Let's just get it out there. I've been worldbuilding since I was about six, opened the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time guidebook, saw the map of Hyrule and decided to draw my own. (Sidenote: I always think, wow that's the dorkiest sentence I've ever written/said. And somehow I always find a way to out-dork myself). Anyways, I was drawing maps before I ever started writing stories. It was only after the Crayola-scribbled wonder was done that I started thinking about what went on in those cities and poorly-drawn mountains. I have a habit of doing things the wrong way, so it only makes sense that I started worldbuilding before I ever started writing. And now, sixteen years later, the habit still stands. I always worldbuild before I write.
As I did with my Hyrule-knockoff, I usually start with a map. I did it with THE RED QUEEN and, because I am a fool for maps, I even did it with all my screenplays. Luckily the zombie western, the castle thriller and the WWII spy movie actually required maps (I honestly think I only write things that need maps). Yes, I even drew a suburban neighborhood/built a Sim house for a teen comedy I wrote.
When it truly comes down to it, I didn't need the maps to aid the story, I needed the maps to help myself. The draw of worldbuilding, for me at least, isn't just about setting the stage and fleshing out a world. It's about becoming part of your story. There are probably a thousand bits of worldbuilding for RQ that never made it into the final draft, but they still exist. They're still in my head. When I write a particular scene in a particular place, I know what's going on in the next room. I know who has a pretty sister and has a complex about it. I know who that rando guard walking by in the hallway is and what family he comes from. All this just deepens the world for me, which in turn allows me to live, breathe and, hopefully, write about it as truthfully as I can.
I truly believe that worldbuilding is meant to aid the writer as much as the reader, and perhaps more so. That said, there's a point in time where worldbuilding stops being a crutch and starts behind a burden. I'm talking about the dark side of worldbuilding. *thunderclap*
It's a trap I've fallen into with shocking regularity. I've got the map, some family trees, a brief history of world/characters and maybe even a plot outline for posterity, and I'm ready to write. But wait, I need to flesh out language parameters! But wait, I need to step this family tree back another 10 generations! But wait, I need to made coats of armor and 20 different color-coded maps depicting trade routes! But wait, but wait, but wait. This is the danger of worldbuilding - you get sucked in.
Worldbuilding is, in my opinion, very delightful quicksand. Once you're in too deep, it's almost impossible to get out and therefore, to actually start writing. In my experience, this is usually my way of not writing while tricking myself into thinking I am actually am. And then suddenly it's six months later and I've got some pretty maps, cool names, and no story. My inspiration is gone. I can't tell you how many binders of family trees I have lying around. (Beat that, Mitt Romney). And no matter how much work and color-coding I put in, they're never going to result in anything more.
It's taken me a long time to figure out the happy medium, at least for the style and subject I'm pursuing right now. For example, my YA fantasy THE RED QUEEN has the least amount of worldbuilding I've ever done for a story. It also happens to be the first story I've ever finished. Coincidence, I think NOT. I started writing RQ with a single, very rudimentary map, a plot outline, three pages of world background, and an excel sheet full of characters, tiny bios, and other miscellaneous details that I filled in along the way. For the first time, I didn't fill entire binders and for the first time, I finished a book. The world and characters evolved on the page and I let them. The world existed more in my head more than any excel sheet or map. Edits were made, characters were cut, but from page one I was in the world and I was in the story. I found my happy medium of worldbuilding, at least for this tale. And it was a lot less than I thought it was.
Now the challenge comes in not falling off the worldbuilding wagon. The other project I'm currently working on is a worldbuilding extravaganza. But now that I know less is much, much more, I hope I can rein myself in long enough to actually write it. Today I did some historical and cultural work in the world, but didn't flesh out what didn't need to be fleshed out. I made up some religions, but restrained from writing ten pages on them. THIS IS PROGRESS.
Of course, the amount of worldbuilding required varies from tale to tale and genre to genre. A series like A Song of Ice and Fire would obviously need more and 50 Shades of Grey would require no brainpower at all. The only way to figure this out is, unfortunately, to make a lot of mistakes and fill a lot of binders and build up a lot of self-control. No, Victoria, stay away from the Photoshop.