Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Worldingbuilding As You Go

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how everyone can use a little bit of worldbuilding in their lives. Today, guest blogger author Matt Borgard goes over one unusual approach to worldbuilding.

How much worldbuilding should you do before you start my story? The general advice is to worldbuild a bunch, then drop pieces of it as needed into your story. "It's ESSENTIAL that YOU know all the details of your world," the canard goes. "But it isn't essential that you tell it all to your reader!"

And that's perfectly great advice that works for a lot of people. If you're one of them, rock on. I'd like to suggest the opposite approach, however. Which is to essentially do *no* dedicated worldbuilding.

Many authors, even famous ones, construct stories this way. It's often called being a 'pantser,' as in, writing by the seat of your pants. I thought it might be useful to run through some quick pros and cons of this technique


Organic Worldbuilding

One of the most unrealistic parts of many speculative novels -- fantasy in particular -- is the constructed feel of their worlds. Everything fits together a little too neatly. In the real world, history is never that clear-cut.

Rome's fall was not solely attributable to slavery. It was not caused by lead in the water or moral decay. Some of those things may have contributed, sure, but any historian worth his or her salt would laugh at you if you pointed a finger at any single cause.

By contrast, authors LOVE to give us single events, single Great Men that create huge far reaching consequences -- even thousands of years later. You know those desert warriors? Yeah, their entire culture is based on this conversation these two guys had once. Oh, and you know those nomads who split from the warriors? They split because of this one thing a mage said once, here's the flashback.

In my experience, allowing your world to grow naturally and organically can circumvent the desire to overexplain. Having a history of your cultures is not a bad thing. But being able to draw a tidy line between every single thing a culture or person does or values back to events thousands of years ago is a dangerous one.

Start Your Damn Story

If you have fun worldbuilding, go for it! But if your goal is to produce a workable story, seven years of worldbuilding (yes, this happens) is clearly too much. Most writers recognize this, but many are paralyzed both by the thought of starting the story (which is never as good as it is in your head) or the thought that they haven't planned enough to begin.

Doing literally no worldbuilding resolves this dilemma. You don't have to be worried about how much worldbuilding to do prior to Chapter One, because there's only one answer: none. You don't have to be paralyzed about starting the story, because when you sit your butt in the chair in front of your word processor, there's nothing else you *can* be writing.

To put it another way, if we frame this discussion as a (admittedly simplistic) choice between MAXIMUM WORLDBUILDING and ZERO WORLDBUILDING, the better answer is clearly the latter. Worldbuilding without story is nothing. It's a reference document that no one other than you would be interested in. On the other hand, a story with no plan, with naive worldbuilding, is at the very least a story. And you can mold and shape a story. There's not much you can do with worldbuilding other than using it to start a story ... which you could have already started!

Prioritize What Matters

The maxim that "Character is King" is Creative Writing 101, and though I've had plenty of people argue that it's too simple or limiting, I've yet to see any evidence that it's not true. There are stories with fabulous, engrossing settings, but in every case, it's a character who serves as our liaison to that setting. A castle isn't interesting because of the stones and mortar that serve as its walls; it's interesting because of the kings and queens, princes and princesses, rumors and schemes happening inside.

Starting with a setting forces you to do a fair amount of pre-written worldbuilding. Minimal worldbuilding leads you to focus on character. If you find your stories spend way too much time on setting or plot, and your characters end up bland by comparison, a "no planning" strategy might be exactly what you need.


Lack of Consistency

A lack of foresight leads to some pretty hilarious inconsistencies at the end of your rough draft. Think a small village of seafaring fisherman becoming a metropolis of mountain-dwelling scientists.

Worldbuilding without planning means you're going to have to take a dedicated continuity pass at your rough draft. In effect, worldbuilding in reverse. Instead of taking a "world bible" and making a story from it, you're taking a story and making a world bible.

These inconsistencies can be viewed as a chance to rethink the fundamental assumptions of your story. Often, when I do a lot of planning, I find it hard to imagine the details of my story in any way other than how I've outlined them. Of course this tribe has a quorum government, because that's what I wrote in my outline.

When you happen on an inconsistency, however, your brain ask *why?*. If halfway through, your tribe is suddenly governed by a single dictator, what in the tribe's makeup prompted that? Does it make more sense than the original quorum plan?

You don't truly know your character and setting until you've written in that world. And though it can mean extra work, some inconsistencies here and there can ensure your understanding is reflected in the details of your world.

No Time for Gestation

Sometimes I find that my initial seed of an idea for a story doesn't carry me far enough to get a meaningful story. Like that metaphorical seed, stories need time to grow. Taking time to build your world often doesn't develop your plot or characters directly, but it does give them that many more showers and dog walks to sprout on their own. Jumping right in has the potential to rush this process. A good way to solve this, at least for me, is to have more than one project in the oven at a time. Your mileage may vary.

Setting is in the Passenger Seat

Above, I mentioned that worldbuilding-as-you-go forces you to focus on other aspects of storytelling. And while I maintain that this is advantageous 90% of the time, it can remove some potential in using the world as a natural catalyst for events. It's unlikely that you'll develop a plot because there are mountains in this area of the world, because you might not even know what this region looks like until the minute you write it.

That said, it also gives the freedom to invent the world as needed. Need to slow down your characters' journey so the Big Bad Villain can get to the town first? Give 'em a mountain pass! Of course, now you'll need to make this a mountainous region, with the climate and culture that goes with that. But that's the sort of thing I *love* about organic worldbuilding.


So, should you build your world as you go, with absolutely no preplanning? I certainly think you should give it a try if you haven't before. If it's too scary to try in a longer work, go for a short story! If you're used to compiling an almanac before the first word of your novel, minimal worldbuilding may well give you a newfound sense of freedom and agility.

At the very least, I hope it gives you another option to answer the "how much worldbuilding?" question.

Matt Borgard is a speculative fiction author. You can visit him at

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Character Voice 101

You’ve got a fresh premise. A great, fast-paced plot. A satisfying world. Only problem is, your main character sounds like they could be yanked out of your manuscript and plopped into any random book in your genre and nobody would notice. It’s an all-too-common problem: authors put generic characters through the motions, and end up with forgettable, staid results.  Don’t make your character sound like any ol’ person. Heck, don’t let them sound like any ol’ precocious six-year-old/angsty teen/smart alecky twenty-something/sophisticated spy/etc. Smash those overdone stereotypes and create a person that comes alive on the page.

Before you can do that, you have to appreciate the subtle impact voice has. Pick a character. Any character. Now plop a delicious smoothie in front of them.

“Yum, thanks.”

You are very welcome. “Yum, thanks” is a realistic, adequate response. But let’s provide this character with a family. Give ‘em all smoothies. Now what? Do they all say “Yum, thanks”? Okay, they might, and that might work under certain – humorous or frightening – circumstances. But if everything a character says and does throughout a story is indistinguishable from another character, you’re not going to have a very exciting story. So, returning to our smoothie- perhaps, you might get:

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Do we have any rum left?

“Strawberry banana? Dis. Gust. Ing!”

I’m going to have to run three miles after this.

Now we’re getting a glimpse of the different character’s personalities and priorities. Let’s invite the neighbors. Smoothies all around:

Free food. Score!

“Do you have any flaxseed oil? How about stevia?”

Ha! Shelby’s gonna be so ticked she missed this.

“Can I have some more?”

I can’t believe they forgot about Mikey’s allergies again. No, wait. Yes, I can.

“Maybe just a sip.”

Oh, god. Now I’m going to have to invite them over.

“Did you know a strawberry isn’t actually a berry, but an aggregate fruit? And all those seeds on it aren’t seeds at all, but ovaries! It’s kinda gross when you think about it, except we eat plant ovaries all the time, so I suppose it’s really quite normal.”

And these are just characters being offered a smoothie. People react in different ways. Given the same stimulus, they notice and value different things. Their thoughts and spoken words form different speech patterns. They are as varied as fingerprints, snowflakes, or… people.

Your character should be the same way. Why? It’s just good story-telling. Anything less is boring… and dishonest. A story doesn’t have to be true, but it should be honest. And when readers encounter an honest story, realistically told, they find it easier to slip into that world, to keep turning and turning and turning the pages. And in the end, that is your goal.

Okay, you’re sold – rich characters are important. But…how?

It boils down being thoughtful. Now, there’s power in fast drafting (the only good draft is a finished draft), so if all the nuances aren’t coming to you at the get-go that’s fine.  But at some point, you need to carve out the details. And that means: 

  •   Giving your character unusual life experiences: So many characters move. So many live in everyone-knows-your-business towns. So many are writers or artists. So many are orphans. And yet huge swaths of possibility lay undiscovered. Which isn’t to say you can’t do one or more of those things, but make sure you bring some fresh perspective into it, too. 
  •  Understanding your characters: This might begin with a character sheet, a biography, a journal entry from your character’s point of view, or just some plain old rumination. Whatever your system is, you need to know your character – not just their age, occupation, and looks, but their passion, world view, personality, reaction to change and adversity, etc. The more nuanced an understanding you have of your characters, the more authentically – and distinctively – they can interact on the page. 
  •   Wielding your words: This is where showing, instead of telling, becomes crucial. Any character can be angry. But one might experience a hot rush of blood and tears while another set his jaw while another punches a wall. Collectively, all these decisions regarding dialog and action add up to a rich picture of a complex character.

And, of course, the final way to help you create better characters is to read and read, and examine what makes other great characters work on the written page. Share some of your favorite book characters below, and tell us why they stand out to you – and have fun writing.  

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Worldbuilding 101

By Ella Kennen

You’ve got your plot and your characters, now all you need is a time and place to put them in motion. That’s where worldbuilding comes in – think of it as the book version of a movie set or the props and backdrop at a theater.

When people think of worldbuilding, their thoughts often turn to sci-fi and fantasy, where entire worlds – and beyond – can actually be created from the imagination. Alternate time lines? Check. New species? Of course. Strange customs and exotic traditions? Great. People can spend months or even years building their story bibles to help keep details consistent from story to story.

But worldbuilding is for everyone. Sure, that gazillion-dollar blockbuster has a list of CGI animators more populated than some zip codes, but even the “simplest” movie has settings – a restaurant, a car, a bedroom – that help immerse the viewer into the world of the movie.  The same thing applies to books. Even if the only thing you ever write is contemporary realistic fiction, you’ve got to think of the setting: Is the school cafeteria an anarchist wonderland, a clique-filled warzone, or a particularly draconian prison? Is the main character’s bedroom uncharacteristically messy, uncharacteristically clean, or purposefully cramped? These little choices – urban or suburban; fast food joint or coffee shop; parking lot or basketball court – not only help create the ambiance, but affect the characters’ worldviews and choices.

Whether you’re creating an epic fantasy, a gritty coming of age tale, or a zany picture book, purposeful world-building can make a difference. Here are some pointers to get you started:

Remember, the story is king.

The world exists to serve the story, not the other way around. No matter how amazing, unique, or detailed your world is, it must be there to support the story, not take the focus away from it.

Yes, the nugget from your story can come from a “what if…” idea. What if sheep were barbers? (I’d like to see that manuscript, by the way!) What if dragons had to save a dying breed of elves? What if a hurricane destroyed your town? But once you’ve had that bit of inspiration, you need to hone in on characters, conflict, and plot.

Starting a story with detailed description of setting, or stopping the narrative to explain some custom or native history is a very common problem – and one that will get your manuscript rejected. Instead, you must weave details seamlessly into your story, so that they add rich supporting detail.

Don’t necessarily go with your first thought.

There’s a reason pop culture is called pop culture… it’s popular. That means, vast quantities of us see and are affected or inspired by the same events and ideas. And many of those ideas trickle into manuscripts. The only problem? Other people are using those very same ideas, resulting in tragically similar stories. Think beyond the obvious and then, possibly, think beyond that. Don’t go with the craziest idea you can think of just for the sake of being different, but do go with the idea that’s worth exploring because it hasn’t been done before.

Be consistent.

Play by the rules of your own world. If the action takes place in the middle of a city, don’t make your main character’s “secret place” the large meadow behind the yard. If, in your world, cavemen have computers (another story I’d like to see!), ponder whether it would make sense for them to communicate by signal fire.

Don’t be overly convenient.

Worldbuilding gives you superhuman powers… but with great power comes, well, you know. Thou shalt not write in some contrived fix purely to get your characters out of dire straits. Thou shall not create little messenger moths and great people-carrying eagles when your characters are facing volcanic doom. Weave them into the entire storyline or don’t weave them at all.

Have fun.

The care and energy you take with your world comes through in your writing – and that’s a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Platform-Building for the Prepublished Author

A platform. That which is stood upon to be heard. And in this noisy world, where billions of people have direct access to major distribution channels, getting heard is no small task.

No wonder new authors obsess over building their platforms. For most types of nonfiction, a platform before publication is a must.  It establishes both your authority and your pull. The importance of a platform for a prepublished fiction author is up for discussion, however.  Regardless, keep in mind two points:
  • Don’t sweat it. Rarely do debut authors have a truly robust online presence unless they are celebrities.  Between someone with an amazing platform and mediocre writing and someone with amazing writing and no platform, guess who I’m going to pick? (This is not a theoretical conjecture.) 
  •  Don’t ignore it. Platform-building normally takes a long, long time and involves a considerable learning curve. Putting in the legwork from the beginning helps.
Upon hearing they need a platform, prepublished fiction authors often do three things:
  1. Start a blog.
  2. Create an author page on Facebook. 
  3. Head to Twitter.
These may be steps in the right direction, but more often than not, they’re not. Here’s why.


Unpublished writers seem to love writing about writing. Unfortunately, most of your blog readers end up being other unpublished writers, which might be great for comradery, but less so for reaching your future core readership. Try to think of something that will attract readers, not just writers (or -- if you write kidlit -- the decision makers in readers’ life: teachers, librarians, parents). 

Blog with an end-goal in mind. Think about a service you want to provide, a niche that needs filling. Think about the persona you want to portray – Whimsical? Brooding? Twisted? High-minded? Let your blog be a natural extension of your brand – and make part of the draw to buying your work be, well, you.

One powerful way to jumpstart your platform is to piggyback on what others are doing. Many blogs are hungry for content providers – and already have hard-won established readerships. Maybe you can sign up as a reviewer for a book blog, or a commentator for a mom blog, etc. Or you and your fellow writers can join forces and start a blog where you share content responsibilities. Leverage the pre-existing resources – if the connection makes sense.


You know how Facebook works: the people you interact with most often and the posts that get the most comments are the ones that show up highest on your feed. If you’re not posting regularly, and people aren’t commenting back, your author page will soon fade into near-oblivion. And frequent posting when you have no real news can get obnoxious, fast.

You might be better off skipping an author page until you have traction and people who actively want to hear your writing news. Or perhaps help start a group Facebook page where a ring of genre-specific authors share their news. Your collective pull and content will help you all gain more exposure. Or you don’t worry about Facebook– just keep a nice personal account where you can share your squee-worthy news and forget the rest.

Most Facebook posts have a lifespan of hours; a few potent ones a lifespan of days. Most incredibly shared posts are passed around mindless of the originator. If you’re on Facebook and you enjoy it, by all means, continue – but don’t feel any need to make it one of the cornerstones of your marketing plan just yet.


There is nothing wrong with Twitter, and a lot right with it. If you choose to be on there (and yes, participation all these social media outlets are choices – you don’t HAVE to do all of them), just use it in a way that makes sense. Share cool and useful ideas; don’t make yourself a self-promotion hound. Reach out to people who seem like they’d belong in your “tribe;” don’t just mindlessly try to get the biggest follow-ship you can. Remember, the average tweet’s lifespan is much, much shorter than even a Facebook posts’. A select group of people who care about what you tweet and reply, favorite, and retweet often is much better than an indifferent cast of thousands.

In Short

Many resources – from books to websites -- exist out there to move you along. Just remember to start with a goal in mind. Don’t just throw something up ad hoc because you heard you had to have a platform. Be strategic – about who you want your audience to be, how you want your persona portrayed, what you can sustainably provide content about and whether there are synergistic partnerships you can start or join in on. 

By all means, don’t limit yourself to the social media networks mentioned above – think videos, web comics, memes, speech engagements, online or offline classes, etc. Slowing down during the planning stage will save you a lot of time and effort at the back end. And remember rule #1: don’t sweat it. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Happy platform-building!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Membership drive is now over - Thank you for your support of Books For Africa!

Welcome, new members!

Thank you to all of you who contributed to our Books For Africa fundraiser membership drive! We'll update you with an impact total soon, and return emails after the weekend.

Happy writing,

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sign up for RYS Membership This Week Only - July 17-18

You've asked. 
We've answered:


For a very limited time on July 17-18—and with the Books for Africa cause behind us—Rate Your Story will allow non-members to sign up for a 2014 PRO membership at a pro-rated, 1/2 year price.


Cost: $90

Duration of Membership: Immediately upon checkout through December 31, 2014


- Priority Inbox Treatment (your emails get bumped ahead of free/non-member submissions);

- 10 total manuscripts for reading/rating:
     3 free day submissions total
     7 "Anytime" submissions;

- Access to PRO bonus exclusive emails with occasional agent/editor interviews, discounts offers on professional critiques, market/submission calls, and more;

- Donation to Books For Africa's 1 Million Books for Gambia fundraiser* (video here)

Window to Purchase: July 17 and 18, 2014 ONLY

How to Purchase:
Visit the Membership Options Page on July 17 or 18 for checkout buttons. These checkout buttons will appear on the Membership Options Page the morning of July 17. These buttons will disappear at midnight (Central) on July 18. (Note: We reserve the right to end the offer early if we are inundated with an overwhelming number of new signups.)

*50% of net proceeds after costs, fees, etc. will be donated to Books For Africa, Inc. - 1 Million Books for Gambia. Books for Africa, Inc. is a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

If you have any questions, email us at rateyourstory at gmail dot com.

Please share, tweet, and let your friends know about this very limited offer. When it's gone, it's gone!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What Do I Write?: Author Blurbs for the Pre-Published

You’re a pre-published author. No biggie – tons of people are in the same boat. But then you start drafting your query letters bio and before you know it, your banging your head against the wall, cursing the day you eschewed your parents’ suggestion to become an accountant…

Relax. Every single successful writer started out with no publishing credits, and you can too. Agents and editors understand where you’re coming from and, for the most part, have reasonable expectations of the newbie author.

When you write a cover or query letter, there is no perfect amount of information to provide. It all depends on the circumstances.  In general, however, the fewer writing credentials you have, the shorter your bio should be. Don’t sweat trying to fill a paragraph up if you don’t have a paragraphs-worth of information to share. Being sparse always trumps being irrelevant. 

Do mention:

  • Degrees relevant to writing (English, Journalism, Creative Writing, MFA) or to your specific content (Education, if you’re a children’s writer; science, history, etc. if it relates). 
  • Relevant career or life experience (Law enforcement for crime novels; military for international thrillers; having lived in Uganda for two years if you wrote something about Uganda; teaching if you write for kids, etc.).
  • Membership in well-known professional writing organizations like the SCBWI.
  • Legitimate regional or national writing awards. 
  • Major or relevant magazine, newspaper, and web publications. By major, I mean publications you can name-drop and impress your non-author friends with. By relevant, I mean ones tied closely to your genre or topic.your platform if you have one. (This is another sweat-inducing topic for pre-published authors. We’ll get into it next time.)

Do not mention:

  • Your life experience, degrees, or career if it’s irrelevant to the project at hand.
  • Every little publishing credit you have. There are a lot of obscure publishers out there, and getting published in them might mean very little. Just list the most prestigious ones and indicate there are others.
  • Every little writing award you’ve received, like that first place prize in your middle school writing competition (unless you happen to be a high school freshman, in which case that might be relevant).
  • The composition, duration, or any other detail about your critique group. Having a critique group, critique partner, or beta readers is great, but the details are irrelevant.
  • Anything about your family, unless it is clearly and directly relevant to your project. If you write about autism and you have an autistic child, that’s worth knowing. If you write romances and are a thirty-something mother of three, keep it to yourself until you’ve established a relationship with your agent or editor.
  • Your motivation for writing the book. If it’s interesting and important, the topic will speak for itself. Honest. Basically, editors and agents can spot padding when they read it, and they don’t appreciate it.
But what if you really, truly don’t have ANY writing credentials worth mentioning? You can write something along the lines of “This is my first novel.” --- without any explanation about why you’re worthy. Your work will speak for itself, or it won’t. You can also just sidestep the issue:

My <specific genre> novel, Title, is loosely based on my own experience/interest in <relevant experience/interest>. Because of your <relevant interest>, I thought my story might intrigue you. 

That quote is based on an actual query letters that got requests for a full.  That was ALL the author said about herself, and that’s all she had to say. Better to keep the focus on the project than to put even a line of weak filler in the query. Or, in other words, better to keep the agent/editor excited about what’s coming than to raise a red flag about your level of professionalism.

Hopefully you’re feeling more confident about making your biographical debut now. Share your query letter bios in the comments below – inspire other people with what’s worked for you, or get feedback on how to make your bio stronger.

And now, for a special-limited time offer:

1/2 year Pro Membership will be available July 17-18 only - 

Our membership options have been closed since earlier this year. HOWEVER, if you want a yearly membership, we will open one option from July 16-18 ONLY.
The $90, half-year PRO membership good for the rest of 2014 will include:
 10 total submissions for rating plus comments 
7 "anytime" submissions - must be sent before December 31, 2014
3 submissions on the free days (one MS on each day: Sep 1Oct 1, and Nov 1)
Priority inbox treatment
access to our pro-member monthly bonus email (with bi-monthly interviews).

*Miranda Paul and Rate Your Story will donate 50% of net proceeds after credit card charges, PayPal fees, and eCommerce costs to Books for Africa, Inc.'s 1 Million Books for Gambia project.