I still stand by this advice as it helps to avoid info-dumping details in awkward places. Relating the world to your character is also important in first and second drafts. But, in later drafts, the world building becomes more specific.
I usually world build differently for each draft that I write, layering in specific elements and details in each version. When I do it this way, the end result is a rich world that feels authentic and truly immersive.
So, what goes into each draft?
The first draft, the messy one, is the one where I only focus on things that I need to make the story work correctly, the one where the details relate to my character.
When writing Wolves, I knew I needed an ice planet so there could be a sled race. I knew I wanted it to feel like the few elite corporations had all the wealth and everyone else was scrapping to get by. But the rest of the details came as I was writing.
When I realized that I needed a small sled with a motor in the second half (because poor Iska probably wouldn't be able to pull four people in a sled all by herself), I went back and incorporated that into the world. I made it so there were tourists coming to try their hand at the race, but since they don't know any better, they buy equipment that's not exactly practical. That detail, and dozens of others, became a part of the world.
It wasn't until my agent sent over her edit letter that I started really diving into the world as a whole entity separate from the story.
In fact, the two revision rounds I did with my agent before going on submission to publishers were both mostly about worldbuilding. This was when I got asked questions like "How does the economy work on this planet?" and "What is the relationship between the scavvers and the corporations?" and "What other planets are there and how does Tundar fit in?" I also had to explain the whys behind the predators, the aggressiveness of the splinter wood, the element that the race revolves around, and so many other little details.
When my editor agreed to buy the book and I got her edit letter, guess what was there? If you said worldbuilding, you'd be correct.
Her edits had me fleshing out more about the other worlds that I had added for my agent's revisions, more about exocarbon, and more about the scavvers. Basically building more on what I’d already written. (haha, see what I did there? 😅)
I don't want you to get discouraged by these edits and think "Well, I should just do all the world building before I even draft" — which is a valid choice for some people! But not for me. As the drafts changed and grew, so did the world. So, if I'd set up a bunch of rules and elements beforehand, they would've just been broken probably.
It's important to remember that whenever you add stuff, it's not always perfect the first time. When I added the worldbuilding elements for my agent, it was almost like a first draft for those elements. It makes sense that they needed to be expanded upon when my editor read them.
It might sound like a lot (it is a lot). But, all great writing is truly re-writing (or just adding more writing, lol). I world build just like I draft, one revision at a time. But the end result is a world that feels lush and real, one that readers can really sink their teeth into and get lost in. Which is really the goal of a good book, right?
As in all things, remember that what works for me, might not work for you. Build your world in a way that feels right for your skills and your story.
A version of this story appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.