Things I wish I knew about worldbuilding when I started writing

Things I wish I knew about worldbuilding when I started writing.Here we are for another collaborative blog post, this time on worldbuilding!

Worldbuilding’s a personal weakness of mine – I tend to write stories first and then go back and enrich the world. That, of course, changes the story and the characters and everything else, requiring further rewrites.

My own lesson is: “If you love a world you’ve created then reuse it; setting subsequent stories there will save you a lot of time.”

That is just one simple piece of advice I’d give to my younger self. There’s probably hundreds more I could impart. Here’s some more great tips from wiser and smarter people:

“Treat your real world locale like another character.” Penny Ruggaber

“You don’t need it to make sense. It just has to be internally consistent.” Hisui X

“Tools, philosophy, folklore, and spirituality. And don’t forget the little touches, like minor superstitions, and foods. Even if you don’t use them, they will inform the way you write and add richness.” Robyn McIntyre

“Make sure you create some kind of map to know where everything is. The last thing you want to do is send your characters north when the city is actually south.” Chris Mentzer

“1st check. Do YOU believe your world could exist, if you don’t, no one else will.” JW Arlock

“Don’t throw capitals at me every couple of pages.  You remember what they mean because you wrote the book.  I’m not likely to remember all those Circles of Pollyanna and Three Faces of Musili.Stanley Morris

“Always make sure your reader knows whether your story is centered in the northern or southern hemisphere. For instance, a reader in north America would get confused if your character heads south and the temperature got colder.” Roland Boykin

You don’t need to do as much thinking or research as you think you need to do before beginning.Mark Mercieca

“I’m a sucker for worlds in weird shapes. Flat worlds are awesome (I mean, who doesn’t like the ability to literally sail off the edge of the world?)” Joseph Stoll

“Just don’t forget that when worldbuilding, whether it’s in this world or another, every subculture has its own favoured art, music and symbols, as well as ideology. Hone those, as well as the history of the place.” Zena Shapter

“Don’t set the “World Map” in stone too early on–let it solidify around your story. I drew mine out and named every mountain range, forest and town years before the story had fully come together, and my uncle surprised me with an artist’s elegant, framed illustration of it. It’s been sitting in my closet for years, and would require a monster glob of white out to be updated.” Charles Murray

“Don’t forget that food, clothing, shelter, and all the other goodies come from resources, both local and imported. Knowing those plants, animals, minerals, water, etc., can go a long way to showing your characters living in the world instead of living on it.” Gerri Lynn Baxter

“World building is by far one of the most magical moments that take form before putting pen to paper; an ever-evolving beast that grows with every step. Without it the story would be a shadow, but add too much and the damage can be catastrophic. The intertwining link between the two plays out like a lover’s embrace, and when done well creates a world of delight.” Chantelle Griffin

“To bring the world alive, it’s not just the social and geopolitical aspects you need, its economics and how alien topographies might affect the story.” Mark Mercieca

“Creative boundaries set by your world can be great creative starting points.” Rik Lagarto

“A world needs to have it’s own myths, religion, heroes, villains… these kind of stories should come out naturally in the narrative and it can make your book stand firmly in a reader’s mind.” Vanessa MacLellan

Check out some of the other posts in the Things I Wish I Knew About series: Author PromotionPoint Of View Critiquing, Dealing With Rejection, Editing Your Own Work, Short Stories, Creating Characters, Story Development, and Writing.

Things I wish I knew about creating characters when I started writing

Text: Things I wish I knew about creating characters when I started writing.What is it you wish you knew about creating characters when you started writing?

If you could go back in time and give your younger self some advice on the topic, what would you say?

I’d tell myself to figure out what my characters want, what they need, and to understand the difference, but that’s just a tiny part of creating characters.

Here’s some more fantastic responses to that question.

“A good character is someone who wants something and a good story is about what’s stopping them from getting it.” Dave Versace

“Don’t let your characters take your story over.” Mark Mercieca

“Don’t be afraid of letting part of yourself show up in your characters.” Glendon Perkins

“Characters are people to. They see, feel, smell, taste, hear and have emotions.” Roland Boykin

“Develop a background story for your characters. Even if you never use any of the information in your book, it’s there to help flesh out your character and will help make your characters seem real in the way they act and react to situations.” Chris Mentzer

“Your characters know themselves much better than you. You can get to know them by speaking with them, but they’ll still know better than you. They’ll do what they want. What? The hands are yours, you type up the story? Illusions, my dear.” Era Metko

“No plot survives contact with the characters.” David Friedman

“Creating a character is like digging for treasure, opening the bejeweled chest buried six feet under and seeing it holds a doorway to a secret mine of wonders right next to a sewer.” Charles Murray

“When I try to impose my own ideas on the characters without listening to them? Disaster. The story stalls out and I have to re-write, every time.” Kyra Halland

“Every character needs a goal – whether a grand life goal or just a goal for two seconds in that scene. Characters who want something are more interesting, even without dialogue. They will be proactive rather than reactive.” Madison Dusome

“We don’t create the characters; we ask and they come to us. We then wrestle them into the story and compromise when necessary.” Catherine Green

“Don’t waste too much time filling out the character description, let them come to life on the page. The character will let you know what they like or dislike.” Chantelle Griffin

“There will be moments when your characters come to life, and feel more alive than ‘real life’ people. Choosing who to spend your time with will be difficult – balance is important.” Karen Wyld

Great advice, huh? What’s your best advice on creating characters?

If you liked this post, check out some of the other posts in the “Things I Wish I Knew About” series: Author PromotionPoint Of View, Critiquing, Dealing With Rejection, Editing Your Own Work, Short StoriesStory Development, Worldbuilding and Writing.

Things I wish I knew about story development when I started writing

Text: Things I wish I knew about story development when I started writingSo here we are for another round of writerly advice from the friendly writers of Google Plus. This time I’ve asked people for their best advice on story development.

My own personal favourite: “Figure out the worst thing that could happen next, and do that.” It works particularly well with humour where one white lie quickly becomes a disaster zone, but it works almost anywhere else too.

You’ve got to watch it as the worst thing that can happen isn’t necessarily the best thing for the story, but if you use it sensibly to generate story twists and turns, it’s magic.

Enough from me.  On with the fantastic advice from some other writers!

“Don’t worry if it fits right now; it can always be fixed later.”  Glendon Perkins

“Know what your characters want, why they want it, who or what is getting in their way and why, how far they will go to achieve their goals, and the consequences if they fail.” Kyra Halland

“Most of the time it’s the characters who seem to make the story, since, chances are, readers will already have seen your plot somewhere else, and will keep on for interesting or amusing characters and worlds.” Quinn Miczo

“If you plan your novels (plotter), concentrate on the story milestone scenes. Except for these, inevitably everything will change so don’t go into too much detail with the supporting scenes or don’t even bother planning them at all.” Mark Mercieca

“For me, the best stories are character driven and you can’t have a successful main character without a strong cast of supporting characters.” Roland Boykin

“Sometimes it’s better not to think.” Quinn Miczo

“You always need more backstory/world building than you think you will.” Ann Smyth

“Build a story bible.” Charles Barouch

“Writing is the easy part. Revision–now that’s the tough part. Suddenly you question every scene, every paragraph, every word! Everything you love could wind up on the chopping block. And it takes way longer than writing it ever did.” Traci Loudin

“The tendency to avoid conflict in life is very strong. You need to be vigilant for signs of that in your writing. Don’t necessarily shower your reader with one disaster after another (that too can be off putting) but give the characters and therefore yourself, as the author, story obstacles so challenging that you have no way out of in your head, then wait for a way to appear.” Luke Mercieca

So there you have it, fantastic advice on story development from some wonderful writers on Google Plus. What’s your best advice?

If you liked this, check out last week’s post: Things I wish I knew about writing when I started out.

The value of an awesome freebie

yWriterIt’s amazing what providing freebie can do for you. Take Simon Haynes, for example.

Simon created the novel writing program yWriter to help him write his novels because he couldn’t find anything that did what he wanted to do at the time.

Afterwards, he let people use it for free.

Today, yWriter has something of a cult following, and Simon’s name is known around the world.

His novels have had far more exposure than he could have ever hoped to gain without yWriter.

Similarly, a few years ago I created a novel structure diagram as a last-ditch effort to try and save a novel I just couldn’t get to work no matter what I did with it.

From what I could tell I was doing everything right, but it still wasn’t working.

Years of casual research went into that diagram, but it paid off because the information highlighted a whole bunch of structural elements my novel was either doing poorly or missing altogether.

The diagram was my means of making sense of it all my research; a visual clue I could see in a moment to trigger a greater understanding of what needed to happen around certain points in a story.

When complete, I posted it on my blog in the hope it would help others, and from the feedback I’ve received, it did.

So what’s the point of all this?

My blog gets more hits from that one page than any other post I’ve ever put up.

What’s more, visitors often continue on to my other posts about writing, and sometimes that trail even leads them to my fiction.

Just the other day someone posted a link in a writers’ forum asking the people there what they thought about the diagram.

Lots of writers clicked on that link and swung past my blog to check it out. Plenty of them read on.

So what’s the value in a freebie?

A diagram showing the elements of a novel and how they fit together.Would I be blogging about Simon Haynes if it wasn’t for yWriter? Would someone have posted a link to my blog without my diagram?

It means people come for something, and hopefully find something else.

Maybe you’re sitting on something that might help people too. In helping them, you just might be helping yourself.

Find out more about yWriter and/or download it from Simon’s website.

Take a look at my novel structure diagram – it may just be the answer you’re looking for.

The Story and the Plot

SwordsIf you’ve been following me in any of the circles I tend to move in, you might know I’m writing a novel about a blind swordswoman, and possibly that I’m struggling with it.

It’s set in the same world as my epic fantasy, but in an earlier time and in a different kingdom.

The plot is simple: it’s about her mastering a sword of power and defeating the ruling Warlord. Think Gladiator meets almost any Chinese martial arts movie in an historical setting, and you’ve probably got it.

Her story, however, is entirely different, and this is what I’m struggling with.

Any reluctant hero could fulfil the plot, but to give it emotional impact, the plot has to become just as personal as the things she cares about. They need to intersect.

What she cares about is her father, the local villagers, and the slave girl her father rescued a few years back.

She also has a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She’s blind, but determined not to let it hold her back.

She’s fought for years to become self-sufficient, to develop her skills with the blade, and to be able to look after herself without help. What she fears most is having that freedom taken away.

Her story, then, has to about protecting the people she cares about while fighting for freedom.

Therefore, to create a novel, the plot and everything she cares about need to come into conflict.

The question is, what’s the best way to do this? I’ve got a bunch of ideas on where I want it to go, but the beginning is really stumping me.

How do I set it up so all this comes through, without looking like I’m trying to set up anything?

If you’ve got any thoughts on matter, I’d be more than keen to hear them.

Otherwise, you’ll find some more interesting posts on story development in The Craft.

Need Vs Want

Give your characters something to pursue – something they desperately want. Do that, and you’ll create a far more interesting story.

Whatever they want, make sure it’s an external goal, something tangible and achieveable.

Put them through some hoops to get to it, but no matter how important it is – ensure they discover they don’t really need it before the end.

Getting what they want never gets them what they really need, and what they need is the important part.

Say your hero wants to rescue the princess (cliche, I know), but it happens (Luke Skywaker, anyone?). More than likely they’re going to do it (Luke does in fact rescue the princess).

However, is it what they need?

Do they really need prove something to themselves instead?

Maybe what they need is true love. Maybe its discovering or accepting something about themselves. Maybe its finally doing what they believe in.

Whatever they need, it will be internal.

Put simply:

  • Wants are an external goal, but getting them won’t fulfil your characters.
  • Needs are internal. When they fulfil their needs, the story is over.

It’s just another element to make your story more interesting and satisfying.

Read more about creating a writing/editing plan for your novel.

What’s the worst thing that could happen next?

Ever hit the wall and have no idea what to write next? Maybe you’ve just reached that point where nothing exciting is happening and you’re losing interest. And of course, if you’re losing interest, forget about your readers.

You might call it writers block. You might call it all kinds of blue-coloured words. You might simply take a break in the hope that inspiration strikes.

Worst scenario: you might give up.

Don’t! If you give up, you could be losing a fantastic story.

Instead, try this exercise:

“What’s the worst thing that could happen at this point in the story?”

Write it. Now. I’ll wait.

Very possibly, I’ve led you astray a little. The worst thing that could happen is all your characters catch a rare form of the flu and die, or an asteroid strikes the planet and they all die, or the sun explodes and they all die… you get the drift.

Okay then, lets peg it back a bit.

Your character tells a white lie – he’s had a fight with his wife, so she’s left him alone to deal with the business of running their ice-skating rink (or maybe something as simple as organising a dinner with friends). He’s too embarrassed to admit it, so he tells everyone she’s sick – caught a chill, and is resting up in bed.

What’s the worst thing that can happen? Someone’s got some medical qualifications and insists on helping.

Of course he could admit to the lie, but…

He tries to cover his lie and convinces someone to ‘play sick’ (maybe an employee, perhaps a neighbour), which not only deepens the lie, but draws someone else into it – and now you can see the snowball effect. “Oh no, it’s VERY contagious…”

And the worst thing that could happen at that point is…?

Okay, lets get back on track. We’re not actually building a story.

However, that sort of thing works particularly well with comedy, but also translates quite well into most genres.

Genre, you say.


Imagine you’re writing an action story – two tough cops go into a den of drug lords to rescue a kidnapping victim.

It’s time sensitive, and they make the call to go in early. What’s the worst thing that can happen – maybe one gets wounded and has to be dragged out – and the mission fails.

And of course, there are consequences.

Because they went in early and without backup, the kidnapping victim gets killed – and they get the blame. Suddenly they’re off the force, leaving them with the only option available – prove they did the right thing. Yet one of them is in hospital recovering…

You see where I’m going?

More than likely you’ll want to discard the first option (or four) that comes to you, but if you ever get stuck, if things slow down, or you simply can’t figure a way out of the mess you’ve created, ask yourself: “What’s the worst thing that can happen next?”

Create a writing/editing plan for your novel!

Here’s a few steps that might help you in drafting and editing your novel.

1. What’s it about? Write one sentence describing your story in 25 words or less.

Yes. 25 words or less.

Rework the story to reflect this sentence, or change the sentence to reflect the story.

I’ve seen several publishers asking for this sentence in their submission requirements.

2. What’s the theme?

This is the point of your novel, and arguably the most important aspect of it. It’s what you’re trying to say – one side of an argument.

Without a theme your story’s just explosions and pretty sunsets. Pointless.

The theme itself is a statement. For example: “Behind every good man is a greater women.” Your story is the argument supporting either the positive or the negative side of that statement.

Think of your story as one side of the debate.

3. Separate the Threat from the Conflict.

Conflict is immediate, while the threat is the potential. Work out the difference in your story.

4. Need Vs Want.

What does your character(s) want? What are they actively pursuing? This is an external goal.

What does your character need? This will be something internal, something they aren’t likely to be aware of – a lesson to be learned, perhaps. The moral of the story.

For example, a high school student wants to be part of the ‘in’ crowd, when what they really need is to be happy with themself first.

Getting what they need will affect how they see what they want, while getting what they want before getting what they need won’t fulfill them.

What they want drives them. What they need completes them.

Getting what they need may make what they want even more worthwhile or it may render it totally obsolete. They may even have to sacrifice what they want entirely if it gives them what they need.

When they get what they need they can finally see what they want in its true light.

5. Identify the main plot points and transitions – beginning, middle, end, inciting incident, midpoint, etc.

If you don’t know what these are, and there’s lots more that I haven’t listed, I’ll be writing another post (or several) in the future covering them. For the moment though, I’ve drawn a diagram.

  • Do they work to best effect?
  • Can they be made to work better?

6. Chapter outline – write a brief sentence describing each chapter.

This will help you identify weak chapters or chapters that do nothing for the story.

You need to justify each chapter’s existence. Each sentence should:

  • State what the chapter’s trying to convey
  • Show how the chapter moves the story along.

7. Write a Cause and Effect. “Because of this, this happens. Because this happens…”

Start big, Ie:

  1. Beginning: Bella moves to Forks – meets Edward.
  2. Middle A: She’s attracted to him – discovers he’s a vampire which is part of the attraction.
  3. Middle B: They hook up – she becomes involved in the ‘vampire world’.
  4. End: Bad vampires come after Bella – Edward and family try to protect her.

Each cause has an effect, which leads to the next cause. It’s a logical progression. If you can’t find the logical progresssion, your story has a problem.

Once you’ve got the big steps down, break them into smaller steps.

Your breakdown for the beginning might be two or three pages long (although it can be much less or more). And like the big steps, it needs a logical progression. Find it.

Everything outside the cause and effect must be essential to moving the story forward in some other way.

8. Identify the big structural changes you need to make.

For example: ‘the ending isn’t satisfying enough – must rewrite to ensure the main character struggles more to achieve their goals’.

Like the example, write a list of big points that need fixing. Make these changes before going on. There’s no point in polishing text if big swathes of it might be cut or largely altered.

9. Identify the smaller but important changes you need to make.

For example:

  • Make outer space/ocean/sword/city/weather more of an influential ‘player’ in the story
  • Make the main character more sympathetic
  • Make the antagonist appear nice at first [misdirection].

Write a list of things that need to be done, and make the changes before going on.

10. Edit the words.

Only after you’re happy with the overall structure should you start playing with words, sentences and paragraphs.

Do a complete pass from beginning to end, and once you move onto the next chapter, don’t go back until the next full pass. It’s too easy to get bogged down in the process of polishing something to imperfection. Set some sort of goal and stick to it.

11. Finally, figure out when its ‘good enough’ and get it out into the world.

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The problem with editing…

The problem with spending hours editing a story is that at the end, you don’t really have much to show for it.

The word count might have changed a little, sentences and paragraphs irrevocably altered, even some chapters moved or removed, but from a distance it’s pretty much the same as it was before. The same story, at least – but hopefully better.

When you’re writing something new, there’s a growing word count you can point at and say ‘Ah-hah! That’s what I did today’. It adds up, too, swelling that sense of achievement.

With editing though – it’s malleable. Unless you’re making big, blatant changes, it can be really hard to tell the difference between the third and fourth layers of polish.

So, how do you get a sense of achievement, a clear indication you’re not on a never-ending treadmill?

Start with a plan. Work out what you want to do before you start, and stick to it.

First, review the story. Read it through, make notes, work out what you’re going to tackle and in what order, and decide how much you want to achieve each session.

Then, work your way through the story, stick to your plan, and at the end of it you’ll have edited the full draft.

Then, of course, repeat. Figure out what’s working, what’s not, and what could be better. Work out how to fix those things – and set to it, doing specifically that.

Repeat again as necessary, but try not to get into the habit of doing it over and over. Figure out exactly what you want to end up with, aim for it, and then get it out into the world when you’re done.

Game over. New project.

What’s it about? Know your story.

What’s your story about? Do you know?

If you don’t, you have a problem.

If you can’t explain what it’s about clearly and concisely, how can you expect your story be clear and concise, or even interesting?

Aim for under 25 words. Better yet, see if you can do it in 15.

Impossible, I hear you say!

Of course not – but we’re talking broad strokes, not detail. Any longer than 25 words, and your ‘audience’ is going to go to sleep. You need to interest them – not fill in the gaps. Overview stuff.

Example: “It’s about a girl from another universe who falls in love with a human boy despite herself.” Not very specific, but better than trying to dump all the details at once. A teaser, nothing more.

Still, its a little vague and not particularly informative. Too broad, perhaps.

How about: “A warrior princess from another universe falls for a human boy while hunting the shapechanger that murdered her parents.” Far more specific, yet still less than twenty words. If they’re interested – they’ll ask for more details.

It also gives a pretty solid impression of the genre and audience.

So, how do you go about it?

Break it into four parts:

  • Part 1 – Who the story’s about. Don’t name them, but describe them. ie, A Warrior Princess.
  • Part 2 – What they want. Ie, revenge – she’s hunting her parents’ killer.
  • Part 3 – What’s standing in their way. In this case, the shapechanger AND the love interest.
  • Part 4 – Show the irony in the situation (or the hook). Ie, While seeking revenge, she instead falls in love.

Those parts don’t necessarily have to be in order, but they do have to be there.

If you can do this for each story you write, you’ll not only produce a stronger, tighter story, you’ll also have a better shot at selling it.

Editing – I’ve finished writing. What next?

In my previous post on editing, I covered a rule I wish I’d come across a long time ago: Don’t start editing until you’ve finished writing. But where does that leave you?It leaves you with a finished manuscript! Any day, that’s better than a half-written toy that has some bits you’ve managed to get ‘right’ and a whole swath of chapters you’re unlikely to get to for months, years or even decades.

So, lets assume you took my advice, added new words every chance you got, and you’ve just typed those magical words: ‘The End’.

What now? Well, it’s pretty simple really. Don’t start editing.

‘Doh!’ I hear you say. ‘Why not?’

Because you’re not ready to edit yet. You’re too close.

Instead, make notes on things you didn’t act on because you were busy writing. Create a big list of them in bullet point form. Include all the things you’re desperate to add or remove, concepts you want to introduce or changes that need to be made.

Throw in all the ideas you had or couldn’t find a means to put in, add anything that need to be changed for consistency, or whatever else that comes to mind.

Now, unless you’ve got a pressing need to present a polished manuscript to a publisher (like maybe you’ve landed a contract), put the novel away along with your notes and begin another one.

Yes, start another novel (not a sequel! You can’t sell a sequel until you sell the original, and if that never happens you’re wasting your time!). So, write a second novel – something entirely new, and finish it.


Two reasons. Firstly and most importantly, by putting it away for a while you’ll get distance from your first novel. You’ll be able to spot the flaws, the inconsistencies, the mistakes. You’ll also be fresh and ready to tackle it again.

The second reason is a little different – but just as valid. You’ll be less precious about it. Your masterwork will no longer the be-all and end-all of your novel writing endeavours. There’ll be a second novel waiting for your attention. And if you’re smart, a third one on the way.

So, where do you go from there?

Like I just mentioned, start writing a third book, but don’t fall into the trap of just writing new books. You need to finish the first one now.

While you’re working on number three, begin editing the first. Set a time limit and aim to have a complete redraft finished by the time you’re done writing the third novel.

Editing – first things first

What’s the first thing you need to know about editing? Don’t start editing until you’re finished writing.


I spent a couple of years writing my first novel – only to realise I never got past the first few chapters because I kept going back to play with them.

Occasionally I’d move on a little, but I always found myself going back and reworking/changing/playing with the text in the first few chapters: ‘getting it right’.

It wasn’t until I made a decision to FINISH IT that I actually got the first draft done. What’s more, I’ve heard this same advice from dozens of successful, published authors.

Finish it, first and foremost. Edit it second.

If you get a brand new idea you’re busting to get into an earlier chapter – make a note of it and FIX IT LATER – after you’ve completed the first draft.

You want to change something? – make a note of it and fix it in the rewrite!

Anything more complicated than a global search and replace – fix it later!

In case I’m not clear:

  • Write the first draft.
  • Edit the first draft.
  • In that order.

Don’t start editing until you’ve finished writing or you’ll spend weeks, months, years and even decades getting no further than the first few chapters.


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