Do’s and Don’ts of World-building

If you’re writing either a fantasy story or a sci-fi one, there is no getting around the world-building. It’s pretty much essential to your genre. World-building occurs when your story’s world deviates from the “rules” of present world that we occupy. So even if your story isn’t set in an entirely different planet, but it’s got a little dusting of magic thrown in, guess what? You’ve entered the realm of world-building. And that requires us to begin looking for and providing explanations for why our fantasy world functions the way it does. 

When it comes to the art of world-building, there are certain things we need to keep in mind. Even though world-building does break the rules of our present space, there still is a certain way of creating your fantasy or sci-fi world so that it reads coherently and doesn’t come off as a big hot mess to your readers. 

So, if you’re grappling with how to create an alternate reality in which your world is set, here are some common mistakes you might want to avoid making:

Spending too much time world-building: There is such a thing as spending too much time building your world. While you do need to build up your world and explain the whys and hows, what you don’t want is to get so wrapped up in creating the world that your book reads more like a history lesson than a story. The way I like to do things is I like to create the entire world separate of the story – complete with a history and a language if there is one – and then just pick and drop in the bits that are relevant to the story. I don’t know how many are familiar with Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, but it’s the theory of omission. There is only 5% of the story on the surface while the rest of it is underwater. And if the writing is clear and concise, then the reader can infer the other 95% of the story. It kind of works like a show, don’t tell sort of idea. But basically, I like to look at world-building with almost the same lens as the Iceberg Theory. If you know the world well enough yourself, you really only need to show the reader the relevant parts while the rest is left underwater. That is why I’ll list out everything about my world ahead of time, but just include what is relevant to the plot. 

Including things that are never used: This sort of touches back to my first point. It’s okay to build an entire family tree for yourself, but unless it’s a vital part of the plot, don’t include it in the book. Same with language. Unless there is a major plot point around an alien language there is no need to include an alphabet or launch into an explanation of the grammatical rules surrounding a certain language. A simple clue that there is another language in the world – like referring to a “common tongue” or a character noting that another character has the accent of a certain tribe – is more than inclusion enough. Don’t over explain something, especially if it’s a part of the world that doesn’t warrant an explanation in the first place. 

Not planning ahead: While there is no time like the present, getting a little ahead of yourself doesn’t hurt when you are world-building. Particularly if you’re creating a series. You want to have somewhat of a long-term grasp of your world. It helps to cut down on future plot holes. 

Lack of conflict: Let’s face it, perfect worlds are boring. Our current world is a festering cornucopia of social, political, and environmental problems the world over. But that is what makes our lives interesting – we all have our own personal struggles to overcome. We’re our own heroes or heroines in the stories of our lives, and we can thank the conflicts we face for that. Your fantasy or sci-fi world should also hold conflicts that affect or influence your characters. That is what is needed to start them on their heroes’ journey. Don’t create a perfect world, create a flawed one and watch the fun unfold. 

Creating a world that has been done before: Yes, we’re all prone to being inspired by other books or movies or TV shows that we’ve enjoyed. But the last thing you want to do is be charged with derivative copyright infringement for creating a carbon copy of a world that has already appeared in another work of fiction. Of course, just because someone has already written a book about a group of students attending a magical school, or someone else has a world in which cars fly, that doesn’t mean you can’t still write your own story. What it means is that if you’re going to have a world of flying cars, or a story about students attending a magic school, you need to put your own spin on it and make your world as uniquely you as possible. 

Breaking your own rules: Readers of sci-fi or fantasy are willing to suspend their belief. But they won’t forgive the writer for breaking their own rules. So, when you are creating your world, be sure to pay attention to the rules that you’re setting in place. If you are creating a world in which witches only discover their magic powers at the age of 14, but then suddenly you’ve got witches practicing magic and spells at 5 years old, your readers are going to be confused and upset by these plot holes. That is why as the writer and the “god” of your world, you need to pay attention to the rules that you have set forth. Don’t break your own rules. It creates a lot of plot holes and angry readers. 

Writing Likable Characters

We all want our readers to be invested in our stories. When a reader invests in your story, they are investing in a continued journey with you as a writer. Besides having someone thoroughly enjoy the work that you put so much effort into, having an invested reader can lead to great opportunities such as representation and publication if you’re seeking a more traditional means of publishing, or a loyal fan-base and more clout on social media if you’ve chosen to go with self-publication. Either way, only good things can come for you and your book if you have invested readers. 

But what is the key to success to capturing the hearts of readers? One of the easiest ways to get a reader completely on board with your book is to create likable and relatable characters. Think of all the books that you personally like – how many of them can you honestly say you like them for reasons other than the characters? Sure, the Harry Potter series is cool and JK Rowling outdid herself when she created the wizarding world, but if you stripped all the magic away, you’d be left with only the characters. And that was truly the heart of the books. It was Harry, Hermoine, and Ron that stole our hearts and made us want to keep reading. You can try to counter argue, but deep down you know it’s true. Take any story of any genre and strip away the fantastical settings, the plot twists, the romances, etc. and you’ll see that it’s the characters that are always at the heart of all our beloved books. 

But what is it about certain main characters that resonate with us and make us feel invested in their stories? All these beloved main characters and side characters that we love to discuss at length with friends, cosplay at events, or make fanart for; the one thing that they all have in common is their likability and relatability. So how do you go about creating characters that people like and want to follow?

Here are some tips:

Vulnerability– giving your character a vulnerability is one of the easiest ways to get your character to resonate with readers. This vulnerability can either be a physical one like a handicap or an emotional one. Either way, seeing a character struggle with their own weaknesses, hopes, limitations, or fears is always a way to get readers to see themselves in a character. 

Backstory– kind of lining up a bit with the vulnerability point is backstory. Introducing a why for the character’s actions or thoughts is always a way to make them seem relatable. And looking to their backstory is a good place to start. This is particularly helpful if you want to write an antagonist that is well-rounded and not just a straight up A-hole. Sometimes some of the best villains have some of the saddest or complicated backstories. Take the most recent Joker film. This is a perfect example of a well-rounded villain. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a bad guy, but getting to see his origins definitely helps us better understand his motivations. And in doing so we end up feeling bad for him – something that ends up making him more relatable in our eyes.  

Failure– letting your main character fail isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can definitely help the relatability of a character. We’ve all faced failure within our own lives. We all love an underdog story with the odds stacked against them. Let your character fail and make a courageous comeback. Their resilience will speak volumes with readers because we’ve all been there. 

Morals– most for the heroes of our stories making them be nice helps a bit. We want to think of characters as being generally nice. Characters that show kindness, generosity, or selflessness are generally seen as “good” and you want your characters to be good. No one likes a character that will kick a puppy and laugh. Of course, steer clear of making them a goodie-two-shoes. Some character flaws do make them more “human.” Also, don’t be afraid of giving your villains some morals too. Just because you have a supervillain who wants to destroy the world doesn’t mean that they can’t have a moment of selflessness. How many times do we end up liking villains after they end up redeeming themselves by showing a selfless side to them? Think Shadow Weaver’s sacrifice of herself to save Adora and Catra in Netflix’s She-ra. Personally, I shed a tear at that.

Humor– whether they’re self-deprecating, snarky, or just plain silly, giving your characters some sort of sense of humor makes them relatable to readers. We all love to laugh. It’s the next universal language besides love. So, it only stands to reason that readers would gravitate towards characters that have a funny side to them. And so long as their humor is true to the character’s personality, it will resonate with audiences.

Self-Awareness– let’s face it, flawed characters are the best characters. But the key to a good flawed character is that they’ve got enough self-awareness to be able to say sorry once in a while for their shortcomings. Giving your characters, particularly your heroes and heroines, a moment of “yeah I know I’m an A-hole sometimes but I’m trying” can definitely help readers cut them some slack for some of their more morally questionable actions. 

Fear and Pain– having a character be motivated by their fear or their pain can definitely make them relatable to readers. How many of us in our everyday lives are motivated to action by pain and fear? That 20-page college paper we’ve all written the night before it’s due was definitely written on pure motivation from fear of failure and a painful lack of sleep. Having characters move through plot points based off their fear and pain will definitely make them relatable. After all, nothing is more human in this life than feeling pain and fear, which is why our characters must feel these things too. 

Grow Your Following

We live in an age when technology is pretty much a part of our everyday lives. Just look at social media – it is so integrated into our lives. We don’t just use social media as a place to post pictures of our pets or our homemade bread, it’s also where we search for jobs, build business connections, and promote our business. Small businesses and creatives rely on social media as a platform to get their goods and services out there. 

That is why, as writers, it makes sense that many of us would turn to social media for help. Whether we’re self-published authors, or authors seeking a traditional publishing deal, we need social media. There is no two ways about it – the days of making it as a writer with no social media presence are over. 

I have a friend who is a literary agent, and prior to meeting him, I was under the impression that social media wasn’t that big of a deal. I assumed that if the writing was good, you could get published no problem. Boy, was I wrong. Agents and publishers alike look at your social media following. While good writing is important, what they really are interested in, is marketing. Do you have enough followers to make it worth their while? If you have a big enough following, publishers see that as a built-in audience already sorted. So, how many followers should you aim for? 10k. Most of us don’t have anywhere near that many followers. So, the next logical step would be to grow your numbers. But how do you do that? 

Here are some tips:

Focus Your Energies: The two platforms that you really want to grow a base on, are Twitter and Instagram. Twitter has a HUGE writing community, and it’s a great place to connect with other writers and get yourself out there. Likewise with Instagram, it’s nearly like a Twitter with pictures, so it’s a great place to post promotional pictures of your book, or to drum up interest in your work-in-progress by posting inspirations and sneak peeks to get people excited about your work. And both platforms work on a follow-for-follow basis, so just go on a following spree and gain people along the way.

Use Hashtags Strategically: Hashtags are great for Instagram posts to be seen by people who aren’t following you, meaning you can potentially gain more followers by posting with hashtags. But the key is to know which ones to use. In order to find the more popular ones you can take a quick look through #bookstagram or #writersofinstagram in order to see what other hashtags people are using. Additionally, your favorite writers that you follow can also be a great place to start looking. Speaking of which…

Do Your Homework: Following your favorite authors are a good idea. You can learn a lot from looking at pages of successful authors. Take note of the more popular content, which kinds of tweets or pictures gain the most attention? How do they represent themselves? In short, what is their brand? Obviously, you are your own brand, but what can you do to help yourself figure out how to build yourself up is to look and learn. 

Run Giveaways: Another great way of building up your following, this strategy also helps you do some promotion of your book as well. You can give away signed copies of your books as well as merch too – commissioned drawings, maps, book marks – all things related to your brand that can get your name out there are great ideas for giveaways. Plus, they also present an opportunity to team up with other authors for joint giveaways and promotions as well. 

Get engaged: Even if you’re not running a giveaway or going on a following spree, you can still use your posts to engage followers. Make sure your posts are something that your followers can connect with. For example, if you’re posting about a writing session in your favorite coffee shop, make it an opportunity to drum up a conversation by asking your followers where they like to write, where their word count is at, etc. Similarly, don’t be afraid to leave a comment on someone else’s post if you admire what they shared. Sometimes simple, friendly engagements with others in the community can get you a new follower or two – and every follower counts!

Don’t Buy Followers: So, you may be sitting here thinking if publishers want to see at least 10k followers on your social media then what is the harm in spending a few extra dollars and getting a mass of new followers in a few hours? Well, there is no such thing as a free lunch. While buying followers might get you numbers it doesn’t get you engagement. Fake followers won’t like your posts, buy your books, or retweet your tweets. Publishers want to see that your 10k following is an engaged one, meaning you grew them organically. While it might take a while to build yourself on social media, it’ll be worth it in the end when you can say you achieved numbers organically. 

So, with many of us probably starting somewhere below 1,000 followers on either Instagram or Twitter, it might seem a little daunting. And I’m not going to lie, it is a little daunting to think that we’ve got a long way to go building up our social media following. But, if we want to be successful writers then we need to grow with the times. And, in the words of Li Shang, “Let’s get down to business…”

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Why You Still Need an Editor After Multiple Books #2

A question that often comes up for seasoned authors: “do I still need an editor? I have x number of books under my belt now. Surely I can self-edit to save money and time.

Famous authors like J.K. Rowling, R.A. Salvatore, Stephen King, etc. still use their editors. Why? They’ve written multiple books and have been writing for years. Shouldn’t they be self-sufficient by now?

Writing a book and editing a book is not the same thing. That’s why an extensive process has been created for publishing. Yes, your work will definitely improve over the years if you continue honing your skills and pay attention to some of the things your editors suggest. There will still be mistakes that another pair of eyes need to catch.

You may be thinking at this point of the article that “It’s okay. I’ll have my best friend or family member read over it and it’ll provide a professional result.” This is often not the case. Even someone who reads books extensively or has an actual college degree in English won’t be able to catch all of the mistakes. Degrees are a piece of paper awarded to someone who completes courses. It doesn’t show their experience or dedication to the work.

Normally, there are three stages to editing: Structural/Developmental, Line Editing, Copy Editing. Laid out like that, it looks easy, but it’s far from simple. A manuscript is normally read through and edited a minimum of five times. Professionals who have studied current genres, story structures, sentence structures, etc. are worth having edit your story and getting it to a traditional publishing level, whether you are attempting that route or self-publishing. Readers expect professionalism and will stop reading after finding mistakes in the book.

But that’s okay. I’ve already established a reader base.” It’s extremely easy to lose readers once they realize your future books are not up to par with the others. The more books you release, the better they are expected to become. Not the opposite.

Continued from
Why You Shouldn’t Withdraw Your Submission Early

To be continued in a later blog post called
Why You Should Keep Improving Your Skills

Why You Shouldn’t Withdraw Your Submission Early #1

After being in the business for so long, one ends up seeing multiple dreams being squashed or coming true. One of the worst things is getting in your own way and causing everything to crash and burn. This has occurred many times and as such, has warranted this article.

Many publishers have the option of manuscript and anthology submissions. When someone submits to both outlets and one gets rejected, the automatic response is to withdraw all submissions from that publisher. This is the wrong way to do things. Just because one thing was rejected does not mean everything will be.

There are so many possibilities as to why it was refused. Some of the most common reasons is it needed more editing or that story didn’t fit in that particular anthology. No matter the reason, none is cause to withdraw all of your submissions. More often than not, the publisher is planning on accepting one even though another was rejected.

The reason many authors are not successful with traditional publishing is because they don’t follow submission guidelines and once refused, they automatically give up. “Self-publishing is such an easier way to go” has been a saying going around writing communities. It may be easier, but you will never have the same opportunities that traditional publishing gives. And so, the story that was rejected due to poor editing is uploaded for self-publishing without further improvement and gets nowhere with sales.

The worst of all is that, more often than not, the author never continues improving their writing. Critique is the most important way to continue honing your writing skills. If you think you’re already the best and have nothing further to improve, then you’re already in the wrong mindset.

To be continued in a later blog post called
Why You Still Need an Editor After Multiple Books