Sunday, 24 January 2016

World-Building: Avoiding Info Dumps

In my last post, I talked about the kinds of questions I ask myself when I'm building a brand new world and magic system for my manuscripts. You can read it here. This time, I'm talking about the other key component of world-building: releasing information without boring or overwhelming the reader.

When you're building a completely new world, there's a temptation to explain everything about that world right away so the reader understands the mechanics upfront. You might narrate a lot of background information that the reader 'must' appreciate for the story to make sense - or to save you explaining it later. This leads to info dumping - and annoying even the most patient of readers. So, how do you let the reader into your cool new world without paragraphs of dull exposition?

Start with the barest, most relevant components and flesh them out.

Here are three broad questions I ask myself while I'm working on a new manuscript:

1. How can I show my MC in characteristic moments and keep world-building relevant?
2. What is the minimum the reader and MC must understand for this scene to matter and make sense?
3. How can I use conflict to explore this world and reveal its complexities?

I ask these and a wide range of related questions the whole time I'm drafting and revising. They all link back to that one concept - start thin, flesh out. Keep everything tight and relevant. I find it easier to add details than cut. It helps me avoid info dumping if I consider my manuscript a canvas: I can always deepen the colour and add layers if it's too sparse or pale in spots.

We don't need to know everything at once. In the opening scene or two, I focus mainly on introducing the character and an initial story question as opposed to heavy world-building. I then consider what is important to that character about the world - if it matters to the MC, it'll matter to the reader. This helps with voice, too. Starting small with a narrow focus gives me something to build upon after allowing the reader to become invested in the MC and their situation.

The gist of this, then, is to keep everything directly relevant to the main character. If it doesn't matter to the MC at that point, why are we learning about it? If we don't 'need' to know yet, why tell us? Every revelation must earn its right to be there. Start basic, then expand. Show your hero or heroine in an engaging situation and make the revelation count - readers absorb details more effectively if they feel immersed and part of the action as opposed to bystanders reading a textbook.

Speaking of showing over telling, use conflict to your advantage. Keep everything tense. Have characters bicker over a world flaw, or a poor leader, or the empty kitchen and coffers. Don't simply tell us these problems exist somewhere, some place in that world. Make your characters suffer at the hands of twisted laws. Show us the unique, personal reasons why they're marrying or allying with someone they can't stand, and the consequences of failure - don't just narrate the background.

Show us the antagonist in action, and characters debating over what to do - or fighting over the aftermath. If your MC has a sore spot, make them confront it - don't only tell us what they fear or what they hate about their world. Make setting count, but have your MC interact with it as opposed to just paragraphs of description. Again, this helps with voice - something I'm talking about next time!

Bottom line - world-building is hard. It takes practice. Keep things focused and relevant with the promise of expansion, and you're well on your way to creating an immersive world.

Saturday, 16 January 2016


Writing a book isn't just about the plot and the characters. Any good book needs a solid foundation - the world in which those characters live and the plot takes place. Everything is linked. When one element fails, it ruins the whole book. How do you build an entire world with its own rules from scratch?! I'm going to outline my own process.

When you're building a world for your book, you need to accomplish two main things:

1. Build a believable world with rules and history.
2. Release information about the world without overwhelming/annoying readers.

Today I'm focusing on point 1: building the world.

1. Build from character

For me, everything starts with character. How they act, think, dress....characters are a product of the world they inhabit. There's a reason for everything, although we don't need to know them all...more on that next time! Once you start getting to know your character, you learn a lot about their world and its problems. This in turn helps shape your plot. Maybe your MC is a slave. Who do they serve, and why? Who do they fear, and do their masters fear anyone? What was their life like before? Is slavery common in their world - could your MC's goal relate to freeing themselves, and maybe even others?

Sometimes I'll know a little about the world I want to write in before I find the characters, but I tweak the rules to suit the characters. Never force a character to fit into a world - let it develop from those living in it. Listen to your characters, and you might be surprised what slots into place for you.

2. Be consistent

This is especially important in fantasy. At its most basic, every world needs a governing set of rules. If you want to write about magic, you have to decide on a magic system. Can everyone use magic, or only a certain class of people? What is 'magical' in this world - are spells a part of daily life, and are dragons as common as cats? Is magic legal or illegal? These are some great initial questions to ask, and the answers help generate plot and conflict, too.

If we get even more basic, does your world have the same concept of time as ours? What about gravity and geography? Does it have four seasons? What about animals, food, and plants? Asking these really simple questions sometimes offers up unexpected answers - allowing you to build richer, more original worlds.

Whatever your world, you should stick to the rules once you know them. If it's impossible to fly in this world, your MC can't suddenly use flight when it's convenient. If it's always dark, don't include scenes involving the sun (unless your MC is remembering a different time, or something). Don't be afraid to rewrite the rules if the world no longer feels right, but don't bend them because it's easier than figuring out a solution to the problem.

3. Politics

You need to figure out how your world is governed. Do you have city states, countries, kingdoms? How many? Who rules, and how effectively? You also need to question things like trade, religion, succession, crime and law, commerce, form of governance, rights, and the military.

History is GREAT for this. Seriously, it's a goldmine. Research will help you build great worlds. For example, how do wars break out? What were the motives behind them? Why did that kingdom stop trading with another? This can also help you build more convincing antagonists.

4. The little things

Sensory details reveal heaps about a world and add depth to scenes. They are key to a convincing story - the feeling of immersion as opposed to just reading words. Is a character drinking coffee? Mention the smell or the taste. Maybe it rains a lot and your character comments on having cold, wet feet. Or perhaps they're uncomfortable trudging through the desert with their clothes sticking to them. Little details enrich your story. They also add voice - let your characters show off their personalities!

Ultimately, everything I do comes back to character. Once they start opening up to me, I uncover the details I need to flesh out the world. And I always, always tweak the world to serve them when I'm outlining - not the other way around. World-building is FUN. Don't let it intimidate you! :)

Next week - how to release all the necessary details about your cool world and its inhabitants without overwhelming your readers!

Monday, 4 January 2016

Maintaining Passion for a Story

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all had a great time over the holidays. And, I hope if you're writing (or planning on writing), you stick with it. It's easy when life gets in the way to let writing slip down your priority list - don't let that happen to you. Here are my tips on how to maintain your passion for your story, and see it all the way through to the end.

1. Remember why you started it

You didn't commit to the scary craziness that is writing a novel for nothing. Something awesome - a character, a world, a cool premise - sparked your interest enough to even think about writing a whole book. When you're staring at a blank page and can't figure out how to get things moving again, always return to that seed. Maybe it doesn't excite you anymore. That's okay. It happens. But more often than not, you just lose sight of it. Refocus and you can push through!

2. Listen to your instincts

Maybe you've taken a wrong turn, or you've lost the sense of who your characters are. You could be losing interest because you know, deep down, that you need to step back and have a think before moving forward. This is great! It saves you time in the long run if you don't need to trash half a novel because it's flat or plain wrong. Think back to when you last loved your novel, and how it could take a different turn.

3. Ignore negative voices

This is a big one. It's so, so easy to let outside influences bring you down. Maybe no one understands your dream of becoming a published author, or rejections come flooding in and you don't see the point in pressing forward with a new manuscript. Writers deflect a lot of awkward questions and opinions, especially over the holidays - it's a minefield, I know. Shut all of this out and focus on what you can control - your story. Don't ever believe that it's not worth your while.

4. Break it into manageable chunks

Everyone struggles through The Middle. It's a maze of possible wrong turns and difficulties - don't stress. Take it one scene at a time. Don't fret about word count, and work at your own pace. Don't worry about how much you have left to write or fix. Think about how excited you are to find out what happens next.

5. Pause when you could write more

I find it really effective to stop writing right before something is about to happen. Unless I'm really in the zone, I always give myself a 'reward' for returning to my desk - a confrontation I can't wait to write, a kissing scene...anything. I also often write the first paragraph of a new chapter or scene before I stop so I have something to work with when I start writing again. I find this really helpful.

Sometimes, the passion for that story really isn't there anymore. Don't stress. It happens to everyone. But often, if you keep pushing, you can maintain passion for your story - enough to keep you ploughing through revisions and beyond.

Here's to a successful year of writing, everyone!