5 TIPS on World Building from Scratch

By Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

World building is a huge topic. I will only cover a fraction of it, but it’s a topic that’s been on my mind lately. Writing crime fiction thrillers, I mainly thought of world building as creating a setting that readers can relate to using all their senses. It can also be a world that can be its own obstacle for the characters I turn loose in it.

My brand slogan is “Take a front row seat to suspense,” which is a saying I felt related to the style of my “up close and personal” writing. But writing for the young adult thriller market has broadened my thoughts on world building. It’s stretched me. I’m working on a new YA proposal for a thriller series that will be set in the future, something I never thought I would do. Sci-Fi? Really? I’m faced with creating a world that doesn’t exist and I would imagine fantasy writers do this all the time. It truly amazes me, but now I’m testing myself too. I thrive on a challenge and this new idea has my juices flowing. I wanted to share my thoughts.

When developing a world that exists only in the future or in a paranormal fantasy realm, this is not the time to shy away from “over the top” thinking. The best tool in your author arsenal is actually a question – “What if…?”

Five Tips on World Building

1.) Take the familiar and give it a twist. A reader can more easily imagine the world you are trying to convey if you make them believe they have seen elements of this world before. Take known calamities, myths, or fairy tales and give them a new spin. Or use real hazards in our world and time—project them into the future with dire outcomes—and see how they might turn out. A dark Alice and Wonderland twist (Splintered by Anita Grace Howard, Jan 2013), for example. What if the world has taken a downward spiral from global warming or what if money is no longer a physical commodity? What replaces the power of money?

2.) Add a Heavy Dose of Human Nature. Basic human nature can transcend time and reality. Determine what matters most in the world you are trying to reinvent or create—and apply a human story at the crux of it all. That is good drama and readers will relate to a well told story with good solid conflict. A great example of a near future world is the ASHES trilogy by Ilsa Bick. A teenaged girl, dealing with a fatal brain tumor, must survive a post-apocalyptic nightmare alone.

3.) Take a look back to see ahead. If your world is in the near future, say in 2025, you might take a look back at the same span of years (13 years) to see how much has changed and in what areas. (Compare 1999 to now. What’s changed most?) Or if you are creating a fantasy world, man’s history or mythologies can give you ideas on what to bring into that world. What if there is civil unrest in your world? Who are the players and why? What if a magical mythical creature exists in your world? What would it be and what are its powers?

4.) Paint a world by highlighting the elements that enhance your story most. As an author you might know every aspect of the world you want to portray, but are these details important to your story? It can be tedious to demonstrate your world building skills at the expense of pace. Make your key elements conflict with your protagonist’s goals or become an obstacle to challenge them. Think of your setting and world as a character and place as much importance on setting up a solid framework where your characters can thrive. Your world may have to survive a series.

5.) Color Your World. Every world has its own dialect, slang, food, clothes, and customs. “Borrowing” from fables, myths, and history can be a starting point, but don’t be afraid to develop something on your own. Invent a few words that will play a prominent role in your new world or perhaps take a risk by combining a known world with a fantasy/paranormal one. A reader will feel grounded in the world you are creating, yet feel you are bringing something new to the table. A good example of this is the old Sci-Fi TV show FARSCAPE. A present day astronaut gets caught in a wormhole and transported to another universe where he is the only human. Remember the word, “Frak!” Yep, another four-letter word starting with F.

For the sake of discussion—by the year 2025—what do you think would change most? What would be cool to have? What bad things do you think are looming if we don’t change our ways? Will we still use real money? Are we headed for a global society, rather than individual countries? Exercise your writer brain and throw out anything that comes to mind. In brainstorming a new world, you need to cut loose, think over the top, and have fun.

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The Best and Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got

by Michelle Gagnon

On June 12th, bright and early Sunday morning, I’ll be offering suggestions on how to run great book presentations and events at the California Crime Writer’s Conference in Pasadena. Which I’m excited about, despite the fact that it requires me to dust off my poorly honed Powerpoint skills. (And the fact that although I like to believe that I’ve given some great book events, others have been merely mediocre, and there was one memorable time when Simon Wood and I sat alone in a store playing Scrabble for an hour).

But today, I was offered yet another panel at the conference. In my opinion, an even better one entitled, “The Best and Worst Advice I Ever Got.”

The only problem is that it’s a mere hour long. And honestly, after just five years as a published author, I could probably hold forth for at least a few hours. I’m sure that Jim, Gilstrap, and Miller could carry it along for at least twice that long (in fact, perhaps we should host an impromptu version of the panel at the Bouchercon bar in St. Louis).

So I’m going to use today’s post to start consolidating my thoughts. Let’s start with the positive, shall we?

Best Advice:

  • Don’t quit your day job. Of course, if you received a seven figure advance, you might want to consider quitting it. But it’s a good idea to wait and see how that first book sells before you march into your boss’ office and hand in your resignation along with a few choice words about where he/she can stick it. Far too many authors have fizzled out after a few books (particularly those who didn’t even come close to earning out those huge advances).
  • The majority of the marketing burden rests squarely on your shoulders. At the first conference I attended, many of my illusions were shattered when I learned that it was highly unlikely that my publisher would organize (or pay for) a book tour, advertising, or even bookmarks. Sure, it happens. But more often, it doesn’t, which means that much of your writing time gets devoted to figuring out whether or not people really want magnets of your book cover (more on that later, in the “worst advice” section).
  • Don’t spend your entire advance on marketing. Seriously, don’t. There are people who will tell you to do just that (so let’s consider that an addendum to the “worst advice” column). If the advance is just gravy to you, then sure, it might be worth it. But the sad truth is that most marketing dollars end up getting wasted. It’s all a matter of picking and choosing. And hey, you’ve managed to get an advance. Go out and buy yourself something nice with at least part of it, preferably something other than magnets.
  • Use the Social Networks Sparingly. In January, Sisters in Crime released a comprehensive study of what influences mystery readers to purchase books. And the social networks (including book specific sites such as Shelfari and Goodreads) came out at the bottom of the list, below author newsletters and postcard mailings. If you use these websites as your virtual water cooler (as I tend to), then enjoy them. And yes, you will occasionally sell a few books thanks to them. But they won’t help you hit the bestsellers list, and they tend to suck away writing time like an out of control roomba.

Worst Advice:

  • Send a quirky mass mailing to every independent bookstore. This advice came from an renowned author who claimed that sending a copy of a profile piece from a major paper along with a personal note to booksellers propelled him into the top ten on the New York Times list. Who could argue with that? So for my debut novel, I spent a serious chunk of my marketing budget (and countless hours) coming up with a cute, quirky tie-in to my storyline (wood chips burned with runes, if you must know), and a letter introducing myself and the basic plot. It was during the third event on my tour (the tour I organized, of course) that the bookseller gave me a blank look when I asked if she’d received the mailing. She proceeded to pull out an oversized garbage can, pointed to it, and said, “I fill this up twice a week with the crap people send us. We don’t even bother opening it anymore.” Ouch. Lesson learned.
  • Flog that book on the social networks like it’s a half-dead mule carrying twice its body weight up a mountain. Okay, no one actually ever told me to do this, but apparently someone is offering that advice. Because every day someone on Facebook adds me to a group created solely to promote their book, or adds my name to their newsletter list, or tweets repetitively about it. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for some BSP, but there is definitely a line, and far too many people are crossing it these days. I finally stopped participating in Amazon reading groups because half the postings were shameless plugs. Enough already. As noted above, a grand total of 4% of book purchases can be credited to Facebook and Twitter.
  • Hire a publicist. Oh, how I rue this one. Even more than the rune mailing. Because unless you’ve got a hardcover book coming out with a major hook, and the cash to hire a serious promotional firm (five figures, not four, generally speaking), a publicist is a tremendous waste of cash. Thanks to mine I ended up on a radio call-in show based in Tuscaloosa whose host was a conspiracy theorist with a fondness for sound effects, particularly air horns. And I was a guest on the show for two solid hours before finally asking, on air, how long I was supposed to keep talking. When he said, “All night, baby, we’re just getting started,” I hung up. They weren’t all that bad- but I very much doubt that anything the publicist did helped.

And now it’s time for audience participation. Let’s hear it: the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly advice…

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