By Austin J. Ceravolo
If there’s one thing I respect from an author, it’s when they know their world. When I read about the deserts of Arrakis or the seven kingdoms of Westeros, it feels like the author has actually lived there. Prolific fantasy author George R.R. Martin has a fascinating metaphor for this, suggesting that there are two types of writers: architects and gardeners. Architects meticulously plan beforehand, while gardeners plant the seed of their story and let the seasons tend to it. Yet, even Martin concedes that writing isn’t so binary, and that writers are often a mixture of both. I’ve always considered myself mostly a gardener. However, I recently decided to test my architectural mettle and build a fictional world from the ground up. In doing so, I discovered a whole new branch of writing in the digital age—the world of novel writing software. Gone are the days of J.R.R Tolkien’s drawers overflowing with maps of Middle Earth. Now the kids are using technology.
This kind of software functions in two ways: novel organisation and worldbuilding. The most popular novel organising programs are the likes of Novlr and Scrivener. They act as a more sophisticated word processor, equipped with smooth user interfaces to differentiate between chapters and notes with a single click, rather than juggling dozens of word documents or scrolling down hundreds of pages. The prices for these are also quite reasonable, varying from free to around $12 per month. On the other hand, worldbuilding software becomes more complicated, which is reflected in the pricing. I tried my hand at Campfire, one of the biggest programs. If not for the free trial, Campfire Pro would have set me back a whopping $74.98 ($49.99 base package + worldbuilding pack for an additional $24.99)—and that’s just the standard edition (desktop only). Campfire Blaze, the premium version, functions as either a subscription of $11.50 per month ($115 per year), or a $345 lifetime purchase, and offers a multi-platform experience for larger projects.
You may be wondering what such a price tag affords you. As it turns out, quite a bit. You’re greeted with a series of interfaces and folders for character notes, relationship webs, mind maps and narrative arcs. There’s also an interconnected format for philosophies, religions, species and even magic. I quickly found myself absorbed. I spent days crafting family trees, dystopian religions and a great civil war. I’d written what felt like an encyclopaedia … but I hadn’t written a word of the story. Every time I tried to write it, I felt the need to keep planning, plotting and worldbuilding—it became a cycle.
Here is where I feel these kinds of software can be harmful: they may give writers the illusion of progress. This is a phenomenon author M.J. DeMarco calls ‘action faking’. Essentially, this is when you do something that feels like it’s part of larger process, but really isn’t. It’s a veiled and far more insidious form of procrastination. Have you ever felt accomplished for cleaning out the mugs from your room instead of writing that essay? Did I really need to spend an hour detailing my protagonist’s favourite brand of cigarettes?
A 2013 study suggests that we procrastinate not out of laziness, but to address the “primacy of immediate mood over longer-term goals and rewards.” I think this speaks to why many writers experience creative peaks and slumps, feeling a surge of accomplishment in the idea itself, then crashing during the long-term process of actually writing it down. Other studies have also found that that procrastination can lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety and lower well-being, as it casts a cloud of guilt over other areas of life, with writing being no exception.
I think there’s an idea that writers are fuelled by a burning creative spirit. They lock themselves away for months, only to resurface triumphant with a dog-eared manuscript. But in reality, writing is hard. I think novelist Frank Norris summed it up best when he wrote “Don’t like to write, but like having written. Hate the effort of driving pen from line to line, work only three hours a day, but work every day.”
Still, I believe these kinds of software can occupy a positive place in the digital age. In fact, many of the programs incorporate writing goals, community forums and handy tips, thus cultivating a positive community for budding authors. However, I fear as these programs become more popular, writers may feel pressured to fork out the $5, $10, or $345 to feel like a “real writer”, which raises concerns of accessibility.
But remember, even the romanticism around Tolkien’s tomes of worldbuilding is somewhat misconstrued. Tolkien outlined that The Lord of the Rings was intended to be another children’s book like The Hobbit, but became a “tale that grew in the telling.” Even Tolkien, the architect of all architects, had a bit of a green thumb himself. So, I offer gentle caution to anyone considering the aforementioned software. You don’t need an elaborate program with twenty tabs for your antagonist’s brother’s tragic backstory—all you need is an idea.
Austin J. Ceravolo is a science fiction and fantasy writer currently studying his Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. He wrote his Honours thesis at Monash University, which explored the rise and fall of overpopulation in science fiction literature. You can follow him at @austinjceravolo