I’ve long been a fan of the YouTube channel Hello Future Me. So when I found out that Timothy Hickson’s book entitled “On Writing and Worldbuilding” was coming out, I knew I was going to have to buy it…
…BUT THEN HE SENT ME AN ADVANCED COPY TO REVIEW!
Let’s cut to the chase. It’s amazing how often, whilst reading Hickson’s book, I found myself nodding along. The sage advice of Tim Hickson is succinctly written – no fluff, just clear technical tips which aim to guide, rather than dictate. And his writing style is the epitome of “edutainment” – he gets his point across, and you find yourself laughing along with his witty asides, which are unobtrusively woven in. Although it’s aimed primarily at novelists, Hickon’s book is valuable for any storytellers – writers, screenwriters or tabletop RPG creators – who write Scifi or Fantasy genres. It’ll help you out whether you’re a professional writer or just getting started.
You can pre-order and buy Tim Hickon’s book On Writing and Worldbuilding right here for $4.81 (ebook) or $12.39 (paperback). And I highly recommend it.
Or… keep reading this review to find out EXACTLY why you need it in your life! There’s a massive bunch of reasons to get your hands on it, and here are a few…
This book is for all storytellers:
Hickson’s book, as with his Youtube Channel, sets out to provide:
“[an] educational and detailed breakdown of very niche and specific elements of storytelling with clear, coherent and in-depth discussions about how we might write a satisfying story.”
There’s an emphasis on storytelling, beyond just writing novels. And in the reading lists presented at the head of each chapter, you won’t find just books. Series like Avatar – The Last Airbender are referenced repeatedly, along with Star Wars, Pirates of the Carribean, the Matrix, Fullmetal Alchemist and Altered Carbon. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear show up more than once. This book examines effective storytelling in all its forms.
There is a chapter right at the end on how Hickson drafts his own novels, but his method works as well for any medium. He employs an interesting Plotter-cum-Plantser method involving highly detailed scenes which get linked up together. By the way, if you’re a total Panster (that is to say, a writer who does not plan at all, and prefers to write “flying by the seat of his pants”) then this chapter may not be for you. I fall on the other side of the fence, and plan extensively before I write… but never detailed scenes. I’m looking forward to trying his method out.
The structure is fantastic
Hickson’s book is written in chapters; each clearly titled, each divided into subheadings, and each with a clear summary. I cannot stress how incredibly useful this is. It’s a great aid for quick comprehension, and also creates a resource that you can dip back into again and again. Whenever you want to double check an aspect you’re struggling with, you’ll find it in moments. That alone means this is a book I’m going to keep reaching for when tuning up a novel or adventure module.
The writing advice is clear and detailed… but not prescriptive
Hickson’s book provides practical advice. He clearly unravels the knotty problems known to all writers (but especially to those in Speculative Fiction genres like scifi and fantasy) of prologues, exposition reveals, and villain motivations. And he deals with them in an incredibly workable way, giving tools which writers can actually use, and aspects they can tweak, to fine-tune their ideas.
For example, he gives a clear examination of prologues, and breaks down what makes them work. Knowing that I have to clarify my hook – and have a different one for the first chapter – is a great insight into why some prologues fail… and why some of my own have felt a little redundant. The knowledge that I can use aspects like mystery or emotionalism to make readers actually want my exposition is invaluable. There’s no mysticism here – no magic of writing. Just some good, solid technical advice. Even those who feel like they’ve long since got a handle on writing will learn a trick or two.
But whilst the advice is great, Hickson is not prescriptive about writing, which is very refreshing.
I prefer to think of the On Writing series not as instructions on how you should write, but as discussions about why certain stories are satisfying to the average reader, and why others are not.
His mantra? You should write the story you want to. He just provides you a tool kit, to make it the best it can be.
His topics are well chosen for Speculative Fiction storytelling
One of my favourite things about Hickson’s book is how it bravely takes on the SciFi and Fantasy tropes – and explains how to make them successful. Hickson goes where angels fear to tread, and does it in a pithy and insightful way.
I’m sure we’ve all read a Chosen One story which missed the mark (looking at you, Mortal Instruments….). Hickson explores various ways to render this trope successful, and dives into some great ideas on how to make it more interesting, too. Plus this description of Chosen Ones is absolutely enough reason to read this book…
“Authors need to answer the following: why is the character doing what they do, and why do they have certain relationships with other characters? Chosen ones are people first, and destiny-babies second.”
Magic Systems get three chapters worth of attention. There’s a chapter each on Hard and Soft magic systems, which are remarkably thorough considering their brevity. Again, Hickson dives into the nuts and bolts of what these are, which aspects you can play with, and how that can help you create great storytelling.
These ideas are further expanded in the following chapter – Magic Systems and Storytelling. One of my favourite elements touched on in here (and this will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me) is how magic systems affect worldbuilding. Great examples of this are presented from Avatar – The Last Airbender (expect to see a lot of examples from that franchise – Hickson is a real fan). Making sure that big magic has big impact on the world around it is an aspect that many writers – of both novels and RPGs – forget. I’d have loved to see more examples of how magic has affected different fictional worlds, but this was a great chapter.
There’s a great deal of emphasis placed on Empires – three chapters devoted to the topic, detailing their rise, how they work, and why they fall. It was great to see that Hickson got a history consultant for this part, and it’s definitely evidenced in the breadth, accuracy, and detail of these chapters.
If you’re writing Empires – which again are a mainstay trope of fantasy and sci-fi literature, with examples including everything from Star Wars and Dune, to the Earthsea Quartet and Avatar – The Last Airbender – then these chapters are absolutely a must.
I have to admit that, for myself, (beyond historical interest) these chapters didn’t key into the kinds of books that I like to write – but that’s a personal preference, not a criticism. The work here is first class. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll write a series about the Unholy Empire of the Dark Banana – and I’ll be right back with my nose in this book again.
Hickson’s book hit the mark for me 99% of the time. But this wouldn’t be a good review if I didn’t mention a few tiny flaws…
My copy contained some minor problems with editing – typos, missing words, odd typesettings, and the like. Let’s be clear, there was nothing so major that it hindered comprehension. And (forgive the rant) this is my number one bugbear with all self-published books – a lack of rigorous editing and proofreading. However, I know that Hickson did a HUGE amount of work proofreading and refining after my review copy was released, and I’ve been assured that it’s all cleaned up now!
If you’re not relatively fluent in fantasy and sci-fi genre media, you’re going to find the examples in this a little obscure. Also, pay close attention to the lists at the top of each chapter – there are minor spoilers and if you’re intending to enjoy a book or movie at a later date, maybe skip over that chapter for a bit. Almost everything is beyond the “spoiler statute of limitations”, but a few things caught me unawares.
A few snippets of information get repeated as well – for example, the lovely little nugget about Tolkien rewriting the mechanics of the prophecies in Macbeth to be more satisfying in the Lord of the Rings. But this is a tiny quibble. I didn’t mind it too much, and neither should you.
Not for Pure Worldbuilders – but definitely for everyone else!
Hickson’s book is not about pure worldbuilding, in my opinion. It sets worldbuilding in motion as a storytelling device. And it’s fantastic. Don’t expect an experience like Trent Hergenrader’s Collaborative Worldbuilding, and if you’re a pure worldbuilder, you might want to look elsewhere. That said, writers, scriptwriters and tabletop gamers are given the perfect amount of detail, not only to build things that make sense, but to tell a good story with their worldbuilding.
How will I use this book?
Obviously, I’ve read Hickson’s book – I’ve just about finished a review about it, after all! So sure, I pretty much know what Tim Hickson has to say about writing and worldbuilding. It’s super interesting.
But this is a book I will go back to again and again. I’m already using it to double check my own work – and make sure that my stories are delivered in the most effective way possible. Because that, after all, is what this book gives you – a great toolset to reference, and with which to tune up your stories, so that they don’t just work… they purr.
Tim Hickson’s (Hello Future Me) book “On Writing and Worldbuilding” is already available for preorder here– and launches 30th May 2019 for $4.81 (ebook) or $12.39 (paperback).
Is there a writing or worldbuilding book you’d like me to check out and review? Let me know in the comments below!