Only two authors have ever driven me to despair.

TT: It may surprise you to learn they are not C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. No, those men are as far above me in the writing realm as I am above a real turtle. I may kneel at their feet and marvel, but I do not aspire to match them.

One is the author I know as Robert Jordan. I recently learned this was a pen name. It doesn’t matter. To me, he outgrew the shape of a real man a long time ago.

He may be best known for his fantasy fiction series The Wheel of Time. Not surprising. He did write 12 books about it. And therein lies my despair.

When I began reading The Wheel of Time series, I suspected this was something extraordinary. As time went on, as the books continued, as the world advanced, I knew I was in trouble.

I could never do this. I could never build a world so complete. So real. So full of people and their problems and all the sticky stuff that goes with a fantasy series.

I mean, Jordan has people-groups. Races with their own languages, clothing, customs, humor. He has maps of everything. He has names for sword-fighting moves, for goodness’ sake. A Domani woman wears see-through dresses, but an Aiel won’t be caught dead without his shoufa. You can tell the social status of a Seanchan by how much hair is shaved on which side, but for Seafolk you must look at the number of ear and nose piercings and how many medallions of which kind of precious metal hang from them.

Not only has Jordan created the world of the Third Age, where his story unfolds, but he went and created stuff for the Second Age, too, just so that when we go back in time -as we occasionally do through magical items- we have something to see.

But a world, even a detailed one, is nothing without people, the little people whose lives we follow. You know, the reason we read about all the other stuff.

And what people he has. Magicians by another name, flying frogs and flat-nosed gentle giants who build cities shaped like trees. Shepherds and blacksmiths and horse traders. Innkeepers’ daughters and village Wisdoms. Nobles and common folk. All mixing together. All trying to scrabble their own little place in the world while it crumbles around them.

Should I spend the rest of my life trying, I will never do what Jordan did.

So I despaired.

Until I remembered I’m not Robert Jordan (I’m not Stuart Stockton, either, for that matter). I’m just me, Robynn Tolbert, writing what I know the best I know how.

I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to fail to reach some goals and surprise myself with success on others.

I did not create the world of the Third Age. I can’t imagine writing about the same characters for more than twenty years.

I can imagine dying without my stories being told, and the thought breaks my heart a little. How must it have affected Jordan to know he was dying with his tale unfinished?

At one point near the end, the “main” main character expresses a wish to leave a legacy of more than breaking and bloodshed. He wants to establish universities in every major city and save as many of the best minds as possible for the age to come.

Was that Jordan’s dying wish, too? To pass on his knowledge? Did he understand how much his work would affect those who follow him?

I don’t know. Like Mr. Vane from George MacDonald’s Lilith, I am the sort who would rather read the book than speak with the author. I don’t know the man behind the pen name. I only know the words he wrote.

I will never forget them. How could I? They’ve been part of my life for fourteen years.

TT: And, Stuart, don’t let me down. I want the rest of Rathe’s tale, too.

About Robynn Tolbert

Born in Kansas and born again at age six, Robynn has published two novels and started her third. Robynn, aka Ranunculus Turtle, lives in Kansas with a clowder of cats, a patient dog and a garden.

19 comments on “Worldbuilders

  1. I know what you mean Robynn. But you said the right thing (something I have to remember I when I read the work of others and go “my work is nothing like that”): I’m not ______ (fill in the blank). I’m Morgan and I write like Morgan and that’s okay 🙂

  2. Robynn, I think you should post that review you did on facebook. It was truly a great review.

  3. Ok, you know you’re making me want to read this series. And if you could SEE the number of books on my to-read list already, you’d feel really guilty right now…:P

    I am completely fine with the idea of readers wanting only the words I write. Fame is something I never sought when I started writing (which is good, because I suspect I’d end up sorely disappointed otherwise), but I do hope for my stories to someday fill someone’s hear the way Jordan’s have filled yours.

    • As much as I love it, I’m glad I’m on the “other side.” Although, I’m going to have to plan a massive “review” of all of them, from beginning to end. It will have to be sometime this year before the LAST book comes out.

      • Hey, Robynn, why not have the review mainly written and waiting, and then not post it until after you’ve read the last book when it comes out where you can put in the thoughts you have concerning it in the review? Or was that what you were meaning when you said that?

      • David, I should have written “reread,” but I suspect I will be reviewing the last books as I read them. If I do review the others, I probably would save those reviews for Amazon and Barnes & Noble, since they’ve been out so very long.
        Man, I’m old.

  4. I’m reading the second book in the Wheel of Time series now, and yeah, worldbuilding’s pretty crazy. But then there’s Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings (book 1 of a proposed 10, which is, incidentally, part of an incredibly ambitious worldbuilding venture in which he’ll eventually unite all of his various very different worlds in one conclusive series…), and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and, goodness, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen where the author (an anthropologist and archaeologist by trade) created a world with a fellow author so complex they have two separate series with it.

    Yeah, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you look at someone else’s years worth of work. But I like to remember that gosh, these guys didn’t create these worlds overnight. Even J.K. Rowling contradicted her earlier worldbuilding when she felt the need for the story. George R.R. Martin says every writer’s either an architect or a gardener; you either build your world or grow your story and your world grows around it. I’m here pottering plants…

    • See, I suspected I’m pretty naive when it comes to other writers and their worlds. Now that I know of Brandon Sanderson, though, I’ll be putting him on “my list” of authors to follow. Thanks for the heads up.
      And in your example, I would be a gardener rather than an architect. My stuff’s pretty organic. Chuckle.

      • Brandon Sanderson’s not too bad. I’m currently still reading Warbreaker that got mixed reviews and I’m enjoying it very well. You can download it for free right off of his site as he has it available as a way to try him out. I bought The Way of Kings while reading that download. If this is any indication of what to expect from The Way of Kings – which looks like it will be even more epic than what I’m currently reading by him – then I know that I will be enjoying Brandon’s books for many years to come. You can access his website at http://www.brandonsanderson.com for all information about all books previously written and published, current stuff, and upcoming items of interest, as well as that download I mentioned. Hope that helps you out, Robynn! 🙂

      • David, I did notice his blog on your top 10 for the year. I bookmarked it, too. Have to keep my eye on that young man. He’s going places.

      • That he is, Robynn, that he is. 😉

  5. I love world building. I think I’m an addict, actually. I have races of my own and significant backstory to each culture. Now, I don’t claim a tenth of what most of these guys did that we’re talking about. I loved Jordan when I was younger. Though, I must admit that with him it got so complicated that it got confusing. It’s like you had to take your own notes and mapping if you wanted to know who was who and what they did. Particularly when he started resurrecting the Forsaken. I have not finished the series, though I hope to some day. On the other hand, I don’t know that I have the fortitude to go back and reread them all together and I’m sure that will affect my comprehension. I have a pretty good head for keeping stories straight and remembering them, but Wheel of Time was a touch of an overload. (the scary thing was how much I was tempted to start mapping it all out – I’m a sucker for a challenge) But that was back when I was younger and had a less complicated life.

    But yes, I have to admit that Jordan was a big influence on me. Yes, I remember Jordan being determined to finish his writings even though the cancer had been found. And it reminded me of my own mortality. I guess that is one of the nice perks of fame… someone else took up the banner, the notes and style to finish it anyway.

    In my own writing, I found that I have to take care to keep a productive balance. I can spend all my time on notes and world building that the stories never get written. But if I neglect the backwork then some times the story stalls until I figure it out. There is just so much information that will never make the cut to get into the book manuscripts. I have binders of notes, a stack of notebooks, disks of files and sticky pad notes all over the place, all pertaining to my books.

    Personally, I have taken up Liquid Binder in order to try and keep track of it all. It helps, a lot. I’m years from organizing it all, on there or otherwise though. And that’s only talking about the world of the Blade of Dreams books. It doesn’t include the three or so other worlds I’ve started piecing together. I have created a Liquid binder just for the Renegade Project, so that I can keep track of characters, options, backstories etc.

    • Jordan impressed me for the very reason that I didn’t need to keep a file of his characters, except for one book where most of the people we met ended up dying in the very next book. I didn’t worry about them so much. But then, I wasn’t doing a whole lot otherwise, either, so my attention was pretty focused.

      In my books, I don’t normally spend a lot of time on the world itself for the very reasons you mentioned. If I get too involved in that I don’t write the story.

      I do keep a separate file for all the stuff I create as I go. Otherwise I’d have to stop and search for the name for that magical rabbit-like creature they ate in the last chapter, or the name of that town where I just decided they’re going, or the name of that guy that just tried to kill them – oh, wait, he’s dead. Guess I don’t need a name for him. hehe!

  6. Yeah, Robert Jordan. Wow. Robynn, as I began writing my comment to you on this matter, I’ve decided to turn it into a blog entry. Thanks for the inspiration. 😉

    (Now you’ve got to tell us about that second author that drove you to despair, or were you telling us that author’s name when you mentioned Stockton? 😈 )

  7. Is the tendency to underestimate oneself a typical turtle trait?

    I happen to think your world-building is highly skilled. I know there’s a depth to Ah’rahk that Star of Justice only hints at.

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