John Howe's Journal: BUNNIES, WORLDBUILDING & CAPITAL-P PLOTS (Or One Author’s Trip to the Woods)

John Howe writes: To me, writers are mysterious creatures. They make things with words. Pictures are easy, kids do them without thinking. Words are harder, as it implies keeping that gift of spontanteous espression, but using a sophisticated and precise tool most of us can never firmly grasp in out clumsy hands. So, when I meet an Author, I’m always faintly surprised that they seem affable and quite normal, nay, even human.

Thus, when I met Caitlin Sweet in Toronto a couple of years back I only learned that she was actually an Author at the end of a marathon televison shoot. I’ve since read A Telling of Stars and The Silences of Home and they are thinking person’s fantasy, about the uneasiness of cultures in contact, the inertia of motion, the urgency of stillness.

So much happens inside Authors’ Heads. (Or so I imagine, since inside my illustrator’s head, thought and reflexion occupy a lower position on the Jacob’s ladder of creativity; image gathering and management being perched precariously atop the topmost rung.) Where do they go to find out where they are going, to what world their steps lead? Also, the scope of story to me seems incommensurable. Pictures have borders, they go in frames. Implicatus or explicandum, that is indeed the question. Pictures don’t need to explain, words do. Pictures don’t require punctuation. Words are harder to corral.

Add the letter “l” to “words”, shake well and you get something else entirely, which is what Authors do. It is indubitably complicated, since most Authors are reluctant to explain.

So, when Caitlin replied positively to my idle but neverthess spontaneous temeritas of asking her to walk a newsletter in my shoes (one size fits all, bring your own socks, map and lunch), I was overjoyed.

Actually, she said “If you want more than just a dog’s breakfast of random musings, then arm yourself with patience.” “Patience is my middle name,” I replied, “And besides, dog’s breakfasts are my speciality, I have copyrighted the term, am a diligent practitioner of the genre on a bi-monthly basis (this while checking the availability of the domain name in another window) and am bent on cornering the world market. No, I’d love to read something personal and universal, with anecdote and sweeping implication, ubiquity and idiosyncracy, optional applications and deep meditations. Not too long. Not too short. Please. When you can.”

Here it is.


I met Jimmy and Louise when I was about five years old. They were bunnies, and every night they hopped into the forest to have adventures. It would all begin pleasantly enough: sun shining, sky blue, trees benign, even welcoming. But very soon (and every time!) there would be trouble. My heart would quicken and my blood chill as my father said, in his most sonorous voice, “And then they came to a part of the woods where they’d never been before…”

He never knew, before he spoke these words, what would happen to Jimmy and Louise this time. I never knew. Not until that moment that was both so familiar and so full of unexpected possibility – and at that moment everything changed, and a story was born.

I’m obviously not five, anymore (though one of my daughters is). But whenever I’m asked about fantasy – how and why I write it; what it means to me – I still think of Jimmy and Louise, hopping headlong into wonder.

Part One

Years ago, when I was scouring the Internet for unsolicited manuscript submission guidelines, I came across a sentence that seemed to sum up precisely why I’d written the kind of book I’d just written. The sentence went something like this: “Make sure that your magic system is rigorously defined.”

I stared at the screen, suffused with indignation and scorn and questions that I was certain, at the time, were rhetorical. The indignation and questions went something like this: “Fantasy. Magic. Enchantment. Do these words not ring with endless possibility, wildness, wonder? Can such wonder really be defined, let alone rigorously?”

Too defensive, as usual – but I’d just finished a book without chapter breaks, which featured intensely lyrical language and very little capital-P Plot. I’d been driven to begin this book by my frustration with much of the adult fantasy I’d been reading. Too many complicated family trees, too many names with umlauts or without vowels, too many smoky inns and Epic Battles Between Good and Evil, too many mages casting Spells for Specific Purposes – in short, too many genre stereotypes and not enough wonder. So I wrote a book for myself; a book I hoped that I (and a select few friends and family members) might find wondrous. I sent my young heroine alone into a world I hadn’t yet explored myself. She and I discovered it together, which was sometimes unsettling, sometimes frustrating, and always exhilarating.

Then, nearly eleven years after I’d begun A Telling of Stars, a funny thing happened. The book was published. And in between the defensiveness of before and the pride of after came much learning and more humility. Working with an agent and then an editor, I inserted those chapter breaks, chopped at least a third of the rhapsodic, hyphenated adjectives and several scenes to which I’d been passionately attached, added an entirely new character. I struggled with concepts like “conflict” and “momentum” and “show, don’t tell.” I tried, many years after first-draft completion, to impose a kind of narrative rigour that I either hadn’t been conscious of or had actively rebelled against, before. It was almost indescribably difficult, at times – but with the help of my wonderful professional guides I managed. And the book was better for it.

The Silences of Home, my second book, was easy. I was embarrassed to admit this, at first, but now I think of this ease with guilt-free pleasure. I was still writing about the places and people I’d created for my first book, except now there were more point-of-view characters, more plotlines, more momentum – and anyway, I was conscious of these elements now, in a way I hadn’t been while writing A Telling of Stars. The complexity of the story meant that I needed to plan, so I sketched out chapters before I wrote them, drew diagrams (always rudimentary and entirely unsightly) of character and story arcs. But my world was still “loose” (it never did get named), still defined and driven by the characters within it, and by the sense of wonder that continued to be so important to me. Eureka! thought I as the chapters unfurled before me. I’ve discovered how to do this and the rest of my career will be a breeze!

And then a couple more funny things happened at once: I became aware of the term “worldbuilding,” and I started my third book.

Part Two

“Worldbuilding.” The word suggests blueprints, hard hats, ragged-edged parchment maps, dictionaries, compasses and astrolabes, globes set spinning according to careful design. Authors who talk about worldbuilding are usually rigorous and earnest, and will often spend years (even decades) ensuring that every language, island, religious sect, constellation and article of clothing in their world is defined. Often they won’t proceed with the “Once upon a time” until all of this is in place.

I’d never paid much attention to worldbuilding until I started planning my third book. I’d seen it as the subject of convention panel discussions, and of analysis on author websites, but I’d always been looking for other things in these places and glossed over it – and in any case, the idea, when I did spend any time thinking about it, filled me with the same sort of insecure scorn that math always had. Then my third book idea got big. It sprouted characters and plots and subplots; it became the basis of a trilogy. A trilogy! I was reeling, giddy, lost – and I thought, “Wow. I’m going to have to do some serious worldbuilding to get a handle on all this.”

So I got down to it. Bought index cards and different coloured highlighters, sticky notes, binders. I did research; bookmarked endless web pages, got actual books transferred to my branch of the public library. I created headings on the index cards: Religion, Geography, Architecture. I was dizzy with distraction and anticipation. This would be something. This would be a breakthrough for me: an entirely different kind of process, and an entirely different kind of product.

It did end up being a different kind of process, because the story died at 50,000 words. I fought this expiration, which I’d actually felt coming at about the 25,000-word mark, but it was a losing battle. This world was too big, and I either didn’t know it well enough or knew it too well, and there wasn’t any room at all in it for my characters.

So I came up with another idea. It was a very simple idea, at first, which was exciting because this felt more like “me.” But as I wrote, it did the sprouting thing. I filled yet more notebooks with background and backstory and even a family tree, and very soon this tale too exploded into three-book grandiosity. Over a year after my first failed attempt at book three, my second try went belly-up too (also at around 50,000 words).

Worldbuilding, I’ve decided, just isn’t my thing.

It’s probably not the best way to frame the writing of a book: what the process shouldn’t be. So, in order to reintroduce myself to positive thinking, I’m now trying to come up with what it should be.

My first resolution (which is positive and negative in combination): write a story, don’t build it.
My second: even if it grows some subplots (which any good, rich story will), make sure it’s rooted in simplicity.

My third: enjoy it. Play with it. Let it surprise as well as delight.

I’m sure I’ll come up with much more advice to myself (and I’m sure I’ll ignore some of it). But these three pieces will do for now, as I make yet another beginning.


In fact, there is one more recommendation that occurs to me.

Now, struggling with the creation of words and worlds, I must remember my childhood, when my love of story – and fantasy – was born.

“They came to a part of the woods where they’d never been before.”

And then?

Caitlin Sweet, Toronto, October 11, 2007
© Caitlin Sweet/All rights reserved


Manga remain somewhat of a mystery to me. It’s not my inner Luddite resisting anything and everything new, but I’ve simply never learned to appreciate them. (Yet.)

However, I can now add to my curriculum vitae a walk-on part in a comic. (The first five pages follow each other, the last is several pages farther along in the story. The curious little black-hatted brigands are from a book by Tomi Ungerer.)