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. 

Starting Out Writing Sci-Fi

Given recent world events that we are living through, we may start to feel a little bit like we’re living through an episode of “Black Mirror” or something akin to science fiction. Some of us writers may even be finding ourselves tempted to foray into the genre of sci-fi just based off the fact that we have so much inspiration around us with the current pandemic that is going on. So, if you’re feeling the call of inspiration and want to try your hand at writing either a sci-fi short story, novella, or novel, below are the five elements that make up the genre of science fiction:

1. World Building

Ok, first things first. World-building is a big portion of sci-fi. Very similar to fantasy, people who read sci-fi are ready and willing to accept the impossible as possible – provided there is a plausible explanation for everything. In order to do this, you need to really build your world and make it authentic and believable. Don’t worry about using elements that have already been done – such as flying cars – just be sure to put your own spin on something that is already familiar in order to keep it fresh.

2. Unfamiliarity

Sci-fi tends to take us into a territory of unfamiliarity. It takes parts of our own world that are familiar to us – we’ll use the flying cars example again – and twists it around to make it unfamiliar and new to readers. Of course, this is where world-building really plays a major role in bringing everything to life because in sci-fi, the setting is very much integrated into the plot of the story. Furthermore, the setting also affects the action of the story as well as the characters’ lives.

3. Plausible Foundation

Believability is key when creating your world. It’s sci-fi, it’s based in science, therefore your world has to make sense. You can’t introduce futuristic technology without plausible scientific explanations for how it works. For example, you can’t write a story where humans colonize Jupiter and walk around the planet without spacesuits because it wouldn’t be believable – your audience would know that’s not possible. Of course, if you have explained that over thousands of years of terraforming, humans managed to change the atmosphere of Jupiter enough that they could get away with walking around sans spacesuits, then you have a much better story forming. Of course, in order to plausibly explain everything in your sci-fi story, you’ll probably have to conduct a bit of research. Additionally, you’ll probably also want to create a timeline of events in order to keep track of everything that happened in order to be able to avoid plot hole popping up in your story because let’s be real…setting a story 1,000 years in the future is going to have a lot of history happen in between that explain why and how things are the way they are in the present point of your story. Therefore, creating a timeline for yourself will very much help keep things linear. Of course, you don’t have to add in all 1,000 years worth of history to your story (you’re not writing a pretend history book) just the bits that make sense to add because they explain certain technologies or elements in your story.

4. Scientific Principles

Sci-fi isn’t really a genre that leaves much wiggle room for breaking laws and rules, more like gently bending them. If you do bend them, you need to be able to back it up with a plausible scientific explanation to explain it. For example, you can’t break the rule of gravity on Earth. However, you can bend the rule that Mars in uninhabitable to humans. What you need to remember when writing your story is to adhere to the scientific laws of physics and chemistry in order to ensure that the world you create can be plausibly explained in theory.

5. Character’s Reactions

Just like when you write any story, you want to do more showing, rather than telling. Of course, when you have a story that is set in another world, it’s hard to stay away from the tendency to want to explain everything. But a great way to show what is going on in your world rather than tell your audience about it, is to use your characters. Your characters using a teleportation device as easily as they would an elevator is a great way to show that teleporting has been around for a while, rather than telling your readers that it’s been a thing for years. Using a character’s reaction is good for gauging what’s old technology in your world and what’s new without explaining things to your audience. It’s a story you’re writing, not a history book.

Serving Real Life, But Make it Fantasy

Oscar Wilde once said, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you.” I love this quote because it’s so true, and given its truth, this is why I’m a fantasy writer and not a comic.

There are a lot of people out there that think fantasy is for children, or it’s just a made up world with weird names and magic. But in reality, the fantasy genre has so much more potential than that. Fantasy can actually be real life mirrored back at us but from another realm.

A few years ago when I was 25, I somehow managed to get accepted into the Creative Writing Program at Trinity College Dublin where I completed a Master’s in creative writing. Besides getting one of my best friends out of the year-long program, I also got a wealth of knowledge from my professors, as each one of them was a creative expert in their chosen medium. One of them wrote extensively on the problems facing modern Irish society, yet many of his novels are set in the past.

Why was that?

He had a very straightforward answer when confronted. He told the workshop, “I’m not a journalist. I don’t have to bore you with facts. I’m a writer so my goal should be to entertain you, while helping you draw the parallels yourself.”

It was this bit of wisdom that encouraged me to write strictly fantasy. What he said that day about giving readers the tools to make the connections themselves really stuck with me. As writers we all want to think that our words make a difference to people, or that we’re somehow making a fresh impact on social issues by incorporating them into our work.

And while this is probably true, I have found that setting things either in the past or, better still, in a whole other realm is one of the best ways to drive home a particular point that you may want to make about society.

Especially in this heated political climate we live in, there is so much we can write about and draw inspiration for, for stories. But there are also plenty of opportunities to offend people and draw out the more comments should you choose to set a politically-charged story in modern days on top of making a point to give your direct opinion.

But you know where you can get away with all that? The past. Or better still, a whole new world. Think about big controversial topics like the environment, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, religion, etc. All these can cause a stir if you write about them directly. However, rather than write about them directly, if you create another world where you allude to similar parallels, you can actually have a much more impacting effect.

So, yes, fantasy can be a wonderful outlet if you want to get people to think about the modern world we live in. Some very beloved stories do just that. For example, Tolkien was heavily influenced by WWI and it shows throughout his series of Lord of the Rings where war and conflict and change are at the core of the story. J.K. Rowling is another writer who has strong ties to modern problems in our society. The plight of the house elves and other problems facing the magical world all stem from her experiences working for Amnesty International. Suzanne Collins and her work for The Hunger Games was heavily influenced by the Iraq War, as well as her own father’s experiences in the military. These are probably some of the more famous examples, but you can see my point. These stories each carry powerful messages within them, but they wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if the writers didn’t provide their point a little distance.

So, that is why I am definitely a proponent of fantasy as a walk of reflecting life back to society. Just keep writing and when in doubt, make it fantasy.

Finding a Home for Your Story: Advice on Publication

Way back when I was about 22-years-old, I took a poetry class that changed my writing forever. I’m by no means a poet. I barely managed to write any decent poetry during the class. And since leaving the class, I’ve hardly ever written a poem – except for the occasional one that is born out of a purely emotional moment. But my lack of poetry skills isn’t what I took away from that class. It was actually quite the opposite. I walked away from that course as a newly-infused writer full of confidence and a sense of hope. As writers, we should always be filled with a sense of hope as we tell our stories. And we should always be hopeful that our work will find its intended audience.

That is probably the biggest take away that I received from my professor. She often spoke about “finding a home for your writing.” At first, we all thought she was talking about publication and finding the right magazine or journal to accept your work. That’s not remotely what she meant.

She told us a story about a series of poems she had written, which subsequently got rejected from every place she submitted to. Discouraged, she put them away in a file cabinet and forgot about them. Then, one day years later, she was going through the file cabinet and found them again. She was experiencing some personal difficulties at the time and her own words ended up being exactly what she needed to hear in that moment.

“Sometimes, you won’t always reach the broad audience base every writer dreams of,” she said bluntly. “Sometimes you’ll find that what you created will only reach a few people or even just one: yourself.”

The silence after she said those words covered the room in an impenetrable cloud of thought. I scanned the pensive faces of my fellow students as they digested what she’d just said.

Sensing many crushed dreams in that moment, my professor smiled as she added, “But you also have to keep in mind that your work serves a higher purpose. Everything you pour onto the page is intended for someone to read – to provide someone with whatever comfort they need in that moment. It will always find its intended audience so don’t be discouraged by your words. Use them. They will always be hope for someone who needs to read them.”

To this day, I still get chills when I think back to that moment in class. Every writer has a moment when they defined themselves as a writer – and that was mine, at the back of the classroom, quietly absorbing this poet’s wise words. Yes, we all want to be discovered as the next J.K. Rowling and have our stories printed for the masses, but those grandiose dreams are really us getting ahead of ourselves.

The journey to finding a home for our story doesn’t begin at the end of the road with a publishing contract and an advance; it begins with ourselves. We are our story’s first home. We are the ones who need to take comfort in our own words – after all, they live within us. Finding the hope within our writing will have a ripple effect. So far, I’ve had a couple short stories published and each one was the most honest version of the story in my mind that I managed to tell on paper.

See where I’m going with this? When you stop writing for the masses and write for yourself, you will be free to create the purest form of your story – and that version always manages to find its intended audience, whether large or small.

Cardinal Sins in Writing

Amateur writers make a lot of mistakes. After all, writing is a learning process. You should always practice, practice, practice, and get your work edited, but what about during the process itself? What is it you should avoid as much as possible before you send your work out to the beta-readers? There are a lot of cardinal sins in writing. I will go over several here. Chances are if you have one or more of these in your story, your lit agent, or publisher will give your work a pass. In no particular order of importance, they are:

1. Tell, do not show. You tell me someone is angry, happy, or sad. You do not describe the body language to allow myself to make that judgment for myself. You use adverbs out the wazoo. A good rule of thumb, avoid using emotive words altogether. Also, avoid using descriptive dialogue tags when said and ask should suffice.

2. You use Passive Voice. The plane was exploded by a bomb instead of: A bomb exploded the plane. Was, were, had, to be, being, has been, have been, etc. All are passive verbs. Now you don’t have to try to eliminate all your passive verbs, but your action verbs should considerably outnumber your passive verbs.

3. Your Main Character is a Mary Sue / Gary Stu. Your character can do everything. They are smart, beautiful, strong, fast, sexually attractive (I’m talking h-a-w-t), can fight with just any kind of weapon, cast spells, the child of a god, (sigh!) the list goes on. Or maybe, they are not all those things, but you’ve constructed the story so that every challenge your main character faced, they just breezed right through.

4. Your story has no tension. Are the victories and arguments your character faced too easy? No setbacks? No twists? Everyone just goes along with the MC just because they are awesome? Yeah, don’t do this.

5. You pacing is disjointed. You put the climax in the middle of the book and the denouement is the wrap up from there on out. When gearing up for that epic battle, it completely fizzles or worse yet, it’s extraordinarily brief or doesn’t happen at all. Remember, your readers are conditioned to enjoy a completed story of beginning, middle, climax, denouement.

6. You switch POVs. Either choose First or Third Person. There are others, but uncommon and not really used effectively. If you choose First Person, then your story is told through your Main Character(s)’ eyes and by what they know. We don’t have the luxury to get into someone else’s head unless your MC can read minds. Third Person is quite common (and there are different subtypes), but if you switch POV’s from one character to the next, give us a scene break or chapter break so we know we’re hopping around. Second Person or other styles are very rare – use with caution.

7. You info-dump. If you write about the elves’ special coming-of-age ritual, we don’t need to know every single little detail about it unless necessary and especially if you tell it as if I’m sitting in History class. If we don’t need to know it for the story, odds are you didn’t need to tell us. Cut it out.

8. You did not research your story at all (or enough). You have a battle in the early 1800’s and your MC mans a Gatling gun, mowing down enemies. Except that the gun wasn’t invented and put into use until the American Civil War. Make sure you have done all the necessary research related to your story. If you set your story in an era where there is a lot of contention or debate among prominent historians/scientists, your safer bet is to go with the more popular accepted theory.

9. You did not write for the market. You love Twilight. You decide to write a love triangle with a sparkle vampire, a buffed werewolf, and a human girl who needs a boyfriend. Except no publisher wants a Twilight clone. They are done with it. They are also done with Harry Potter, Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey,and Game of Thrones. They are sick of the Chosen One trope. All of this is clearly written in their submission guidelines, but you wrote your Twilight story anyways. Was your story good? We won’t know unless you self-publish because that’s your only course of action from here.

In short, finish your story, and get it done. But after that, go through and look for all these areas of perceived weakness. Clean it up. Then gather your beta-readers to let them look for any weaknesses you missed.