The Three Cardinal Sins Of Writing

There are some mistakes that simply cannot be rectified no matter how skilled your editor is.

Thankfully such catastrophic writing mistakes are few, but beginner beware; should you commit one of these cardinal plotting sins your only option will be to scrap the piece and go back to the drawing board!

 

1) A Concept That Can’t Win

Some ideas are just bad.

I mean it, step away from that self-important monologue from the point of view or Johnny Rotten’s guitar. Please.

If your concept is bland, implausible, or just plain bad there is very little you can do to salvage any work that springs from it. While it’s true that a real genius, like Neil Gaiman for example, could perhaps do something with even the worst idea… saying that is, well, kind of like saying you think you’re up there. You might be, who knows? But if you have doubts about the concept just take the time to evaluate, develop, or, if needs be, abandon it rather than taking that long and difficult path.

What You Can Do

If the concept is terrible people will tell you – listen to them.

If there’s something in it that you really want to keep, the best thing you can do is strip it back to the bare bones and brainstorm a new form with someone whose judgement you really trust.

Once you have a new, ish, concept to work with try again (or just put the poor thing out of its misery).

 

2) All Premise, No Plot

You have a great concept, you’re excited by the idea, and yet your book is being rejected, with no commentary, left, right, and centre. Why?

Well, it could be that your premise has no plot backing it up. You’ll be able to tell that this is the case with a simple test; outline the major plot points on paper. If there’s less than five you’re in trouble.

A premise is what makes your intriguing, the plot is what makes it go. If you have no plot then nothing happens, no conflicts are resolved, and your characters never grow.

i.e. no plot = no story = no book = no chance.

What You Can Do

Give it a plot; if you can’t make a plot its because the story you wish to tell isn’t strong enough, or it doesn’t work with your premise.

Keep the basic premise and lose the rest; brainstorm with that seed and start again.

 

3) USP? What USP??

You’ve written a great spy-thriller with a cool premise and an action filled plot, but agents and publishers are still passing… why?

Well, if your spy John Bland is fighting Dr Death in a subterranean lair it might be the fact that you’ve written a knock-off with no USP (that is Unique Selling Point) to distinguish it from its “inspiration” source.

If there’s nothing unique about your novel agents, publishers, and consumers have no reason to buy it; you need to give them something with a hint of freshness.

What You Can Do

Be honest with yourself about the “borrowed” elements of your story and take steps to remove or alter them.

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100 World-Building Questions

The Basics

  1. How many continents does your world have?
  2. How many countries?
  3. How many languages are spoken?
  4. Which are the main languages?
  5. Which countries hold the most power?
  6. Are there any Empires?
  7. What systems of Government are in use?
  8. Which time period is most reflective of your worlds current state (e.g. Victorian, Medieval, Futuristic)?
  9. Do any elements of another time period enter your world (e.g. a medieval-esque world with Victorian level technology)?
  10. Do some countries in your world have more in common with one time period than another?
  11. Is international trade the norm?
  12. If so, is it formally arranged or undertaken by single businesses and traders?
  13. Is there a recognised tax system?
  14. How do people communicate over large distances?
  15. Can people communicate over large distances?
  16. Are there class systems in place?
  17. How many different races (e.g. human, alien species, fantasy species) are there in your world?
  18. How many ethnicities are there?
  19. Is Religion a big factor in your world?
  20. How many religions are there?
  21. Is there a dominant religion?
  22. Are any of your countries at war?
  23. Which of your countries have warred with each other in the past?
  24. Which countries are allied with each other?
  25. Do any of your countries have systems of slavery or indentured servitude in place?

 

Magic and Technology

  1. Do any of your cultures believe in/ practice magic?
  2. Is it real/ does it work?
  3. If not – what practices do they have that are linked to their beliefs and why do they continue with them?
  4. If so, what kinds of magic are there?
  5. Can everyone practice one or all kinds of magic?
  6. What are the limitations (e.g. magic use saps life force, requires items, etc)?
  7. Is there anything that magic cannot achieve?
  8. Is magic formally taught, learned through apprenticeship, or a natural gift?
  9. What is the view of the populous with regard to magic?
  10. Are magic users considered superior, inferior, or equal to non-magic users?
  11. Who are the great magic users of your world?
  12. Are there any legal restrictions on magic?
  13. How does magic make up for the weaknesses in your worlds technology?
  14. Do magic and technology meet in any way?
  15. How does technology make up for the limitations of magic?
  16. Do all countries have access to the same technology?
  17. Is there any one way in which technology is primarily used (e.g. agriculture, military etc)?
  18. Is technology readily accessible to all classes?
  19. Is technology used on a household or industrial scale?
  20. Is technology used for non-essential pursuits, e.g. entertainment, yet?
  21. Who are the great inventors of your world?
  22. What are the limitations of technology in your world?
  23. Is there any technology which can suppress, dispel, or dampen magic?
  24. How is technological growth and development fuelled?
  25. Are there any legal restrictions on technologies?

 

Flora, Fauna, and Environment

  1. Does your world have all the “usual” hemispheres (is it earth or earth-like)?
  2. Which environment/habitat makes up the largest part of your world (sea, forest/jungle, desert, or mountains)?
  3. Is your world mostly temperate?
  4. How many deserts/wastelands are there?
  5. What challenges do they pose to the populations of your world (e.g. to transport, communication etc)?
  6. Which regions of your world are entirely uninhabitable?
  7. Why are they uninhabitable?
  8. What caused them to be this way?
  9. Has anyone tried to live in them before?
  10. Are there any animals which can survive in these deserts/wastes?
  11. Which animals are most revered in your world/cultures?
  12. Which animals are most feared?
  13. Are there any animals which can use magic, or which are inherently magical?
  14. Are there any animals which are hunted because of their magical properties?
  15. Which animals, if any, are domesticated?
  16. What are their roles?
  17. Can any animals communicate with non-magic using humans?
  18. Which plants are used for magic?
  19. Which plants are poisonous?
  20. Which plants have healing properties?
  21. Are there any plants which are both?
  22. Is there any animal or plant so rare as to be priceless?
  23. Are there any minerals/rocks which are sought after as sources of magic, power, or food for your peoples?
  24. Which metals or rocks are seen as valuable?
  25. Assuming your world does not work on a system of barter – which metal, rock, plant, or animal products are used as currency in your world?

 

Culture, Society, And History

  1. How old do the peoples of your world think it is?
  2. Is history most often recorded in the written or oral tradition?
  3. What are five key events in your worlds history?
  4. Do all societies understand the history of your world the same way?
  5. How do they differ?
  6. How have the events of history changed the culture and society of your world/countries?
  7. Do the cultures of your world share any common  traditions or beliefs?
  8. Is education available to all?
  9. Is there an ‘elite’ form of education (e.g. further education abroad, as in Medieval Europe)?
  10. Are there any universal laws in your world?
  11. How are they enforced?
  12. Are any of your countries entirely (read 85 – 95%) illiterate or lawless?
  13. Who rules these countries?
  14. Do the rulers choose to maintain this state of being? If so why?
  15. To what extent do the cultures of your world value music, performance, and art?
  16. Are there any martial cultures in your world?
  17. Are there any nomadic societies in your world?
  18. How do the cultures at different extremes interact with one another?
  19. Is diplomacy common to all cultures?
  20. Is there an ‘Invisible’ culture (for example, a caste of nobles or travellers which span the world).
  21. Are there any cultures which exist in isolation?
  22. How important is the written word in your world?
  23. Are there accepted rules of engagement in war between your countries?
  24. How do the people of your world view beauty regimes and products? (Doe such things exist)?
  25. How do your cultures view sex work?

 

World-Building Resources

World Building 101

Welcome To World Building

 

World-Building 101

World-building, in short, is the process of constructing and populating a world and/or universe as stage on which stories can play out.

It’s complex, it’s time consuming, but it is, in fact, a basic and essential skill for a writer and despite what you may have been told it is involved in every single novel or story produced. You see, even when you set a story in the real world you undertake a degree of world-building; you edit and polish the world in which you wish to set your story. You decide which sections of the real world you represent to the reader just as you do when using a world of your own invention.

This kind of world-building, however, is not the matter at hand; we’re all about creating a new universe today.

 

What Does A World Need?

A question half as silly and twice and important as it seems.

What would you say a world needs? Well, land, water, sky, plants, and animals, right? All the basic stuff of life. Correct, and yet at the same time so very wrong;

Yes, if you wish your world to sustain life plausibly it should definitely contain all of these things. However, your world also needs a huge amount of other, rather more man made, things to make it a worthy stage.

Here’s a list of things your world will need.

Your (Very) Basic World-Building Checklist:

  1. Geography
  2. History
  3. Languages
  4. Society
  5. Culture (they are different, trust me)
  6. Religions
  7. Creation myths
  8. Magic  (?)
  9. Technology
  10. Industry
  11. History
  12. Transportation
  13. Agriculture
  14. Cuisines
  15. Flora
  16. Fauna
  17. Art
  18. Music
  19. Literature
  20. Multiple countries

…. Phew, right? That’s a lot of work.

Thankfully it doesn’t need to take you 30 years and a degree in linguistics to get all of this done; most writers will never do a Tolkien style historiography and language building exercise. The truth is you don’t need to, either; as long as you present the world in a way that makes sense your readers will follow what you’re saying.

World-building is rather like the guiding pencil strokes and artist makes before applying paint to a canvas; it should be invisible in the finished product.

 

The Three Truths Of World-Building

  1. World-Building Is For The Author: the majority of the work you put into world-building will go unnoticed, and that is fine. In fact, that’s the way it should be. Picture your world as a swan; what the spectator sees should be effortless while the legs, so to speak, work overtime beyond their sight.
  2. World-Building Is A Precursor To Writing: if your world-building process goes on and on and on and on… well, it may be time to stop. Remember the above point; create your world with broad strokes and nail down the structural integrity before and then put it to the test by writing a story set within it.
  3. The World Supports The Story: this is self-explanatory, but the clarify – the world you build should service and support the stories you tell. Your story should never serve the purpose of describing or otherwise showcasing your world.

 

 

Getting Started: Inspiration And Diversion

Every fictional world will have one foot in reality and one in some form of fantasy. By this I mean that it will take inspiration from the real world and from fiction, day dreams, or other fabricated worlds (as opposed to the fantasy genre). For those who write fantasy, the genre, Tolkien, Gaiman, Hobb, and Le Guinn (amongst others) are likely to be of great inspiration, for example.

The real trick is twisting and developing your own world until it becomes something new and different enough to be unrecognisable in almost every way.

 

How can this be done? Well, in the same way that you discovered the seed of your new world; by asking questions of the world that already exists.

Ask yourself what drives your world, which countries are at war, which support each other, and which stay out of it. Ask yourself if there is a main religion, or hundreds of small ones, or if there is no religion at all.

Ask yourself what your world considers to be the single, universal crime – what is the one thing that all cultures agree is morally abhorrent?

And then ask yourself what colour the fire is, because, you know, there has to be a goofy twist somewhere.

 

 

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Creating Characters That Wow

You can find complementary character sheets to use  here (basic) and here (plot centric). You can also find a fillable plot and character development booklet (in proto-stages) here. These resources are free to use, but if you wish to enable me to make more you can buy me a Kofi.

 

Once you have found and developed an idea for your next best-seller it’s about time to think about your cast of characters. Anyone will tell you that characters must be “rounded”, “have personality”, and “seem to breathe”… but people don’t really tell you how to do that.

The character sheets linked above can help you to make a note of the most basic information about your characters; their name, age, role in the plot etc, and the development booklet can help you to get a grasp of what kind of person they are (would they give someone their last bit of chocolate, or not? You know, the big questions).

 

But how do you get to that stage if you have not first created a well-rounded character?

 

World-building

The process of creating your story world is long and very often tiresome; the amount of blood, sweat, and tears that go into this labour of love are very often staggering. So why should you put all of this work to wast by not allowing it to inform your character creation process?

For the record, I don’t mean that there are people out there who just make a fantasy world and then have their character grow up in Brooklyn.

 

I mean that if you create a horrible, dystopic world with twisted morals your character will have some horrible and twisted morals too. Their story, their journey, should be slowly coming to see what the reader knows already, or not depending upon what you have in mind for them.

Morals, politics, and personal character do not exist in a vacuum; parents, family, teachers, friends, and colleagues all have an effect on how we develop over time. So do the politics of our time, key events in the world, and our level of education.

 

In short, if your character was raised by very conservative, very religious, poorly educated people in a very poor, conservative, and poorly educated community it is unlikely that they will become very liberal, very rich, and very educated without undergoing a process of change. It is your job as a writer to explain how this happened.

 

Taking Stock of the Facts

Think of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird; she learns from her very educated, fairly liberal (for his day) father, but is still influenced by, and exerts influence on, her friends. For those who have read Go Set A Watchman, you will also remember that as an adult Scout realises that Atticus is not nearly as forward thinking as she had thought.

Scout was informed by her town, her school, and her father, but did have her own moral sensibilities. When she left her small town she changed yet again, and returned to a place that felt strange to her.

 

This is excellent character creation and development.

 

Harper Lee did this by ensuring that Scouts family and childhood created her, but the world, the events of her life, and of course Lee’s own feelings, shaped her into something more adult, more well-rounded, and more deserving of our understanding than she might have been had she never developed.

 

Flaws and Strengths

One trick to creating truly believable characters is not to give them a plethora of strengths and skills, only to sprinkle a bad temper a low mathematical ability onto it in the guise of “flaws”. The trick is to make their flaws a result of their strengths. For example, “loyalty” and “possessiveness” could be two sides of the same coin. As could “emotionally strong” and “callous”.

Think carefully about what the downsides of certain strengths are because everything has its downside.

 

A Distinct Tone of Voice

Especially important for protagonists is their voice; the way in which they narrate and speak should be recognisable almost instantly. There are those who say that the reader should be able to tell who is speaking before you name the character, but that truly is a feat of incredible skill. Not even the best can do this all the time.

The way the character speaks should be a reflection of everything that has gone into creating them. Consider;

  • Their sense of humour
  • Their level of education
  • If they are speaking their first language
  • Who they are speaking to
  • What their goal is

Characters, unlike real people, never speak without purpose. They don’t waffle, rabbit-on, or give pointless information unless they have a reason to do so. Those reasons could be;

  • Anxiety
  • A desire to distract
  • A need to mislead
  • An attempt to communicate something covertly

 

Don’t get too fancy when it comes to creating a speech pattern for your character; it should sound natural and be consistent throughout the narration. To that end it is often easiest to base the pattern of speech on someone, or on a dialect, that you know fairly well. You can make small tweaks to make it less obvious, but a forced or stilted voice is the surest way to put readers off of a character, especially when the story is narrated in first person.

 

Mistakes and Motives 

Whether your character is the hero or villain you need make sure that they intrigue and infuriate your readers in equal measures.

This is achieved by balancing their mistakes with their motives; make their reasoning for doing whatever they do understandable. Ensure that anyone could see themselves feeling the same way in that position so that, even if they disagree with your characters choices, they at least see where they are coming from. Then balance this empathy inducing method with mistakes and trip ups which are innately tied to their personal flaws.