by Lisa Norman
In my last post, I talked about digital readers, a group of readers who like to interact with stories in new and creative ways. Many of these readers are young, but not all. People of all ages are discovering the fun of interacting with stories and the passion is contagious. Now I want to show you my favorite new toy for writers: writing software designed to build worlds that readers can become immersed in.
(Note: this is a simplified version of an interview I did with Janet Forbes that you can read on my website.)
If you are like me, your first question is, "How much does this cost?"
World Anvil has a free tier, which is good for testing how the platform works, but for a serious writer, this won't be enough. I recommend at least the Master level, $58/year. This will give you the ability to create private articles and to use the manuscript-writing tools.
Breaking with my normal frugality: if you decide you love World Anvil, check out the Sage level if you can afford it: $300/year or $35/month. (There's also a lifetime option available.) While there are functional differences to the levels, I love the Sage tier because of the training that the World Anvil folks provide at this level.
World Anvil cares deeply about the success of their Sages. They provide ongoing live seminars and an archive of business education that I wish every author could have. Think high-level marketing education designed just for writers and creatives. None of the confusing marketing education designed for coaches or widget salespeople being modified for authors. This is focused on helping writers and game developers succeed. During the live sessions, they have times when you can ask your questions and get genuine answers.
Both fields focus on storytelling. In both careers, building immersive worlds is the key to success. A game master built World Anvil for writers. He built it as an act of love. As you explore, you'll find tools and prompts designed to help you not only build immersive worlds, but write beautiful stories and finish your writing projects. Two features of the tool surprised me:
I build websites for authors. With the Sage membership, you get the ability to link your custom domain name (the address to a website) to a world you build with World Anvil. You can build a world at any level and link to it, but linking a custom domain name to your world turns the experience into an interactive website that your fans can explore. You still need to bring your own domain name to the party ($20ish/year) but you don't have to pay additional hosting fees for this environment. If you've paid for website hosting, you'll see the value here.
This isn't a WordPress website. WordPress is a content management system used for website development. World Anvil is a unique content management system which can create a website that you design to show your world to your fans. These spaces can be shared for free, or they can be monetized by selling memberships through Patreon, Ko-fi, or even on your own website.
Every level of World Anvil is designed to be friendly for monetization, helping creatives make money. The individual pieces of a world will be articles of different types. You can set permissions — easily — for each article. Some can be free and public. Others can be restricted to those who have finished book 1 of a series, for example, or for members of a certain level of support on your Patreon account.
I've worked with software like World Anvil before and loved it. The initial appearance can be overwhelming.
My husband maintains and repairs airplanes. In his hangar, there is a big red toolbox with many drawers. Open any of them and you'll find carefully polished tools, obscurely designed devices, each designed to fix a specific issue.
World Anvil is a writer's toolbox.
There are tools in there for everything you can imagine! The choices are overwhelming. Where do you start?
The answer is: you start with a world. Give your world a name. Don't worry, you can change it later.
From there, the next important step is to realize that you can use any tool you want. Nothing needs to be finished and polished until you are done. You don't need to follow a set procedure. World Anvil works the way you work. It lays out all of the tools and invites you to pick up whichever one you want to start with.
Stories, characters, worlds — all of these things grow slowly from many smaller pieces. In World Anvil, you start by putting your pieces together, adding ideas, and letting the structure build over time.
You aren't trying to bend your creative process to fit into a specific software's process. Instead, let your creativity explore. As you work, you'll find that the software will begin to make connections between related things. As you add more pieces, these connections will grow.
There are videos and tutorials spread throughout the software to help you if you need help. You'll also find thriving communities on Discord, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as a YouTube channel full of video tutorials.
If you are truly lost, I suggest you start with the world Meta. This is a magical creativity-boosting section with prompts to get you to think about your reason for writing this story. When you open it, you'll see an introduction that will explain how this area works.
The world meta is a series of questions. You'll make notes on your genre, themes, focus, drama, scenes, people, and inspiration. The goal here is to create a design for your world that will guide you when you drift off into the weeds. If you lose focus or motivation, you can come back to this section, and it will use your own words, music, and images to motivate you and get you moving in the right direction.
Once you have a world, you fill that world with articles.
Think of articles as the research and worldbuilding notes for your world.
Here is a glimpse at the toolbox. There are pre-set types of articles, but note that you can always just do a generic article, a place to store any piece of the world that doesn't fit anywhere else.
This toolbox is not the writing software. It is the world-building software. Each article type is full of prompts to get you thinking, but remember: everything is optional!
As an example, let's talk about characters. You create a character, starting with their name. As you are building that character, you have the option to add parents, spouses, children, etc. If you add these, the system will automatically create a family tree.
If you create ethnicities for your world, you'll be able to assign those ethnicities to your characters. The same applies to organizations, religions, etc. Articles link together because in a world, things are interconnected.
If you create a tradition, for example, you can attach it to a location, an organization, or an ethnicity.
World Anvil lets you import maps that you've created for your world. (Don't worry if you don't have one. If you want one, they'll direct you to resources where you can create a beautiful map, or there's that wonderful community where you'll find mapmakers who are happy to work with you and design a map for you.) Then you can create articles related to countries, settlements, or buildings and you can place those on the map. Once you link the article on your map, you can click one of the icons on the map and the related article will open up. You can even link city maps to country maps so that you can drill down and see more details.
The software now includes a new feature: whiteboards. Think mind-mapping software empowered by that writing notebook. Everything in your notebook can be placed on a whiteboard, interlinked, and connected. You can also add text, colors, shapes, free-form drawings, etc. This is a great way to plot out a novel or a series!
The manuscripts feature is a basic text editor, similar to Scrivener in some ways. You create folders (chapters) and documents (scenes) inside the folders. These documents exist inside a manuscript that you can then "publish" on World Anvil or export to an HTML file that is suitable to pull into Microsoft Word or your ePub software. More export options are rumored to be coming soon. To see samples: https://www.worldanvil.com/community/manuscripts
While you are working, you can easily search all of your research and world-building notes to double-check, edit, or copy details that you may need.
One of my favorite parts of World Anvil is the vibrant community of authors, gamers, artists, and other creatives. As an author who occasionally feels alone, it is a wonderful experience to pop over into the Discord chat and ask a question.
You can ask questions related to story design, characters, or just look for someone to do sprints with. The community provides motivation and group challenges to give you ideas. You can participate, or not. Like everything else in World Anvil, entering challenges is optional.
To give you an example, the community recently had a challenge to build a tavern (or a bar) for your world. It could be in any setting. There were blog posts and teaching videos to spark ideas. People then shared their taverns and discussed them and how they could make them better.
Let's say you're designing your characters and you would love to have pictures of them for your family tree, but you can't draw. Pop into the community and hire an artist to draw your characters or learn about resources to help you find free images.
This is a much-abbreviated introduction to World Anvil. If you have time, I hope you'll read my interview with Janet Forbes, the writer at the heart of World Anvil. https://deleyna.com/level-up-your-worldbuilding-skills/
What has your experience been with building worlds? What tools do you use? Please share your experiences with us down in the comments!
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Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.
Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, an indie publishing firm. She teaches for Lawson Writer's Academy.
Interested in learning more from Lisa? See her teaching schedule below.
Images are all screenshots from World Anvil used with permission.
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