An Editor’s Tips for Effective Worldbuilding—in Any Genre

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shutterstock_244945240Earlier this month, I presented a workshop on world building at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Retreat in beautiful Estes Park, Colorado. It was a fantastic event and an honor to spend time with a talented group of writers from many genres. One of the questions that we discussed was this: Which kinds of stories require world building? While the knee-jerk response is usually Sci Fi/Fantasy, everyone in the group quickly agreed on a better answer: “All of them.” Whether you want to set your story on another planet never before heard of, or a startlingly realistic representation of contemporary Detroit, you have to do the work to bring that place to life. Sparse world building can leave readers feeling ungrounded or unable to connect with your story, even if you have complex, engaging characters.

If you’re at the beginning stages of your novel, there are a lot of great resources out there for brainstorming and outlining your world. One of the most common is the world building checklist, an extensive list of questions designed to help you get to know your fictional world inside and out, so that you can begin to work those details into the story. Here are a couple of my favorites:

http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

http://io9.com/5936277/12-questions-to-ask-yourself-about-the-system-of-magic-in-your-fantasy-novel

(Again, these are geared toward SF/F worlds, but many of the questions apply to world building in general.)

Once you have gone a little further with your story, it’s helpful to know what NOT to do. Here are some tips I shared at the workshop based on the most common world building problems I see as an editor:

FIVE COMMON WORLDBUILDING PITFALLS

Lack of rules or breaking the rules—letting things happen in the story “just because.” If you bend your own worldbuilding rules in the middle of the story, it will come across as lazy plotting or too convenient. “But, it’s magic” is no excuse! In non-fantasy stories, this means staying true to the atmosphere you have built from the beginning. If you’re writing a contemporary romance and the setting is a small town that feels cozy and intimate to the main characters, it can’t suddenly morph into a dismal dead-end town without a very compelling reason.

Planting symbolic figures without a foundation. This is a common problem that happens when world building is mostly surface-level. You can’t throw in symbolic figures just for fun. For example: If the characters in your Sci Fi novel (or even historical fiction) frequently invoke “the Goddess,” readers must be given some notion of the underlying religion or mythology.

Data dump. This is where entire sections or pages at the beginning of the novel are devoted to worldbuilding and/or backstory alone; it’s a recipe for losing readers fast. World building should be organic—woven into the fabric of the story itself  as you introduce the main character (show the world through his or her eyes), the inciting incident, etc. It’s not an explanatory section in the opening pages of the novel.

Imbalance of macro and micro. Good world building always includes two layers: the “big picture” and the everyday details. Sometimes there is a clear sense of the macro level (geography, political structure, etc.), but little sensory detail for readers to latch onto. Or, there is an abundance of micro level details (what people wear, the foods they eat for breakfast, how they pray, etc.), but the foundation and infrastructure for these elements remains unclear.

The fantasy world is too similar to the real world. This one is specific to the SF/F genres. If you have a magical or supernatural element in your story, readers will expect to see its effects on the world at large. In other words, the things that set this place apart from the real world cannot exist in a void. Even if your story draws from a real-world referent (e.g. ancient Egypt), readers will be watching for details of what makes the place unique throughout the story, and without enough of this, the story could feel underdeveloped or disappointing.

I hope these tips give you some good food for thought. Go forth and build a world!

AgentSpeak: Four Not-Your-Fault Reasons Behind a Rejection Letter

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shutterstock_200233214Today, let’s talk about a dirty word: rejection. It’s no fun under any circumstances, but the good news is, some rejections sting a little less than others. That’s because sometimes, it’s not really about your writing.

When an agent reads your novel, he or she immediately starts weighing dozens of factors, both conscious and subconscious, to determine whether the response will be a “tell me more” or a “no thanks.” These factors come in two varieties: those that you can control and those that are out of your hands. Naturally, it’s a good idea to focus on the former—honing your craft, expanding your skill set—all the things that help your writing reach the level agents seek. But it’s also important to take into account the things you can’t control. When is an agent’s rejection not a reflection of your work?

Four Not-Your-Fault Reasons an Agent Might Say No to Your Manuscript:

  • It belongs to an overcrowded market. The truth is that sometimes, no matter how strong your writing is, an agent will say no to your project simply because the market for your topic or subgenre is oversaturated—meaning it would be very hard to get publishers to bite. Big hits in the industry spark trends, and agents’ inboxes are then flooded with waves of hopeful successors for months, or even years, after the trend peaks. Eventually the market can no longer support more of a particular type of story. Readers begin to lose interest; sales dip. Unless your novel has something very different to set it apart from the crowd, you’re going to have a very hard time convincing an agent.
  • It’s too similar to a book the agent already represents. This might sound counterintuitive, since writers are often told to query agents who represent projects similar to theirs. I’m certainly not discouraging that—it’s good advice in general. But in some cases, an agent might feel that your story is too much like one or more of his current titles, meaning publishers might feel the niche has already been filled.
  • The agent’s client list is nearly full. Unless an agent makes it clear on her website, blog, Twitter feed, etc. that she is not accepting submissions, she should be fair game, right? The truth is, sometimes agents keep the slush pile open just in case that next mega-bestseller crosses their path—even though their client list is already pretty full. Under those circumstances, even if the quality of your work is good, the agent will be less inclined to take a risk. And in the end, she is doing you a favor: you deserve an agent who is wild about your work and can give you the time and attention you deserve. This is why it often pays to target new agents, who are actively seeking to build their list and may be taking on two or three times as many clients per year as more senior agents. Just be sure to check that they have a good reputation and adequate experience in the industry.
  • It’s just not the agent’s cup of tea. One of the really tough things about an agent’s job is making the choice to let a high quality manuscript slip away. If the agent can’t connect with your protagonist, premise, or writing style on a deep personal level, she won’t be able to be the passionate advocate you need. The best agents are the ones who know when to bow out and let a project go to a colleague who can truly invest their time, talent, and passion in it.

How do you know if your novel fits into one of these frustrating categories? If you’re lucky, agents will come out and say so. For example, you might have queried an agent who represents your genre, but caters to a different subset or taste: “I prefer grittier urban fantasy—yours was a bit cozy for me.” Translation: “Not my cup of tea.” If, instead, you got a form letter or no response, it’s harder to intuit the reason. But if you follow your target agents’ news, you might find a clue or two; agents often post about their specific likes, wishes, and pet peeves on their blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you discover that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree, don’t be discouraged. Go to your next tier of target agents (after doing some serious research to make sure they’re a better fit). Then, while you wait for a nibble on your current book, work on the next. You can’t afford to send your creativity on sabbatical. Be relentless. Your dream is worth it.

Want to learn more about what you can control in your submissions process? Find out how to make your opening pages the best they can be. I’m teaching a new session of my 8-week online class “Crafting the Strongest Start: How to Hook an Agent with Your Opening Pages” beginning March 23. For more information, visit www.thenextbigwriter.com.

On Endings…Novels, That Is (What makes a good one?)

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shutterstock_90341185HAPPY NEW YEAR!

As we get ready to say goodbye to 2014, naturally, I’ve been thinking about endings. In this case, novel endings. The final stretch of a novel is probably the single most difficult part of a story to pull off, and it’s one of the areas where I see the most problems in my editing work. If you think about it, that makes a lot of sense: you’ve spent hundreds of pages building a complex fictional world and developing interesting, true-to-life characters to inhabit it. Readers have invested their time, emotions, and even a little cash, in your endeavor. After all that, there’s nothing more disappointing than a lackluster finish to the journey! So what is it that makes an ending satisfying—or not?

There are many elements to consider here, but here, I’ll focus on three that I think are among the most important:

Characters must remain true to themselves (and thus, reader expectations). In my view, this is the most vital ingredient of a satisfying ending. By the end of a full-length novel, readers have come to know your characters on the level of intimacy you find with a lover (remember that feeling of heartache when you read the final page of your favorite novel and had to say goodbye—now do I exaggerate? :) ) A great deal of reader disappointment results when the protagonist suddenly does something, well, out of character. This is a serious problem because, to the reader, it feels like a betrayal. It often happens because the author had a destination in mind that did not bend and develop during the course of the novel; the characters grew, but the idea for the ending did not. To avoid it, ask yourself: is this what my characters would do, or is it simply what I want them to do in keeping with the schnazzy ending I’ve been dying to put in a novel? Am I trying to stuff them into a shoe that doesn’t fit?

Don’t let it get messy. This is a problem I see most often in epic fantasies, but it can strike in any genre. It happens for a couple of reasons. One is that you have built a big, complex story with multiple plot threads and are now trying to tie all of them off. If you don’t find a way to bring them together neatly, using connections built throughout the story, you end up trying to put out a whole bunch of separate fires in the space of a few pages. And there just aren’t enough firemen for that—even in romance! Another reason it happens is that you may be trying to close the story before it is truly finished—you’re rushing. In both cases, the best advice is to take a deep breath and step back far enough to see the big picture. Is every one of the story threads indispensible? Or could one or two be trimmed to make for a tighter, more cohesive plot? Have you pursued each thread fully, so that they are ready to contribute to the ending?

It must steer clear of the generic or cliché. A third issue that often comes up is a lack of originality. Have you ever read a book that was strong through the beginning and middle, then suddenly lost steam and became a derivative of every famous novel in its genre? It’s understandable—I think this one comes as a result of writing fatigue, deadline pressure, or a combination of both. In the end, though, it’s vital to keep that creative energy flowing all the way to the end. Ask yourself: have I seen this ending before? If the answer is yes, your readers probably have, too.

May 2015 bring success and abundant blessings to your writing life…and heck, to life in general! Cheers!