Baby in 2015, I sold it in 2018, and people are now like, oh my goodness, this is the perfect time to write this book! And it’s like, fam.

BCM: Listen. I always want to turn that back to the person and be like, so if I wrote this three years ago, what does that tell us about how long we have been aware of this and fighting this and whatever. Cuz I just finished a book that’s set in 1863, so it shouldn’t be informed by any present day, I shouldn’t be getting distracted by any present day things. And the really sad part is I kept coming up against that. And now we’re tearing down confederate statues, and people are defending these confederate statues at the same time and saying ‘well slavery happened so long ago, get over it’, and I’m like, well take it down then. But I’m reading something that’s that far in the past and it still felt like people were gonna say, “timely. So timely”.


On drawing from established mythology:

BCM: It’s a good question, but it’s intentionally…I mean my book isn’t so much about mythos as it is about the mythology of mythos, and who gets to decide it and who gets to change it and when it gets changed and in whose favor it gets changed. So I was kind of nervous when everybody was like oh my gosh a siren book, and I was like well, not the one you’re thinking of! So I don’t see any reason to write something that, when it was written, did not have me in mind in the first place. And I was completely left out of it. Why would I be like, oh, let me write that again—I’m never trying to replicate what i was forcibly socialized with.

TO: I will say this, War Girls draws very heavily from the mythology of Gundam, so there is that.


On using descriptions in worldbuilding:

BCM: When Tochi and I had our conversation, I was like, you got an imagination beloved. I also really love short form also, and the stuff that I think is the hardest hitting which will not surprise either of the two people who I’ve been gushing about their novellas, is…so you can’t afford to be like, lemme wax poetic for two pages about this thing. I like to give you context clues, I like to keep it as far as what I consider lyrical but also natural to whomever is doing the narration and not tell the reader “okay step here, okay step here…” Fill it in, beloved, come with me. Let’s do this together. Don’t make me spoonfeed this to you please

PDC: Both Tochi and I are big fans of Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time. In Robert Jordan’s books, you can spend two pages on a hat. And in one way, I love reading that. and I don’t think I’m that descriptive. I like giving people a little bit and teasing with little hints. What I love doing with worldbuilding descriptions is giving just enough for people to imagine that there may be more behind that layer. I might just throw something random out there so people say “what?”, and it’s up to them to imagine what might I be talking about, what’s laying behind here? I think with worldbuilidng, you just have to be certain that first of all your story is what’s central, you’re not doing a D&D campaign, so make sure your story is central. You’re not just worldbuilding to worldbuild. And that’s great, sometimes you want to worldbuild like that, but if you’re trying to tell the story you’re writing, of course you want a narrative plot in there. So when you worldbuild, don’t let it overpower, but if you know that there’s greater things in that world, you don’t have to put it all there. Give people little bits and save the rest for later.

BCM: I will say that I know exactly, I feel that I know exactly what the bone of a Klu Klux looks and sounds like when struck with a sword that sings, I’m just saying! You do not have to spoon feed us, it’s so evocative, it’s such a strong image and sound in my mind.

TO: Part of it too, for me, depends on the story. War Girls is very different from Riot Baby. Riot Baby is a recognizable world, I don’t have to tell you what year it is that Kev’s born in because the context clues are there. And like the Harlem scene, where a car drives by blasting Dipset Anthem. If you remember where you were when you were hearing Dipset Anthem blaring out of every single car in Harlem, you know exactly what year it is. It’s that kind of thing. Whereas for War Girls, I think there was an element of that, where i didn’t want to have to explain a lot of the tribal politics, and i didnt want to have to explain like, these are how big the chest plates are on this giant robot arm, etc. Because I like stories that move fast, at least I like to write stories that move fast, and anything that slows me down. I want to get through as quickly as possible.


On writing workshops and MFA programs:

CND: I did an MFA, I can speak to that. We didn’t really focus on worldbuilding specifically but i did think it helped to have writing workshops and have a group of people who specifically like writing YA and genre fiction in particular because a lot of the MFAs out there are more focused on the avant garde stuff and more literary, whatever that means exactly. I was fortunate enough to find one that was specifically for YA and writing for children, and it made a big difference to have a community of people who get it, who get what you’re trying to do.

TO: I think some of the writers who i admire the most have done workshops like Clarion. I think that Sam J. Miller and Carmen Maria Machado were in the same class and they studied under Ted Chaing, who, if I remember correctly, studied under Octavia Butler. So like, the genealogy, the power that has, right? That’s just mindblowing to me. I think the other benefit that I have found with MFA programs—and i didnt even do an MFA in prose, I did one in screenwriting and playwriting—was that I was afforded this two year block where I had to focus on nothing but writing. That was my entire life. No other distractions, nothing else to take away my attention or anything, I was literally there just to write, and I needed that. So I think that that’s a potential benefit too, that it was two years to focus on nothing but my craft.


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