Creating Worlds of Wonder (3 of 3)

In the previous two posts (One and Two) regarding world-building, we discussed the rules on maintaining consistency and the tools you’ll use to craft your world in order to keep it all straight. But what if you’re in the middle of your series, and then suddenly you’re hit with an awesome inspiration, but it requires a fundamental change?

Here, we discuss what to do when you need to make a change that essentially violates the rule of consistency in your world-building.

Evaluate the damage if you just make a change and not expect the reader to notice. For example, if you have some far-off country named Ko-Astera, you’ve never used it in your series other than make a couple of references to it, will your readers notice if you introduce a character who is from Astera, not Ko-Astera? It depends, if you’ve been providing the reader a glossary and it specifically names the nation and inhabitants as Ko-Astera, you’ll need to come up with a justification. You can write the minor change as part of a dialogue:

“Hey, I thought you were called Ko-Asterans?”

“You thought wrong, fool. We changed and dropped the name of Ko the Usurper back to its proper name. We are Asterans. Get it right before I take my blade and butcher you like I’ve done my cows at home.”

“Excuse me, wolf-biter. It was just a dancing question. No need to get bloody Six Flames bent over it.”

Then, in this book, you’ll have a revision and a note about Ko-Astera now changed to Astera.

You’re literally changing the look/feel of a particular species. This one is a bit harder to do. Say for example you have a race of demon-touched humans who you never really took the time to describe other than they are humans with demonic tendencies, but you saw a super-awesome picture of a succubus with demon horns, furry goat legs, the whole nine yards. You want your demon-touched people to have this look and feel. Congratulations, make it part of the plot. Bad Stuff is happening and guess what—it’s changing the demon-touched more like into actual demons. When the book is concluded, the process is not reversible.

You need to add a new magical ability/spell/power. Just add it, and make it seem like it was part of the plot/story arc all along.

You need to “break” a rule in your world because you realize it will be totally awesome. You’ll need to work this into your story as part of the dialogue or an event. For example, you have a water mage and you want them to cast fire spells. You need to work out a method or something in the plot so it makes sense you have broken this rule. In Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, it was long established men could not channel (use magic) without going insane, so the theme of one of the books was to overcome just this problem.

In conclusion, when you discover you can writing something really cool and awesome, but it will violate the rules regarding consistency, a bit of creativity and stepping back to alter the direction of the story can be yours.

Happy writing!

Tips and Tricks: Making Self-edits Fun and Constructive

Yes, I wrote it. Editing. That dreaded e-word that can be ranked up there with the same level of reaction as if you shouted the f-bomb at a birthday party for 90-something-year-old nuns, all because you walked in with the hired stripper. Oopss…wrong party.

However, you don’t have to dread the editing process. You can make it fun and entertaining almost as crafting the story itself. The key is to focus on various parts of it and tackle those parts as if individual projects. So, here are two tricks on making the self-edit fun.

Note: The two tips below are guidelines. They are not hard and fast rules that will turn your story into a bestseller, but it will allow you to practice your prose and engage the senses with your reader. Call it a stylistic guide. I personally love the editing process at all stages of it, and I hope that with these tips, you’ll end up liking it too.

The Dreaded Passive Word “Was”

Was is an important verb, but the problem with it is that it leads to a lot of passive language which in turn opens your story up to more telling than showing. This is fine when it’s in the dialogue between characters, but it gets a bit more problematic when it’s in the narrative.

Some examples:

Wyntiir was angry.

Carla, my girlfriend, was a tall woman.

There will be times where it’s fine to actually write these, but if you literally dump the whole bottle of pepper on your meal, you will not stomach the taste. Your reader will grow bored with your story. In your narrative, go through your story and find every instance of the verb was. You must not only rewrite the sentence using only action verbs, but add to the sentence with stronger descriptions to appeal to the senses of the reader.

Let’s rewrite our two examples.

Wyntiir stewed in her fury, her hands balling into fists with a trickle of blood winding its way down her wrist from her nails digging too deep in the soft flesh of her palms.

Holy cow, she’s really pissed.

Carla, my boisterous girlfriend, loved to describe herself as an Amazonian maiden as she stood taller and wider than me, and her girth betraying her love of exercise and pure physical strength.

Dang, you go girl. You’re big and buffed.

You can do this with other passive verbs too, but you have to use discretion. If you literally managed to expunge all passive verbs and write elongated descriptions, you’re going to run the risk of killing tension, bringing your pacing to a snail’s pace, and having your reader grow bored because they just read three pages of your characters going back and forth with each other and still nothing has been accomplished. This is why I recommend you only do this exercise on the verb was. It’s the most common verb, but not enough to hamstring your pacing and tension. As for your other passive verbs, just rewrite sentences using action verbs and move on.

Let’s get to the second tip.

Targeting Boring Verbs

Amateur writers typically use “boring” verbs because they are like said and ask. They just come out and you don’t pay attention to them. However, when your reader is not paying attention to them, they are not paying attention to any action or drama you wish to convey. The boring verb list is ran, covered, broke, found, gave, held, pulled, and threw. You can Google more, but these are typically it. You especially do not want to be using these words in action scenes or sex scenes. However, you can liven up your editing by not only replacing the boring verb with a stronger action-oriented verb, but also use a single adjective or adjective phrase for emphasis. Only one (think of the pepper metaphor above). Let’s deal with an example.

Wyntiir threw her knife.

Now we can use an adjective on Wyntiir or her knife, but we’re only going to choose one.

Wyntiir hurled her blood-stained knife.

See? Self-editing can be a fun game if you take the time to break it down into manageable components. And you’re still creating! Now, go forth and get rid of all those verbs was.

Creating Worlds of Wonder (2 of 3)

In the last post of this series, I discussed the rules of about world-building. In this post, I will discuss how those rules are applied into actual tools and what said tools consist of.

First, why have these tools to begin with? For one thing, it will help you maintain a level of consistently. Not every author can keep track of every alien/foreign element in their world. The stranger you have something referred to using oddly spelled-out words, the harder it gets to keep all of it straight. For example, in my portal fiction, Fallen From the Stars, the elves referred to marriage as the “reading of their oaths.” They don’t have the words “married” or “marriage” (though the humans from the valley do). I have to have this written down somewhere because I have other cultural references, greetings, salutations, etc I need to keep track of. So there are two tools that you’ll commonly come across to help you keep all of this in good working order—the story bible and the glossary.

  1. Overview of the world
  2. Primary Religions / Gods
  3. Special Geographic Locations (floating islands, etc)
  4. General System of Magic
  5. The Races and Cultures (orcs, gnolls, humans, elves, etc.)
  6. Individual Nations
    1. Nation One
      1. Culture
      2. Politics / Government
      3. Special Laws / Taboos / Customs
      4. Special Notes
    2. Nation Two, etc…
  7. Special Terms / Terminology
  8. Technological Levels
    1. Medicine
    2. Warfare
    3. Transportation
    4. Communication
  9. Special Artifacts (magic swords, rings, crowns, etc.)
  10. Historical Timeline (go as far back as need to)

The story bible is more than just an outline (though it can contain it). It is the author’s comprehensive system of how their entire world works. It’s a behind-the-scenes toolkit that details the magic system, the religions, cultural nuances, nations, geography, races, all the way down to curse words to the name of the world/universe itself. It is as detailed as you need it to be (key word: need). When crafting your fantasy world or world that uses some form of mystical elements, take the time to put some effort in it. Start with a big overview, then work your way down like this:

As you can see, we can get quite detailed on just the list alone. An article I read some years ago (don’t quote me though) about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is that his story bible was as thick as one of his books. If you’re not familiar with his work, his series was fourteen big books weighing close to an average 1,000 pages.

Now the important caveat is you should only create what you need to completely tell your story in its entirety. If you wrote out your outline for all six of your books and you never have your characters go to the nation of Ko-Astera, never interact with the djinn-like humans who live there, never use a Fire Summoner in your stories, don’t spend a lot of time detailing that nation and everything within it. The same with Conjuration magic. If you don’t have anyone who is a Pact-Binder with a demon from the Eternal Abyss, you don’t need to detail this system of magic.

Will you be laying this out to your reader in your books? I hope not unless it’s critical to your story. But if your characters are following the rules you outline in your story bible, your reader will note the consistency and detailed world-building. They will appreciate that—greatly (assuming your readers like world-building).

There are many articles on world-building and building your story bible. I (personally) hate most of them, because they are very generic. If you want an actual live example, there are books that give just that to you. They are called campaign guides or campaign settings. If you ever played Dungeons and Dragons or similar table-top rpgs, you’ll be familiar with what a campaign setting is. Video game guides to popular fantasy worlds are also great resources and examples. Essentially, they are the “story bible” for the game master to run such games that keep everything in a logical manner. Some of them are quite detailed and beautifully written. Here is one of my favorites, though it’s nowhere close to comprehensive:

Pathfinder Campaign Setting

The second type of resource is a glossary. This is for your reader. It goes at the beginning or at the end of each book of your series and pretty much is what you’ll use as your own story-bible. Whatever is in the glossary is all you’re using to tell your story. It’s a “story bible lite” per se. This is great if you don’t have a lot of different detail in your world, such as an urban fantasy set in modern day Seattle, but you just need to advise the reader of the different names of werewolf clans, their powers, their blood magic, and their weaknesses.

In my next post, I’ll discuss what do when you run into problems. Until then, happy writing!

Why Beta-Readers and Critical Feedback Matters

You finally finished your first draft of that novel! It took you months, maybe years, but you did it! Congratulations, bucko. Treat yourself to a double-shot peppermint mocha with whip cream and chocolate sprinkles.

While your sipping on your eight dollar drink, you crack open your laptop, run your novel through a spellchecker, send it off to an editor, get it back, and then upload your work on Amazon.

You generated interest for your book through your newly minted mailing list, conducted a well-marketed launch party, sent out dozens of ARCs to reviewers, and overall felt a great sense of pride. You buy yourself another mocha.

Until the reviews start coming in…

“This plot made no sense. 1/5 stars.”

“I would give this 0 stars, but Amazon won’t let me. I even begged customer service.”

“Seriously? Reading should be considered an Olympic sport because I just broke world records after reading this crap.”

“I need bleach for my eyes.”

You had planned a whole series with at least six books. You don’t buy yourself a third mocha, but a bottle of whiskey this time and you don’t drink.

One of the activities I like to do when I hear about an “up-and-coming” hot author is read the well-written negative reviews first. Why? Because they point out all the serious problems the book had, but it offended the reader so much they had to give the work 1 or 2 stars. The comment, “I would give this 0 stars, but Amazon won’t let me” is so commonly written, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a meme somewhere.

So, let me ask you? Would you have like to have gotten those negative reviews in the form of feedback instead of actual reviews?

Enter the alpha and beta readers.

There are several types of critiques you’ll need to perform on your work before it’s ready for publication or submission.

The first is self-edit. If you hate the editing process, you need to either endure it or learn to love it. After you finish your work, set it aside. Dragon Soul Press has blogged in the past to set aside your work about two weeks for a full novel. This will give your brain a break from your work, purge your thought processes about your book and then when you go back to it, you have a fresh mindset. You will find a ton of errors. As you read your own work, you realize you may have missed certain elements and issues. Get those fixed.

Another option is to utilize an alpha-reader, but these people are completely optional. Some authors use them quite religiously. I don’t. An alpha-reader is there to critique your work as you write it. You finish Chapter 4, you run it through spell-check and then shoot it off to them. But your overall work is not finished. The alpha-reader helps you with grammar and then checks for things like pacing, characterization, tension, etc. Create a questionnaire for your alphas or allow them to comment directly on your WIP. Then you can go through and address the comments one-by-one to tighten up the story as it comes to light.

After the alpha-reader is the beta-reader. You should always have these people ready in the wings to review your work. After you’ve completed your first draft, ran it through the spellchecker and/or Grammarly, these readers will evaluate your overall story for plot, tension, pacing, POV, characterization, climax, hook, etc. The primary goal of both the alpha and beta-reader is to point out problems. It’s okay to get praise, but if someone reads a full-length novel from you and they found no problems, they didn’t do their job. You’re not that good. I’m not good. Stephen King is not that good! If you write a full-length novel, you should have at least six to a dozen betas reviewing.

As with alphas, you can create a questionnaire for your betas to fill out or allow them to comment directly on your WIP. After you have received all their comments, go through and evaluate them, fixing the errors they’ve pointed out.

Some authors will employ as many as fifty reviewers. That’s great if you can get that many, but expect a lot of work if all of them point out fifty separate things for you to work on. Some authors will also go through a second or third round of beta-readers too and I knew one guy who was working on his fifth round of beta-readers. If you’re a well-established author, a second round would be helpful, but anything else beyond that is likely to put you through analysis-paralysis–a common term among day traders who overthink a situation instead of making the trade.

You will not eliminate every 1-star or 2-star review, but you will mitigate many of them if you utilize proper methods for obtaining feedback.

Happy writing!

Creating Worlds of Wonder (1 of 3)

Here, we discuss world-building. If you’re a writer in fantasy, horror, and science-fiction, you have to do a little world-building which is establishing the setting, rules, and workings of the environment your characters live and interact with.

For example, your story takes place in a kingdom ruled by a young queen who has reached her fifth birthday. A convent of regents “advise” her on important decisions, but she gets to have the peasants beheaded almost every day while eating a big slice of cake. Now, I made that up on the fly, but as the characters interact living in this kingdom, how do they go about their lives while living in such a place?

So, for Part 1 of 3 regarding world-building, we will focus on the “rules” (guidelines mostly):

  1. Be consistent. This is a definitely a rule, unless your story is a tongue-in-cheek comedy about inconsistency. Every other type of story, you need to be consistent. If you establish that fire mages cannot wield water spells, don’t have a scene where a fire mage is casting a water spell unless you have a very good reason for breaking the rule. If you’re not consistent in your world-building, you’ll confuse your readers, who have to stop and ponder what it was they read, figure out how to make their own connection, and if they are dissatisfied, they will leave you a bad review or quit your book.
  2. Create what you need. This is a guideline, but a good one. I read an article a long time ago that Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series, created a story-bible (all the detailed notes on how his world worked) that is as thick as one of his books (it was over 1,000 pages). Now, it was evident he needed all of it to write and plan out his series (which ended up being fourteen large books), but if you plan out your book and it only takes place in a small barony, you don’t need to create detailed notes of the government of a kingdom on the other side of the continent. In my book, Fallen From the Stars, the entire setting is in the elven village. I had notes on all ninety-eight elves who lived in the village, a map of the village, but beyond that, I have a few general notes of the barony and the kingdom, and some general notes on magic and religion.
  3. Reveal through dialogue. People like Robert Jordan, GRR Martin, and Tolkien crafted incredibly rich-worlds and they painstakingly took their time to explain the workings of the world to the reader; however, just as many people who loved it, there are just as many critics who hated it calling it info-dumping. Info-dumping is you, as the narrator, explaining parts of your world to the reader prior to getting to any dialogue, in between scenes, or after a scene has concluded. A more viable way to explain your world is through dialogue. JK Rowling did this 99% of the time in Harry Potter. Harry, being ignorant of the wizarding world, would ask a very innocent question, and someone would take the time to explain to him on how it works. What made it fun would be Harry’s reaction afterward. In Fallen From the Stars (my novel), the main character is a human from our world, so the elves explained to him how things work around the village.

    Use this method with a bit of caution. There is a reason why Robert Jordan chose to info-dump as opposed to revealing through dialogue in that all his characters were very knowledgeable of the world around them. In would have been unrealistic for Matrim Cauthon to be approached by Moiraine Damodred and he asks her, “What’s an aes sedai?” and she replies, “We cast spells, manipulate politics, the Reds have men issues, and crap.” Matrim knew what an aes sedai was and he lived in a very backwater rustic village in the middle of nowhere, so Jordan established that even the rustics possessed knowledge of the world around them.

In the next part of this series, I will discuss the tools you can have at your disposal to build and maintain your world while crafting your series, and then in the follow-up, how to fix problems that are created when you need (or want) to create inconsistencies.

Happy writing!