Organizing Your Worldbuilding Wiki

A question I’m getting more than once is ‘how do you organize your wiki so that it’s useful for your writing.’ Which… is not a minor question, because my initial response is ‘I’ve organized it? It’s a big enormous tangled mess of stubs and passages from one blank space to another and then boom! Wall of text.’

It is tempting to go at this like a prescriptive text: “The proper way to organize your wiki is to divide it into the following nine sections, under which you should have some number of these categories.” That would be so satisfying, and anxiety-reducing, because it would suggest there is a Right Way to organize your writers’ bible (because that’s what it is, really), and if you organize it so, you will get it right the first time and it will be perfect.

But… there isn’t a right way. All I can tell you is my organizational principles, and maybe they’ll spark some ideas in your head.

My first and most important guiding principle is: start with the stuff you need. By which I mean the things you know you’re always forgetting and are desperate to have at your fingertips. For me, that’s character info. What color was someone’s eyes? How old are they? What was their middle name? What did they do in that last book? Do they drink coffee or tea? Did they mention any pets? Ever?

So I started by making pages for characters. (I have a lot of characters.) I knew that was a good choice because when I began writing the newest book, I consulted the wiki not even a week into its establishment to check some facts. As I continued writing, I kept finding other frequent offenders: “I remember saying some things about this location, but not what,” and “I can never remember how many provinces are in this nation” and “Didn’t I make up names for these historical figures.” At which point I started making pages for those things too. Every time I ran into something that I needed to know, I made a page for it, looked that info up, and dropped it in the right place.

Wikis aren’t just for writers, either; I have these “oh no I need to look that up” moments about art things too, so I started uploading all the major pieces of art I keep looking for: maps of different continents, uniforms from different services, representations of species, portraits of particular people. If you have images like this, putting them in one place is great for any artists you might want to hire in the future, too. Just make sure you have the rights to reproduce those images if they’re not yours. (Obvious, but must be said.)

All of us have major pain points in our worldbuilding and they will be idiosyncratic. Maybe you keep making up words in a conlang. Or you have named the cuisines of seven different fictitious countries and their ritual significance. Maybe you are fascinated by coastlines and keep creating port cities. The thing that you’ve developed most, and the thing you need to remember, is the place you need to start filling in data. So while my wiki might have grown from characters to those characters’ species to those species’ worlds and foods and religions and histories, yours might begin with types of ships, or noble families, or principle exports and imports.

The thing you need the most is the thing you need to record first.

Once you’ve recorded the stuff you need most, organize it so that you’ll find it fastest. I like the wiki for being able to search, but sometimes search doesn’t get you the results you want, or in the order you want them, which is where categorizing comes in. At several people’s suggestion I enabled the Category Tree extension which lets you create nested categories, and that’s been immensely helpful because it allows the display of all the items in a category. So if I want to keep track of all the Scout-class ships in Fleet, I can add them to that category and then display that category on some master page (like “All the Ships in Fleet”).

As you can imagine, categorization is even more idiosyncratic than “start with the stuff you need.” Because I could tell you ‘you should classify your food pages based on whether they are breakfast, dinner, or lunch’ while what you really need to know is whether each dish is served hot or cold, or whether they’re religious foods or common meals, or what have you.

The nice thing about categories is that you can use more than one… so if you want something to show up as both a brunch and a food served only at a treaty table, you can place it in both “Brunch” and “Peace Feast Foods” and find it both ways. You can also categorize images; most of mine have multiple categories, telling me what stories they’re relevant to along with what characters are in them and what kind of image they are (map? Schematic? Portrait?)

None of which was my idea, but I’ll get to that momentarily.

Use references immediately. Even if they’re imprecise or slapdash. Assuming you’re starting from some existing material you want to backfill, when you begin making your stubs, mention where you got your information, even if it’s just ‘I think it was chap 1 or 2 of this book.’ That’ll give you somewhere to start when you need to doublecheck the data, or add to it. Even when you record something that seems inconsequential, putting down where it came from is immensely useful to Future You: context matters. You can always go back and tidy up the references if they’re imprecise or not pretty, but if you put in the work immediately you will avoid a lot of extra research.

(My faithful volunteers have reminded me that the cool wiki reference tags are an extension that needs to be enabled. Mine is ‘Cite.’)

Another thing that I’ve found immensely useful is to make pages for every story I’ve published, because it gives my references somewhere to point to. If I say “This event happened in Book 2 of this series” or “This character first appeared there,” then the reference can link back to the page and give you the necessary info to either buy or find that story (if it’s in a collection somewhere). My fiction pages give basic citation info (publication date, series, etc), along with summaries and buy links. They’re also a great place to add easily lost material, like the cover images of previous editions, and ephemeral teaser and marketing materials that were used once and never reproduced on any gallery page.

I cordon off these pages by appending (Fiction) to all of them, just to make sure they don’t get mixed up with the data pages.

Some examples:

Make stubs. Then consolidate until it’s time to expand again. (A stub is a placeholder page with little to no data on it.) One of the nice things about the wiki has been that it’s easy to mend. My mantra has been “put it down now, organize it later,” and that works well because it’s trivial to delete or rename pages. I’ve made pages for things that I immediately needed, only to realize they didn’t need an entire page to themselves and that it would be easier to find them on some different page… and fixing that was a few moments’ work, by pasting the material into the other page and deleting its stub (and leaving a redirect, so if I ever searched for it again the wiki would send me to the new page). So, for instance, I had a separate page for a particular hospital, when I realized that there just wasn’t enough data to justify it being on a single page, and that I kept looking for it through its associated city anyway. That was a quick fix.

On the other hand, I discovered several items that became so big that it was far more sensible to break them off their parent pages onto pages of their own, which is how Fleet Procedures ended up on a new page from Fleet, which is where basic facts about the organization live.

The other nice thing about your wiki is that it doesn’t have to conform to any standard, and nothing you do has to be permanent. I had a group of friends that went on to do things together… where one went, the others were usually along for the ride. So I made a page for them as a group: “Jahir’s Retinue.” Is this a formal organization? Not yet. Will I always need a page to group them together? Maybe not. But for now, it’s fantastic to be able to type ‘Jahir’s retinue’ into search and get all those people in one place. And if one day, that retinue is disbanded, then I can move or delete that page, and relegate their prior service to a biographical section on their pages.

I feel that last point is particularly important: that you should feel okay about making completely nonsensical or whimsical-seeming pages that will only be useful to you, and only for as long as you need them. The point isn’t for your writer’s bible to function as a formal encyclopedia. It’s for it to be useful to you, whatever that means.

Which brings me to a theme underlying several of these points that needs to be made explicit: it’s better to get it wrong than to not do it at all. Wikis are forgiving; they maintain a log of all the changes made and allow you to rollback to any version of that history. Given that, there’s no reason not to make pages and flail around until you figure out what you’re doing… and every reason to do that flailing. You can’t work with something that doesn’t exist, so it’s better for your information to be awkward or in the wrong spot or even incorrectly named than it is to not have it there at all. You can always fix it. But until you have it down, you probably won’t know how.

That’s really one of the magical things about wikis: they reward flailing. They reward mistakes. Most of us don’t know all the things in our heads, or the relative importance of their relationships to other things, until we start making those things concrete and visible… and a wiki is a great way to start putting those things down in a form that allows us to see those relationships and decide what about them matters.

A brief digression about wikis as a technology. Most of us think of Wikipedia when we think of a wiki, and that’s a good example of one: it’s clean, easy to use, and feels like an encyclopedia. It’s not a bad mental model for what a wiki is, though what it actually is, is a database. (Here are my heart eyes, because who doesn’t love a database?). The reason it can be so hard to wrap your head around how to get started with a wiki is because it will cheerfully do and organize itself however you decide: it’s the ‘too much freedom’ problem. My suggestion, if you’re going at it for writer’s bible-purposes, is to keep the Wikipedia framing in mind and think of it as an encyclopedia. It has entries (pages) about topics, with accompanying illustration, and links within it are the equivalent of a paper encyclopedia writing “see also This Entry.”

Some of you haven’t ever used a paper encyclopedia, and… um… you probably don’t need my lecture on wikis because you understand them natively. Lol.

Another good example of a wiki framing: TVTropes. No I won’t link there, so if you go and get lost, don’t blame me. But if you do go there, take notes, because that’s an interesting, alternate use of a similar framework.

Okay, resuming the how-to. One of the great things about wikis is that, if you make them public, you will sometimes attract help! (Particularly if you ask for it, though not always.) By design, wikis are meant to be group-editable, which is one of the reasons their tools for repair are so robust. Unless you go to lengths to prevent it, people will be able to make accounts and contribute to your wiki. Which brings me to the most important principle regarding other people’s help: Volunteers are a source of chaos, and chaos is revelatory.

Just as readers bring themselves to your work when they engage with it, they bring themselves to their efforts on a wiki. They’ll have their own areas of interest, and their own experiences with the software, and their own ideas. It will be tempting to give anyone who shows up marching orders: “I really need this data” and “I want it organized this way.” But if you do that, you will shut down any ideas they would generate, and their ideas may be better than yours. Take the wiki’s infinite capacity for restoration to heart—anything you dislike or find awkward, you can adjust or fix, and no one’s going to argue with you about it because it’s your site. But as much as possible, when people show up and want to help, let them decide how and let that educate you… about the software (as I was, by one volunteer’s suggestion about Category Tree); about organization (someone made a section for family trees under biographical data, and that was brilliant); and even about the canon (someone made me a martial arts page, when I never thought I had enough data about martial arts to warrant one—I was wrong).

Besides if you let them have their heads, they make stubs like the one at the top of this page, and that’s worth any pain and suffering. 😆

If you have no volunteers, you can “borrow” this random seed by examining how other people organize their writer’s bibles, wikis, or data… which is how my template for planets got borrowed from the CIA’s World Factbook. (Also not my idea.) (Also brilliant.)

And for those of you who are thinking ‘does that mean I can borrow your ideas,’ the answer is ‘of course.’ 😊

Finally, a related principle, and really the most important one: your canon is your responsibility. The moment you start worldbuilding, you’re the one in charge, and that means to you devolve the pleasures of creating it… and the responsibilities of maintaining it. Eventually, you will have people point out errors to you, and those will be your fault, and their fixing will be as well, whether you fix them by addressing them or by washing your hands of them. There will be times where you change something and will have to stand by it even when it distresses people who didn’t want you to make those changes… and there will be times where people will want to help you with obscure projects you didn’t realize were useful, like recording every meal you’ve ever had your characters eat, or every time you’ve mentioned someone’s relative height, or how every minor character who’s ever died kicked that bucket, and if you accept their help (and why shouldn’t you, because you will learn a great deal!) it does not relieve you of the ultimate responsibility. The buck stops with you. It will never be anyone else’s fault, but on the other hand, it will never be anyone else’s glory, either, so at least there are compensations.

That, for now, is my advice on how to use a wiki for a writer’s bible, and the organizational properties that make mine useful. I’m about 600 content pages into this endeavor, and not even a little bit done, so I’m sure there’s a lot more to learn ahead of me…! And please, hit me with your questions; as you can see, your questions inspire entries, and I’m happy to write them. If I can spare people the problems I run into, I want to.

More Stuff I’ve Learned From Wiki Editing

We are over a month into our work (and I need to call it our work given how many people are pitching in), and I continue to find it illuminating. Here are my latest observations!
People really *don’t* notice typos/continuity errors. I’ve heard it said that readers completely gloss over errors and typos if they’re engaged in a story, and I accepted that must be true without realizing how extensive that blind spot is. It’s like tunnel vision: the more intent the audience is on what’s interesting them, the more detail they demote to the status of distractions. My books have teams of proofreaders, sometimes between 6 and 18 of them, and they catch dozens of typos… but they are more likely to catch typos than to catch other kinds of errors. The minor character whose name was spelled three different ways across his series was not a fluke: at least six other minor characters have had multiple spellings of their names without anyone emailing me to complain about them, or even realizing it until they started reading the books for research purposes.
Are there people who notice these errors and find them so annoying they stop reading my books without pausing to leave a negative review or send an email? I’m sure. Are they vastly outnumbered by the people who didn’t even see those errors? I have absolutely no doubt. I’ve gone from ‘don’t beat yourself up about spelling this guy’s last name Levy, Lery, and Leary because your brain has only so much capacity and you exceeded it a decade and a half ago’ to ‘don’t beat yourself up about spelling this guy’s last name Levy, Lery, and Leary because 90%+ of the people reading don’t care.’ 
The people who do notice even the smallest details are going to tell you about them, of course, because that’s the type of person they are. But even those people are missing something when they send you their laundry list of errors, because their tunnel vision is going to exclude an entirely different set of data.
Does that mean I shouldn’t try to make the background as consistent as possible? Of course not, because I’m a perfectionist. But it has been illuminating to realize how many errors completely flew under the radar, and no one cared or noticed.
The reason why your favorite author can’t write a good ending or finish a series is probably because the background material overwhelmed them.This is a problem I have wiggled around (sometimes by means of truly wild gyrations) by having multiple series within a setting and overarching story arc. While it took research to maintain the continuity within Dreamhealers, or Her Instruments, or Princes’ Game, it required far less work than if those books had been sequential installments in a single series. I could see, out of the corner of my eye, the looming horror that was trying to stitch all those series together, logically, but I never had to make them perfectly align because they were happening to different people in different places, and hey, planets conveniently have different day-and-year lengths so I have lots of wiggle room! (Have I mentioned the wiggling yet.)
But the more data I put into this central repository, the more it boggles me that I was managing it with a few sketchbooks and Evernote entries. Princes’ Game is the longest of the in-setting series I’ve written and by the final installment I was making reams of notes, and re-reading all the prior books (and some of the books of the other series) and making more notes, and drawing notes, and creating diagrams and charts, and did I mention the notes? 
None of this stuff went into a database, which meant that all that research became more things I would have to re-read and re-evaluate and make more notes on if I wanted to keep writing.
The wiki is a database, and even then it’s astonishing how much stuff there is that needs tracking. I think I was modifying the Fleet beachhead page when it occurred to me that the doomful feeling I had when confronting the writing of From Ruins—a relatively simple task as the capstone of a six-book series—is what must be stopping authors from confronting the ending of any complex series. The writers who continually build the tension in every succeeding book, adding more and more issues, characters, and details, might be looking back on all that preceding work and having a panic attack at the prospects of having to pick out all the loose and dangling ends for wrap-up. They might not even have the first idea how to do that wrap-up. It’s the opposite of writing yourself into a corner: it’s writing yourself into a room with too many doors. Adding more new things becomes easier than resolving old things, particularly when doing so might require the contradiction of previous challenges.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard this problem discussed at length in writing advice columns or seminars: that you can write yourself to a point where ending your series becomes an insoluble challenge, because you just don’t have the brainpower to get your head around all the inputs to your equation. It makes finishing a complex story the equivalent of writing a doctoral dissertation, with all the commensurate research. 
While I know there are writers who enjoy it, I personally did not get into fiction writing because I like spending days doing detailed research. Research is the thing I get over quickly so I can keep writing. Which brings me to:
The reason no one edits Big Name Authors is because the editing process becomes more akin to a researcher’s. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard ‘so and so’s editor has stopped editing them because they’re famous but they really need someone to cut this book down to size!’ But when I recall the times I’ve said that myself, it’s always about a series author, and usually not about the first book in the series. It’s invariably book three or book twenty-six and the assumption is “because this author is a proven money-maker no one wants to joggle their elbow.” Looking at it now, I think it’s more “this person’s story has become so large that editing it properly requires research across all of their books.”
People who are good at broad story evaluation—the kind of editors who say ‘this ending falls flat because you didn’t set it up right in the beginning’ or ‘this character’s death doesn’t work because it contradicts this emotional tone you’re aiming for’—are not necessarily the kind of editors who are good at “I need to comb through Books 1-4 to see if you mentioned whether this technology could be installed on this size ship.” Being able to dissect a story’s structure and evaluate its emotional impact is a separate skill from the meticulous record-keeping a proofreader does. A proofreader’s job is time-consuming and specific, so you can’t expect the same person to be able to do the same level of work on separate authors’ books. If you hire someone to check a bestseller’s 50-book canon for continuity, they will become an expert in that bestseller’s canon at the expense of the time they would have used to become an expert in some new bestseller’s canon. You can’t interchange that widget. 
That makes continuity-type proofreaders too expensive for most people to employ (no matter if it’s a single author or a publishing house). The editor’s not going to have the time or skillset to do it. And since a bestselling author is often going to remain a bestselling author even if his books are lopsided or too infodumpy or not perfectly shaped, it’s easier to give the book a once-over and hope it passes muster than it is to do serious work on it.
If this kind of consistency is to be maintained, it’s not going to happen after the fact. The author has to guarantee it prior to handing it to other people. And, as I’ve said, few authors have the brain capacity to keep all those details handy, so they end up either doing what I did (and making many errors that luckily most people don’t notice) or they freeze up and stop writing.
I feel a lot of sympathy for both those authors and those editors now that I understand the scope of their problems. And it’s not an easy to solve one, or people would be teaching/talking about it casually. No one does, though. You will find thousands of books about how to finish your first story, but let us count the books that will teach you how to handle this type of problem. I bet it’s a section, and it says “Keep a series bible in a separate document.”
Yeah. Good luck with that. -_-
I could probably write a book’s worth of entries on ‘what the wiki has taught me’ and ‘why I’m so lucky that people are willing to help me with it.’ But I do keep learning, I’m still lucky, and my volunteers are still awesome, so I guess I’ll keep going. Let me know when I start boring you. *grin* Also check out those volunteers! I add more of them every week. Y’all the bestest. 💖