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. 

Author Interview with Peter VanGelderen

Dragon Soul Press sat down with Author Peter VanGelderen, who has featured in DSP’s Reign of Queens and the upcoming Lethal Impact anthology.


1. Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I actually realized I wanted to be a writer later in life, after college actually. I originally wanted to pursue a career as a therapist and that’s what I went to school for. Prior to grad school, I ended up doing some revaluation, and I started writing to try it out as a new hobby. Within a week I was in love with the process and its been my passion ever since. I did attempt to write a fourth Lord of the Rings book when I was a kid, but it didn’t go so well.

2. What books or authors have most influenced your own writing?

I’ve gotten influence from many authors. George R. R. Martin and the Game of Thrones series was an inspiration in terms of character writing as well as cultivating peril and suspense. I’ve also been influenced by N. K. Jemisin, especially when it comes to narrative perspectives. Those are the two big ones, but countless others have surely been involved in the formulation of my own style.

3. What famous author do you wish would be your mentor?

I would actually prefer two, sort of a devil-and-angel-on-the-shoulder situation. On one, I’d want Douglas Adams for crafting one-liners and nuggets of witty wisdom. On the other, J. R. R. Tolkien, as he’d have insight on extensive world-building and detail-oriented writing. Plus, I think it’d be pretty great to hear them debate all day. 

4. What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

I am a sucker for an animal companion and all media that include one, so I love to add animal friends big and small to any story I can. Whether or not the animal is a typical pet, a massive lizard monster, or anything in between, doesn’t matter. I will almost always give them the personality of a dog or cat, though, especially if they are a giant lizard monster.

5. What do you like to do when you are not writing?

When not writing, usually during my evenings, I often turn my brain off with video games. After spending all day writing narratives, I prefer to do something not so narrative-heavy. That way I can just let reflexes and chaotic whims take over so I can relax. I do usually watch plenty of shows and read books before bed, though. Other than that, I am often petting my cat or playing DnD.

6. How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?

As of right now, I only have one completed book. It doesn’t have a name yet, one hasn’t come to me, but it features a massive expedition into a giant area of wild and dangerous nature. I’m very much looking forward to getting it published at some point, but I’m not sure how long that process will take. I have begun another and have been working on it for a few months, but it’s still very much in the beginning phases.

7. Where do you draw inspiration from?

I draw any inspiration I can from anything around me. Naturally, I take inspiration from any book I read, and building on that, any show or movie I watch. Games, songs, and musicals also are fair game. I’ve certainly watched my cat interact with the world and used it to describe animal behavior, it’s the same with my parents’ dogs and any other animal I see. Sometimes, I’ll take the few bits and pieces from my weird dreams that make sense and try to utilize them. I find that the variety helps a lot with keeping things interesting.

8. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Goofy, Caring, Kind. (This was given by my girlfriend, as this one actually stumped me a little)

9. Who is the author you most admire in your genre?

Once again, I’m breaking the rules a little bit and including two. First off is J. R. R. Tolkien, as his work ethic and ability to build a massively complex world from scratch. That’s an amount of drive that I can only hope to achieve. Another important one is N. K. Jemisin, who isn’t afraid to be heavy-handed when including real issues that society needs to address. Her portrayal of oppression comes from a true knowledge of real-world problems and she has no fear when it comes to shining a giant, blazing light on subjects many others may only dance around.

10. Where can readers learn more about you?

The best place to get info about me is on my author Facebook page, @PeterVanGelderenBooks. On there I have all my basic info, as well as links to my published works.

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. 

Writing 10k in One Day

How many of us have participated in writing challenges like NaNoWriMo or its April and July offshoots of Camp NaNoWriMo? Chances are we’ve done it at least once, maybe twice. But how many of us have been successful at it? We all want to think of ourselves as writers who can pump out a huge word count like it’s nothing. But the reality is many of us really struggle to write even a fifteen-hundred words in one session. 

I recently decided to partake in the July Camp NaNoWriMo. And in my annual fashion, within a week I was well behind my word count goals. It’s not that I didn’t do any writing, it’s just that I got distracted. I started writing everything that wasn’t the manuscript that I was meant to work on. So, what do you do when you’re 10k behind your goal? You do your best to catch up in the span of a weekend. 

But is it possible to pump out 10k in one day? Yes, it is. It just takes a lot of patience, persistence, and a looming deadline that scares the crap out of you. For me, that looming deadline was getting this manuscript finally finished and sent off to a professional editor on the first of August. And that is what got me to write 10k words in one day. 

And here are some useful tips and tricks that I used in order to get it done: 

Know What You’re Writing

This is very important because if you have a direction for your story then the 10k will flow slightly easier. That is why if you’re doing a writing challenge, I highly recommend dedicating the entire month ahead of time to plotting out your story and creating a scene by scene break down. That way when you start tackling your word goal you can write huge chunks of story on a daily basis by just reviewing your notes. And if you need to do a catch up on the weekend, it’s much easier to get through 10k if you’ve got a fully plotted out story than if you’re just writing by the seam of your pants. 

Make A Plan

This isn’t just a plan for your writing, but for your day as well. With plenty of dedication, we can manage 10k in a day. But there is no way that can be done in an hour or two. 10k is 20 pages single spaced, or 40 double spaced. Even the fastest writers can’t manage that in a short span of time – we’ve all tried in college. What you need is a whole day. Clear the schedule, wake up early, and get ready to dedicate a good 8 hours to getting 10k done. 

Take Breaks

Even though you’re planning to be writing for roughly 8 hours in order to hit 10k in one day, that doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, take breaks. Breaks are good. Breaks give your mind a chance to reboot for a little bit. I personally like to challenge myself to hour long sprints where I write 1,500 words in an hour, then I reward myself with a little break. During that break I’ll either get up and make a cup of tea or coffee and get back to the writing for another hour (if I happen to find myself on a creative roll), or I’ll go for a walk (if I’m feeling like I’m hitting a wall with my writing). But just be sure that you don’t do anything too strenuous or time consuming during your break that will then end up distracting you. Speaking of which…

Beware Distractions

You know how you can go the whole week not doing the laundry, but then sit down to write and suddenly the laundry needs to be done, the dishes need cleaning, the oven can use a scrub, and the bathtub should really be bleached. Don’t let yourself get distracted. If you’re like me and you can get distracted by household chores either arrange to do your writing in a different location or address the potential distractions ahead of time. If you can do housework the day before writing, do it. If you can go to a local coffee shop or if the weather is nice, write outside in a park or the beach or even your own backyard. If you have kids, arrange a playdate. If you browse the internet too much, disable your wifi and hide your phone. The less distractions there are, the easier it will be to get those 10k words done in one day. 

Keep Pushing Forward

Even if you don’t hit 10k in one day, if you are able to double what you’d normally write in a day then be proud of yourself – you’ve already done well. If you don’t get to 10k in the first try, just keep at it. It took me several consecutive Saturdays before I managed to hit a full 10k in one day. You’ll get there, just keep going. 

The Essentials of Editing

I am currently studying a Copyediting online course offered by Writers Digest. The course is amazing so far. The course covers the basics of grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The importance of writing in the active rather than the passive voice is also included. The recommended reading books are The Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Style book, and the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

When we write, we may sometimes forget the basic rules of using nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs. The course has been invaluable in helping me improve my writing. The course also discusses how to work as a copyeditor and how to professionally edit copy. I encourage anyone who wants to greatly improve their writing to take this course or a course like it. You don’t have to study this course just to work as an editor.

I was always scared of the book The Chicago Manual of Style. But now that I must become familiar with the book to succeed in the course, I have learned it’s not so nightmare inducing. I have learned that there is way to more to writing and editing than I ever suspected. For example, the rules on using the serial comma is one I still struggle with. But for anyone who is serious about their writing, this just may be the ticket for you.

The course offers grammar exercises and we practice editing our own writing. We edit a written assignment first on paper with a red pencil then we edit online using track changes. This teaches us how editing is done. If we make mistakes, then we learn from them and build our knowledge.

I recommend a few other good books about editing. Grammatically correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Stillman. This book discusses the essential points of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage. There are also exercises for the reader to do at the end of each chapter. It’s a great reference book. It is not a dry read, the author makes it fun and enjoyable.

The final book about editing that I recommend is CopyEditing: A Practical Guide by Karen Judd. This book may be out of date but it is a real gem. This is more like a training guide.

Writers must demonstrate a mastery of the English language. We know we must get our submissions past the editor’s ‘gate’ to get it into the hands of readers. But with the above suggested sources, that will not seem like such a huge task. I encourage everyone to consider studying an online course offered by Writers Digest. Or at the very least, to brush up on spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Your writing will benefit from it.

Good luck!