I attended a talk on worldbuilding by Singaporean author JY Yang and took some photos and notes. My notes are not comprehensive, but are hopefully characteristic.
In keeping with Yang’s preferences, in the notes below, I have used they/them/their pronouns. (Still, being somewhat of a traditionalist in the realm of English grammar, I wish there were a distinct gender-neutral singular.)
About JY Yang (from Sing Lit Station)
After six years of writing speculative fiction, JY Yang finally finds themselves at the end of the critically acclaimed and bestselling Tensorate series, with the fourth and final volume, The Ascent to Godhood, out in July this year. As a postcolonial feminist writer who deals specifically with gender, cultural imperialism and structures of power in their work, JY Yang is currently embarking on the epic journey of crafting their first novel-length work of fiction. Described as a far-future space opera centred on the descendants of a doomed generation ship, it has giant robots, space stations under siege, emperors and hierophants, holy artifacts and faster-than-light travel. It is Joan of Arc meets Gundam.
About the Event (Worldbuilding “Lecture” at Sing Lit Station)
There were no PowerPoint slides; I can’t imagine the talk proceeding in that way. Yang was animated, spontaneous, and concise in sharing about their struggles and successes as a writer. The talk was neither wholly about worldbuilding nor off-topic, neither wholly driven by the author nor wholly driven by the audience. The chairs were filled, but there was space for everyone. It was a good-sized group, but still felt intimate. A delightful event.
JY Yang on Worldbuilding
What is worldbuilding?
Yang said something like, it’s immersing yourself in the mundane details about how the world works, your own included, possibly by means of falling down the rabbit-hole of Wikipedia to learn the answers to questions such as… Who invented the cement mixer, and how and why? Who thought of a machine that mixes cement and yet is also a truck that you can drive?
- popular culture (sometimes—often?—overlooked)
- agriculture (How does one grow vegetables in space? or are they synthesized?)
- telecommunications (What if people can travel faster than light but digital messages cannot?)
- methods of naming places and people, especially people in military and other organizations
They showed us their worldbuilding notebook for their work in progress, but said that since they are a tidy person, and not much had been decided, the book did not have much written in it yet. It will serve as a definitive reference for drafting and editing when decisions about the world are more finalized.
What book can you recommend for people who want to learn more about worldbuilding?
Yang recommended a book that is not about how worldbuilding works, but about how the world works: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, a book that explains, for example, why the Nile River Delta was an eminently suitable place for the cradle of a civilization, and how Europeans developed military might when they did. The book spans history, anthropology, sociology, and geography and sheds light on these fields from a different perspective than the traditional one, yielding surprising insights.
I was impressed with Yang’s recommendation for two reasons. First, they chose to read about what makes real societies succeed and fail rather than to read some writing guru’s instructions about how to create a supposedly plausible fake society. Moreover, they presumed that their listeners were willing to do the same kind of research to achieve realism.
Did you have trouble selling the Tensorate series, which features non-binary characters?
No, because a young editor at the publisher, Tor.com, was specifically on the lookout for work by and about marginalized groups. He saw some of Yang’s short fiction and approached them about contracting for a project.
Yang wants to write Young Adult fiction, because that seems to be the best way to get a six-figure advance and become a NYT bestselling author (for now at least). Still, they admitted, one is better off doing one’s own thing. People who don’t read YA fiction probably shouldn’t try to write YA fiction!
How do you develop characters?
Yang said they use a character notebook and showed it to us. They added that characters mutate along the way and become unrecognizable.
Do you plot?
Yang said they tried, but that “Things change a lot.” The idea for the Tensorate series began with a vague idea that went: “Dinosaurs… in the desert… and then magic!”
Do you try to express any particular theme in your writing?
Yang’s favorite theme is that power corrupts. They are not referring to special abilities but to structural power, though those who are in positions of power in society are the same ones who have the means to make the most of any special abilities, which typically require access to as well as time and money for extensive training. So one way to explore the theme of power is to look into ways that the people in power entrench themselves, how they prevent those who are not in power from rising up and taking control.
Why is the Tensorate series about twins?
They blame Star Wars and the media in general. Ooooo, magical twins!
(Do you even need a reason?)
Have you developed a particular style?
Yang said yes, they think so, and hopefully it is one that is characterized by not overwriting. They paraphrased a quotation that turns out to be something said by Elmore Leonard: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Will you sign the books we brought?
All is the Slack, the Slack is all.