Intern Number One, signing on.

My daily purpose in the peculiar Novel Ninja family is a little hard to describe. Hannah and I are being trained side-by-side, but with very different specialties. Hannah, with her love of flow and passion for the written word, is spending her days gleefully working through documents sentence-by-sentence to polish the beauty in them; I, for the most part, am playing in my own little sandbox, learning how to stitch together inconsistencies and help chains of events feel realistic and alive. One of the tools Bowman and I use to keep ourselves entertained and our minds fluid is a little thing I call Culture Chess.

Culture Chess is an exercise that developed very early on in my career as a mook. It’s a way that Bowman-Sensei and I play with our shared love for big-picture thinking. It’s a mutual thought experiment; starting with nothing, or nearly nothing, we slowly build the workings of a story. Each turn, you add some information. There are four “moves”, more or less, although the only strict rule is that you can’t contradict a previous assertion:

First, you can extract implications. For example, if we’re talking about a port city and you say that they’re a highly superstitious set of people, I can immediately assume that there are a lot of very strict traditions surrounding buying ships, hiring crew, setting sail, et cetera; if you have superstitious people whose livelihood is based on the sea, then their superstitions will be especially strong with matters regarding the sea.

Second, you can make decisions based on these implications. In response to the previous example, you could say that one of their superstitions is that any captain who is new to a ship must bring one of his children, an infant under three years old, on board for a ceremony before it leaves port for the first time, or local traditions says that it will sink within a year.

Third, you can resolve seeming contradictions. The ceremony I just proposed seems incredibly infeasible, given that not all captains are going to have children, much less young infants, at the time of their taking the position. This difficulty could be resolved by giving the people a strong culture of adoption.

Fourth, you can add something new. Now that we have the idea of a superstitious port culture where adoption is an important part of society, I get bored and decide that I want the biggest threat at sea to be water-dragons; on your turn, you can do with that as you will.


The point of the game is to play with logic and to learn how to put research into context. Every decision made within a world or a story will affect other things within it, and it takes a lot of practice to figure out how all of these things work together. It also helps to learn how to fit in elements that may not, on the surface, quite work out; as Bowman will always say, before you say that something’s impossible, ask how it would be possible if it was. You can’t contradict a previous move, but you can absolutely introduce non-obvious elements; who says there can’t be a horse culture on a space station, as long as you can find a plausible explanation for it? The more you know about equine physiology, physics, and resource distribution, the more easily you’ll be able to expand on the situation to make it work — and, while you’re at it, learn a lot of cool new techniques for putting all of that research you did last year on horses to good use. The idea is to help gain a proper respect for good worldbuilding, and to learn how to do it more easily, skills which are vital to my role as a developmental editor.

I highly recommend games like this to anyone who struggles with setting. The social aspect of it, as well as the relaxed air, affords opportunity to play with new perspectives in a low-pressure environment. By playing a simple game with another person, you have to react to your partner’s whims in a quick-witted way, and draw upon potentially all of your knowledge to do so. This kind of creative play is what we humans are best at. Our favorite form of learning, and our greatest delight, is challenge. That challenge lends itself to skill, and skill is how we craft excellence.

The art of worldbuilding is one that deserves training and refinement just as surely as the art of beautiful prose. After all, for a writer, the tales you weave onto the page are just as vital to you as you are to them, and you can never underestimate the power of the thought you put into them. From your experience in the dust of the reality you live in – your love of ancient Rome, your study of ancient swordsmanship, your penchant for knitting, your life growing up in the Outback – you are building up the mountains, seas, and skies of a world rotating around a sun you created and named. You are filling the valleys and planes, or even the void of space, with creatures full of life and intention; you are building the scaffolding of civilizations.


The characters you drop here hold a spark of life from your very soul, and your building a stage which will guide them through hope and through heartbreak. In fiction, as in real life, the world is usually going to be bigger than anyone will ever see; a truly captivating novel has a world so big that you can fall into it and get lost. When you write a work of fiction, you are playing god. This striving for the divine takes passion, work, and skill. These are things that you’ll never be able to maintain if you can’t enjoy them through sheer, simple, childlike fun.