Here are things that Tommy Zurhellen doesn’t believe in: Santa Claus. The Bermuda Triangle. The Ghost of Bear Bryant. And…prewriting.

Construction work at the TVA's Douglas Dam, Tenn.  (LOC)That’s right, ‘Schoolers.  There’s no such thing as prewriting, and there’s no such thing as preheating your oven.  Everything you do is actually writing, in one vague form or another, according to TZ.

Which is interesting for today’s show, because we got a great question about prewriting and world-building from listener Coty, who’s gearing up to write an epic fantasy trilogy.  He wanted to know how much prewriting other writers do, when writers know they’ve got their world all set up and ready to go, and when writers know they’re ready to start making the sausage instead of planning the sausage.

So, good news, Coty–according to Tommy, you’ve been writing all along.  Congrats, pal!

(Apologies to anybody who didn’t know about Santa yet…)

Have a listen to the show to hear more about prewriting and world building and how it can feed your storytelling.  And also, hear the tale of Scantron 7.


  • We got today’s show idea from a great question from Coty, which he wrote to us many moons ago.
  • So, the show starts with Tommy stating that he doesn’t believe in prewriting–everything we do is “writing,” even if it’s talking or jotting notes or reading or thinking.  It all goes into the fiction somehow.
  • But at what point do you stop?  Jody wonders when world-building is a tool for procrastination.
  • Tommy relates the student story of “Scantron 7,” which is all world-building and has no character.
  • Which is a great example of Chekhov’s Razor, where the first number of pages are the writer figuring out the story, and then the story starts on page three (or one hundred), so you have to slice off everything that comes before that.
  • Jody roots for just jumping into the world even if you don’t know everything about the world.  You just have to start, and be willing to brave not knowing everything.
  • Baker wonders if you have to do world-building and plotting of character arcs at the same time, because a setting is an organic and integral part of a character’s tension.
  • Tommy reminds us that setting and world-building has to be snuck in.  Words of wisdom worthy of a tattoo: BEWARE OF THE INFO DUMP.
  • Setting and world-building is always really personal and individual.  Jody feels like you’re world-building even when you’re using a real place, like it’s a parallel universe of that place–a fictional version that works in Storyland.
  • The danger is getting in too deep with the setting and giving too much info about it.
  • The more relevant the world is to your character’s tension and conflict, then the more detail you can give.  If it isn’t crucial to the character, it will feel like fluff to the reader.
  • Jody brings up a great point: when you’re writing something like epic fantasy, you really need beta readers to point out holes in the world that you might not have seen or thought of.  Don’t be shy about showing them early drafts.
  • Tommy likes relying on archetypes for setting.  They’re eternal for a reason.
  • So, how do you know when you’re done with the world-building and prewriting?  Jody says you know when you’re doing productive planning and when you’re dicking around.

So quit dicking around listening to Fiction School and get to writing already!  Oh, wait, we WERE writing.  Everything is writing, right Tommy?