Creative Writing

Take Your Writing to a New World: Tips for World-Building in Fiction

Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about world-building for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Dystopian, and even Historical Fiction novels.

QUESTION: What are some pointers for writers who are working on a story that takes place in another time, place, or fantasy setting?

world building.png

As exciting as Earth is in the 21st century, sometimes the best setting for a story is another world altogether. Many great stories take place in different timelines and dimensions, places where there are different rules and creatures, where the impossible becomes possible. Why limit your stories to the laws of physics and the history that’s already been written when you can make up your own laws and history?

High fantasy fiction takes place in secondary or parallel worlds, which can take an endless variety of forms. One of the best examples of a richly detailed world is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a diverse world filled with many creatures, lands, and languages that makes it the perfect setting for adventures. It’s a world containing different villages, kingdoms, and landscapes, from the peaceful Shire to the declining kingdom of Gondor to the desolate volcanoes of Mordor. There are elves and dwarves and hobbits and goblins and many more peoples and races that have their own history and personality. This world takes on a life of its own, and it’s an exemplary model of how you want to build your fictional world.

If you’re writing a story in another time or place, you have the power to develop everything from scratch. Creating these immersive and complex worlds can be a complicated process, but by following these steps when building your world, you can ensure your new fantasy setting becomes a believable and engaging place that your readers will never want to leave.

  • Read other works. Learn from the best works of fiction already written. See how other authors show the elements of their world. As mentioned above, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are critical works to study. Examine how Tolkien develops the setting, characters, and the logic of Middle-earth, granting everything in his made-up world a believable explanation and a consistent history. Other classic fictional worlds include the universe of George Lucas’ Star Wars (and the Extended Universe that sprang up in other media over the years) and “The Known World” in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Find your favorite fantasies and note how they make the world work.

  • Plan ahead. Writing about this world is difficult as it is. Creating a whole new world requires elaborate histories and backstories that involve thorough planning. You want to have a general idea, as well as specific details, of this world ready to go before you write a single word. Be able to rationalize why things work the way they do in your world. You need to have a complete grasp of the inner workings yourself before you can hope to depict this world for others. The more intimately you know your world, the more intricate your writing can be. Here is a quick list of things you should have fully considered before you start writing.

    • The people: What are their language, practices, and customs? What do they value?

    • The geographical layout of the world: How big or small is your world? Are there different regions, and if so, what are their defining characteristics?

    • The history of the world: How did the present day reach its current state? Are there any historical conflicts that affect the present? What was the most recent event that happened before your story begins? How technically advanced is the world?

  • Make the world a character. Just as your characters grow throughout the story, so can the characters’ environment. Think of this new world as a character of its own. It should have its own feel, look, sound, and smell. The setting is your own creation that serves an integral role for your story, and it can grow as stories evolve. However, the world shouldn’t be the central character. Each detail you insert about the setting should serve a purpose, whether it’s building imagery or advancing the plot, so it’s best to avoid including superfluous details that don’t enhance the story in the long run.

  • Use dialogue appropriately. It can be tempting to divulge all the details and histories about your new world in a character’s monologue, but dumping this information all at once is boring and unnecessary. When used sparingly and smartly, dialogue and diction can reveal much about a character’s nature, as well as the society and world in which they live. Aim for a healthy balance that equally favors descriptions, dialogue, and action.

  • Double check the logic. If you’re writing a story set in an alternate timeline or a brand new world, that naturally means there are more loopholes that your story could fall through, especially as you find yourself taking your story in new directions you didn’t anticipate when you first started writing it. An event may be out place or a fact may contradict something you previously mentioned. Just as you should take the precious time before your writing to map out the details, take some extra time at the end to review what you’ve actually written. It’s important your details line up logically or else the invalidity of your world will undermine your writing.

Just as these tips advise what you should do, here is a quick list of things you shouldn’t do: Don’t write excessive descriptions. Don’t rely on high fantasy clichés. Don’t create stock characters. And don’t stress!

World building is not an easy task, but if planned thoroughly and executed carefully, you’ll enlighten your readers and bring them to a whole new world only you are capable of creating.

Show AND Tell: Navigating the Nuances of Showing vs. Telling

Hi writers! We thought we’d kick off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we will be tackling 4 real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about the nuances of showing vs. telling.

QUESTION: The classic writing advice is, "show, don't tell." But is that always good advice? Don't the best novels show AND tell? How do you know if you're "telling" too much, and what counts as telling?

show dont tell graphic.png

As kids, we loved show and tell day at school. Proudly brandishing a souvenir from a trip or a prized family heirloom, we would capture the attention of our peers and then describe the object’s elaborate origin. Our description of its significance and why it’s special provided a glimpse into who we are and what’s important to us.

This simple presentation uses storytelling and visual aids to stir an interest in an object people would otherwise find insignificant. Show and tell relies on effective storytelling to take us into someone else’s world. Can we learn something from this grade school tradition in our writing techniques?

Writes always hear the mantra, “show, don’t tell.” Descriptions of scenes and dramatization of actions take precedence over the exposition and summary that simply take up space without accomplishing anything in an engaging fashion. Readers love to vividly imagine the characters’ expressions, feelings, and actions that remain unwritten in ink. This ability to stir a reader’s imagination is powerful, letting the story unfold with minimal hand-holding.

A story that simply tells its readers what is happening loses their attention fast. But that’s not to say telling is an inefficient technique that is completely forbidden. Rather, it is just one tool in a writer’s toolkit that can, and should, be used. Just like any craft, the best stories use a variety of tools.

The classic advice should be modified to say “show more than tell.”

Achieving this balance between showing and telling can be difficult. Learning exactly how to “show” a scene requires a lot of practice to begin with, but with practice makes perfect, so keep writing and rewriting to hone these skills. As you master the art of storytelling, keep these guidelines in mind.

  • Avoid detail-dumping. When you are giving background information, make sure the details are necessary. Don’t overwhelm readers by dumping the entire backstory of a character or society in the first few pages. Weave these details in throughout the story when it is necessary to develop characterization or advance the plot. Write every word with a purpose, and make every sentence worth something to the reader.

  • Make your writing cinematic. Evoke emotion with your writing and give your characters enough movement so you don’t have to explicitly list personality traits; instead, your readers can just tell who the character is from his or her diction and action, or lack thereof. Use all five senses in your writing so that your readers feel an emotional response without you telling them how they should be feeling.  

  • Put your readers in the scene. This is a good technique to help minimize unnecessary telling. Prioritize first-hand information over second-hand by letting readers see the action happen with their own eyes (or the mind’s eye). No one likes to hear about a past event because they weren’t there when it occurred. There is no emotional attachment to the event or the character. Instead, if you’re giving important backstory, tell it through a flashback. Let the reader experience the scene in real time rather than read about something that’s already happened.

  • Replace adjectives with actions. If your character goes through a tough breakup or suffers a major loss in the family, they would feel sad. But how sad do they feel, and what do they do with that sadness? Do they completely shut down and withdraw socially? Do they reach out for consolation and company? Do they continue functioning as if nothing happened? Not only do these details convey their sadness, they provide more insight into how the character acts during this sadness than if you simply said they were sad. By replacing adjectives with actions, you achieve the technique of showing, while revealing more about a character than you would otherwise.

  • Believe in your readers’ abilities. By describing something rather than simply telling it, you’re giving your readers some credit to their ability to imagine what is happening. You don’t have to spell out every single detail for them. Instead, let their imagination take hold as you plant the seeds of emotion and action in their brains with your words. Push them in the right direction, but let them form their own conclusions and interpretations. With each word that adds to their mental scene, they’ll feel more invested in the plot and connected to the characters.

  • Write. Write. Write. Revising and reworking scenes is the best way to practice this technique. Your first draft might consist of you simply explaining the scene, and that’s okay. On your second draft, start taking out the mechanics of the scene and adding descriptions. The third draft should involve more rewriting, and the fourth and fifth drafts even more so. Making mistakes is a normal part of writing, and only through trial and error will you be able to learn how to perfect the art of showing.

“Show, don’t tell” is important advice to consider, but don’t let it consume your writing. If telling works in the moment and conveys what you need, do that. Additionally, showing doesn’t mean never telling. Explore the nuances of your writing to discover how you can incorporate both into your story or when you need to utilize one technique over the other.

The best writing finds the perfect balance between showing and telling. Sometimes, as writers, we have to channel our inner child and see how show and tell still has its benefits.  

How to Write a Query Letter

There is a lot of conflicting information going around for writing queries to literary agents. Some say that they should be lengthy professional letters; some say that they should be a brief “get in and get out” kind of email—almost a memo, if you will.

The answer is that a query should be exactly in between those two descriptions. Why the disconnect between the two, you might be asking. Well, that’s easy. Before the internet, it was important to write a pristine, professional letter. Agents received several letters a week, but not an overabundance. They could take their time and truly consider each and every letter. But we don’t live in that day and age any more. Now, agents are bombarded by emails in the hundreds every week, if not every day. They constantly struggle to keep ahead of the pile and an eye out for promising material—while also having to muck through the writers who have jumped the gun and sent a first draft that is, well, a royal mess.

So, what should be in a query?

  1. An opening sentence that is also a hook. (Example: “Sexuality is about more than just sex in my young adult novel, TITLE.”)
  2. A brief synopsis of your story. (Ideally, two paragraphs with three to four sentences apiece. It should address the situation, the complications, and the cost of the conclusion.)
  3. A demonstration of where your book fits in the market, the genre, age group, and word count.
  4. Your credentials and a polite thank you.

To help you on your query journey, here are ten Dos and Don’ts for querying!

  1. Do: Be concise. If your query is longer than 3/4ths of a page single spaced, your query is too long. Remember that the agent in question is most likely reading twenty to fifty of these today, so make your query attention-getting, but not over the top.
  2. Don’t: Jump the gun. Querying before you are ready is one of the biggest mistakes. You will know that your manuscript is ready to find an agent when it has been revised thoroughly at least a few times, and it has been scoured for typos. Ask yourself, is your manuscript “shelf ready?” Meaning, could you slap a cover on it and put it on a shelf? If the answer is yes, you’re ready to query. If your answer is no, and you’d like some help, check out our developmental and line editing services.
  3. Do: Be professional. Professional means smart, to the point, and clearly written. Absolutely no typos or grammatical errors. Under this heading, it’s also important to add that your query should never feel like a “blanket query.” It should address the agent by name and feel as though you wrote it specifically for him or her. Also, follow the explicit instructions for writing a query letter as provided on the agent’s website. Every agent likes different pieces of information, so make sure you tailor each query to the agent’s preferences.
  4. Don’t: Add extraneous information. This tends to happen in the “credentials” section of the query, meaning you want the agent to know everything that’s made you a fine writer. Well, the agent will want to know that information once she or he has read and loved your manuscript, but until that time, only include information that is pertinent to your story. (Example: Say you’ve written a book about a teenage spy. It would then be pertinent to add, “I am the daughter of a CIA agent.” Or if your book is about a rare medical condition, it would be very important to say, “I am a licensed, practicing physician.”)
  5. Do: Include your story’s unique voice in the brief summary. If your story is funny, the summary can be funny. If it’s a sad story, let it tug on some heartstrings. If it’s a thriller, by all means make it sound like a Hollywood movie trailer.
  6. Don’t: Name drop another one of the agent’s client unless you have specifically asked that person and they have given you permission to do so. Another one to add here? Don’t say that your manuscript is exactly like a book that the agent already represents. They’re likely NOT to read your pages because, well, they’ve already got a writer like you!
  7. Do: Demonstrate your knowledge of the market value of your manuscript. This doesn’t mean that you should say, “My book is just like The Hunger Games.” But it does mean that you could say, “My book is for fans of The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game.” However, I would encourage you to aim slightly lower than bestsellers. Know the books in the field you are writing, and that will be one of the best ways to prove to an agent that you have done your homework.
  8. Don’t: Query twenty-five people at a time. Querying is a waiting business, which means that a lot of people try to rush it. You will do much, much better if you make an A list of five agents, and a B list of five agents. Some agents even prefer having “an exclusive” look on the manuscript (this will be on their website). You may offer an exclusive to one agent at a time, and if the agent agrees, make sure you set up an expiration on the exclusive so that you can return to querying in a timely manner. 
  9. Do: Be selective. You do not want just any agent. I repeat: YOU DO NOT WANT JUST ANY AGENT! The agent you want is someone who is currently selling things in the market. Check Publisher’s Weekly rights reports. Check the agent’s clients’ websites. Every agent has different specialties. Some are editorial. Some are not. Some work with clients on a variety of genres. Some do not. The more you know before you query, the more likely that you will not get stuck with the wrong agent for your writing.
  10. Don’t: Lose hope. Querying is tough. Finding the right agent is tough. But if your manuscript is ready and the winds are in your favor (meaning you’ve done all your homework on the market and who would be the best fit for you), you will find the right person to help you launch your career. In the meantime, Yellow Bird Editors are here to help you! An affordable query critique is one click away.

Cori McCarthy is the author of four young adult novels and the middle grade category winner of the 2014 Katherine Patterson Award for her novel in verse. Cori’s books include the space thriller The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013), the near-futuristic thriller Breaking Sky (Sourcebooks, 2015), the contemporary mixed format novel You Were Here(Sourcebooks, 2016), and the forthcoming Now A Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2018). Breaking Sky is in development at Sony Pictures to become a feature length film. Cori holds three degrees in writing: a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University (emphasis in poetry and memoir writing), as well as a graduate certificate in screenwriting from UCLA, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cori lives in the Midwest and is the cofounder of the charitable initiative Rainbow Boxes. She has been writing fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry for 15+ years, and editing all genres for 5+ years. For more information on Cori, please check out her website www.CoriMcCarthy.com.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction (including high fantasy), poetry, novels in verse, contemporary fiction, humorous fiction, middle grade & young adult novels, screenplays, thrillers, unique memoirs, graphic novels, adaptations of fairy tales.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, query letter editing, content editing, developmental editing, writing coaching.

HIRE CORI TO EDIT YOUR MANUSCRIPT!
CLICK HERE TO REQUEST A QUOTE.

6 Tips For Fast Drafting

Fast Drafting

There is no reason to wait for November to bang through a novel draft. Nope. No reason at all. And while NaNoWriMo excels in getting writers to go butt-in-chair and pound the keys each Turkey Season, you should feel free to do your own draft writing months whenever you have the time. (Because seriously? November? Thanksgiving week messes up my word count every time I NaNoWriMo. Anyone else have this problem?)

To send you on your way, here are some tips to run your own fast draft any time you want:

1.     Perfection is unrealistic. You’re rolling your eyes, aren’t you? You know that you can’t write perfectly if you fast draft, and yet I have to type this. And it has to be number one. And when you hit page eighty and the muse is off taking a cat nap, you need to remember this. It’s not only that your writing won’t be perfect, but your scenes won’t be either. Neither will your plot. Your goal is to get to the end so that you know if this novel is a shoe or a houseboat. A barn or a skyscraper.

2.     Don’t write the stuff you don’t want to write. I often hear my writing coaching clients say, “I couldn’t get myself to sit down and work because the character had to go to grandma’s funeral and I didn’t want to write that part.” So? Skip it. You heard me. Skip to the next chapter, summarize or leave yourself bullet point notes if you must, but keep typing. Keep going!

3.     There is no such thing as a Plotter or a Pantser. The only way to keep your story from being underplotted or overplotted is to both plot and fly by the seat of your pants. So, try to write down all the important plot events on one piece of paper while drafting, but don’t get married to those plot events. This will give you the limitation you need to keep being creative as well as the permission to let your story evolve.

4.     Writer’s Block isn’t real. It should be called Character’s Block, because it’s not the writer who has hit a wall, but the character. If you get stuck, back up at least twenty pages. You’re not going to want to because you want to keep moving forward, but almost every case of writer’s block I encounter is because the character made the wrong narrative choice several scenes earlier. Fix the choice and keep writing!

5.     Leave the beginning alone. I can’t tell you how often I work with writers who have re-written the beginning seventeen times and the ending twice. That’s because whenever the writer learns something new about their character, the writer tends to double back to make sure that said epiphany is in the beginning. But you really don’t want to do that. Keep a running list next to your workspace of all the things you’d like to change about the beginning, but don’t backslide and go fix it. Writers who can’t avoid heading back to the beginning over and over tend to overwrite and stiffen up their opening into oblivion until it’s become unusable.

6.     Set yourself a goal and don’t let it go. The reason that NaNoWriMo gets novels written is that there is a support network. You can go on your social media and say, “Can’t talk now. I’m NaNoWriMoing.” So when you set up your own fast draft season, make sure you have your schedule and intentions arranged upfront. Meet those intentions no matter what, and make sure that the people in your lives know that you’re drafting and therefore busy with a capital B.

Remember that the first draft—the fast draft or shitty draft—is about embracing the calamity of inspiration. Let it be a mess, and it will launch you on your way. All you have to do is let it.


Cori McCarthy is the author of four young adult novels and the middle grade category winner of the 2014 Katherine Patterson Award for her novel in verse. Cori’s books include the space thriller The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013), the near-futuristic thriller Breaking Sky (Sourcebooks, 2015), the contemporary mixed format novel You Were Here(Sourcebooks, 2016), and the forthcoming Now A Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2018). Breaking Sky is in development at Sony Pictures to become a feature length film. Cori holds three degrees in writing: a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University (emphasis in poetry and memoir writing), as well as a graduate certificate in screenwriting from UCLA, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cori lives in the Midwest and is the cofounder of the charitable initiative Rainbow Boxes. She has been writing fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry for 15+ years, and editing all genres for 5+ years. For more information on Cori, please check out her website www.CoriMcCarthy.com.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction (including high fantasy), poetry, novels in verse, contemporary fiction, humorous fiction, middle grade & young adult novels, screenplays, thrillers, unique memoirs, graphic novels, adaptations of fairy tales.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, query letter editing, content editing, developmental editing, writing coaching.

HIRE CORI TO EDIT YOUR MANUSCRIPT!
CLICK HERE TO REQUEST A QUOTE.


The 5 Best NaNoWriMo Apps for Planning & Plotting Your Novel (HINT: Start Planning in October)

This is the year! You are SO IN! You’re going to knock out 50,000 words in November, then spend the next few months revising and adding until you have that glorious thing: a completed novel, polished and shiny, ready to be sent out to an eager world.

You got this. But as every writer knows, before you begin, you need to lay out your tools: cup of coffee, notebook and pen for helpful scribbles, laptop or tablet . . . and the right apps.

PLANNING IN OCTOBER

Planning is the fun part! But that’s the danger: you can get lost in planning and diagrams and research and oops! It’s almost Thanksgiving. Don’t succumb: come November 1, be churning out your one or two thousand words a day.

In October, though, plan away. Scapple ($14.99 for Mac and Windows; free to try for 30 days), from the people who brought you Scrivener, the writer’s best friend (see below), is a simple mind-mapping app that allows you to plop down characters, events, or ideas and connect them with lines, shift them around, or arrange them however you like. Like scribbling on a whiteboard, but faster.

The Cult of Mac also points us to Lists for Writers, $2.99 for iPhone/iPad or Android. When you’re writing fast—and you’ll be writing fast—this is a great go-to for prompts and ideas. What kind of hair does the bridegroom have? What does my earth-bound angel actually do for a living? What attitude does my super-spy’s husband have toward her work? Flick through a list, grab a likely answer, and go. This app will stay useful well into November.

WRITING IN NOVEMBER

Scrivener ($45 for Mac and Windows; $19.99 for iOS (universal); free to try for 30 days) is often accused of having a cult, and if that’s the case, I’m a happy member. I’ve been using it for nine or ten years, first on large business documents at my then-day job, and then as a novelist. I genuinely do not understand how people write big projects without it. Some of my favorites of its many features:

  • Allows you to break your work into chunks – chapters and scenes—that you can color code and swap around easily in the “binder” that organizes them on the left of your screen.
  • Gives you a place to keep all your research right within the project. Photos, sound clips, videos, PDFs, entire web pages—they’re right there at hand in your research section.
  • Split screen feature allows you to have two windows open at the same time. Describing a magic raven? Pull up your raven photo and set it right next to the scene you’re typing in.
  • The project word counter tracks your progress every writing session and alerts you when you’ve hit your goal—useful for NaNoWriMo.
  • And of course, Scrivener easily exports your document into Microsoft Word format so that you can send it out into the world.

Some people find Scrivener a bit intimidating initially. With so many ways to help you write, research, and organize, using it for the first time can be like sitting down to the controls of a jet plane. Here are three key things to know if you’re new to Scrivener:

  1. If you’re planning to use it for NaNoWriMo, get it ahead of time and play around a bit to see if it’s for you.
  2. The Scrivener tutorials are famously excellent, so give one a spin.
  3. Forget about all the stuff it can do. Just begin by using its most basic features—the binder that organizes your documents, and the Research folder—and don’t worry about the rest. Those two features alone can be writer’s-life-changing.

For years Scrivener cultists, I mean fans, have been begging the creators for an iOS version, and it’s finally here. Now you can sync a project to Dropbox and work on it anywhere, from the coffee shop to the line at the post office. The transition to iOS was worth the wait: Macworld gave the iOS version a four-and-a-half mouse rating and said “Scrivener for iOS does just about everything you could ever need in order to research, plot, and write a short story, doctoral thesis, novel, or a review like the one you’re reading right now. . . a robust, flexible writing tool that will serve you well.” (Note that because of screen size limitations, a few features are not available on the iPhone version.)

Tried Scrivener, and it’s not for you? Ulysses (Mac ($44.99) and iOS ($24.99, universal) (sorry, Windows and Android users) gets raves from the Scrivener-decliners. One iTunes reviewer said, “Ulysses hits perfectly between the hack of using a standard word processor and folders to create long-form writing, such as a novel, and the too-much-to-be-worth-the-effort kitchen sink approach of Scrivener. I have become many times more productive since I started using it and it quickly, quickly, QUICKLY justified itself in terms of cost.”

The Mac desktop app has been around for a decade or so, and a 2010 Macworld review sings the praises of its clean interface and “superb design.”

The Ulysses iOS version is new this spring, and the five-mouse Macworld review is a rave beyond raves.

Finally, if NaNoWriMo (or any writing, really) demands anything from you, it’s time management skills. That’s where the Pomodoro Timer (iOS and Android, $1.99) comes in. This little app keeps you writing for 25 minutes, then gives you five minutes to stretch, walk around, or play on Facebook. But it dings you back to work when that five minutes is up. Let this bossy, cheerful tomato keep you churning out words.

Good luck! And remember the Rule of First Drafts, coined I am not sure by whom, which should become your mantra for November: The only thing a first draft needs to be is done.

Ready? GO!