Editing a World

This post about edit letters is really a post about worldbuilding, because that’s a lot of what my edit letters were about. Oh, there were things about character arcs and pacing and such, too, but much of that went into the manuscript comments. My edit letters, particularly the longest that I received from the first of my two editors, were a lot about world-building. In a successful fantasy novel, the world needs to feel real, complete, filled in at all the corners, like it extends far beyond the lives of the protagonists. Anything invented needs enough explanation that the readers aren’t left frustrated. And since my fantasy is also historical, I have to include those details as well — some of which are going to challenge a reader’s preconceptions of what the classical world was like. Writing in a lot of genres, you can’t take for granted the things that you can in something set in our own time and place.

Magic has to have rules. This is something I firmly believe when it comes to fantasy novels. Whatever the world, whatever the structure, magic has to have rules. There have to be things it can and can’t do. There have to be limits. There ought to be a cost of some kind. Often, there should be some sort of a source, though that one can be hand-waved a lot easier than other components. I’d thought a lot about that when building my system of elemental magic, and I had used the viewpoint of my main character, Latona, to communicate that to the reader.

What I hadn’t detailed as much in the manuscript, though, were the in-world rules of magic. I had a sense of it, to be sure, but it was all sort of… ambient. I understood the nuances of how magic interplayed with society, law, culture, and economy, but I hadn’t brought enough of it across to the reader. So my editor asked me questions: Why weren’t high-born women given extensive magical education? What sort of people made money off of their magical abilities, and how did that affect the overall economic structure? How did that, in turn, affect political considerations (particularly in a world where class structure so greatly influenced lawmaking)?

In thinking about all of that, I realized I needed to nail down what was until then a vague sense of the magical demographics.

And I fell down a rabbit hole.

First I had to figure out how many people there were in Aven. Ancient demographics are super-hard to sort out. Rome was a city of over a million people at its height, but I’m about two centuries before that — and the census information hasn’t survived from that point. Plus, you never know if they’re accurately counting women, children, and slaves. So I had to do some estimating based on what information I could dig up, and decided that Aven at the time of my book would have a little over 300,000 people in it.

So then, how many of those were magically gifted? Magic is a rare but not exceptional gift. 1 in a 1000 seemed about right, giving me a little over 300 mages in the city of Aven.

Okay. So, now it’s time to divvy those up by social class. I figured it would be weighted towards the patricians and wealthier plebeians, because magic does tend to run in families, and families with mages in them are, over the course of generations, going to have more opportunities to a) survive in good health, b) earn income based off of their skills, and c) accumulate social and political influence.

Honestly, I probably could have stopped there. But, I’m me. There was really no chance I was going to leave it at that.

So I went through my list of 300+ mages and decided to mark down not just their social status (patrician, aristocratic plebeian, common plebeian, or freedman), but their elemental association (some elements manifesting far more often than others), age, level of natural power, level of education, and occupation.

I know. I know.

But this is what I do. It’s what I’ve always done, when storytelling. I’m a little impressed with myself that I’ve thus far resisted the compulsion to name all 300+ of them. But honestly, I’m probably going to do that some day when I’m bored and/or really intent on avoiding other work.

The occupation part did end up being helpful, as it cemented a lot of what my edit letter had brought up in regard to the role of magic in society. The magic of Aven is what I’d call “low-saturation”, for the most part. Your typical Fire mage, for example, can’t call fireballs out of nowhere and fling them at people; but if he has a lot of talent, he might be able to use fire to create armor of superior quality, with protective spells embedded in it. If he has less talent or education, it might manifest simply as a preternatural talent for something associated with fire — anything from baking to theatrics. Here’s a few snippets of the sort of thing I came up with:

And some of those pop up in the background of From Unseen Fire. The balance between “working” mages, those in the temples, and those at leisure or loose ends was something important to consider, particularly when it came to Latona’s life choices.

Here’s the thing about worldbuilding, though: It’s super-easy to go overboard. The first edit letter had me expand on a lot of things. Subsequent edits stripped a lot of that back out. And that’s fine! It’s the way it should be. I had delved too far into the economic considerations of a magical world, just like my early drafts had indulged in far too much detail about the voting procedure of the Tribal Assembly. These are my instincts — and they’re why edit letters are important. I was a child who read encyclopedias for fun. Most people were not. My agent and editors, through many rounds of revisions, helped me bring the important details to the surface and cull the things that weren’t serving the story.

And for anyone who does want all of those extraneous details… well, that’s what my Patreon is for! 😉


From Unseen Fire debuts in less than two months and is available for pre-order from Amazon, B&N, or your local indie bookstore!

Author: Cass Morris

Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.