Following on from last week’s post, I just wanted to say a little something about world building. I attended a 5 hour workshop on this topic once which helped me to see how much more there was to world building than you might think.
Any spec fiction writer knows that the world in which you set your story can be as, if not more important than the characters you create to move the story along. For me the world is often an exploration of something in our world that has been taken to extreme, or it is there to highlight the progression of a current belief or ideal.
For that reason you need to know your world as intimately as you know any of your characters. Off the top of your head you should be able to answer the following questions, at least in a general way;
- How do people get power (if electricity is used)?
- How do people get food?
- Do people live in cities, towns, alone or all of these?
- What form of government is in place?
- What rules apply to any magical/psychic powers that exist (there should always be rules about these things)?
- Is there a religious belief(s)?
Now I know a lot of these questions will be completely irrelevant to your story, especially if you write flash fiction, and I’m not suggesting you put these things into your story, what I am saying is that as the owner of this world, you should know the answers to these questions.
There are some excellent workshops and books out there on how to improve your world building, and if you are going to spend a lot of time in worlds of your own creation, I think they are worth the investment. Many authors fall so in love with the worlds that they build that they set many stories in them.
As a reader I love other worlds and I enjoy reading stories set in other parts of a world that I’ve come to love. But be warned, every word you publish about a world will be read and remembered, so if you change the rules about your world, you need to include the explanation for how or why that rule was broken.
I am a fan of the prologue. For me it is like the shorts for a film; dropping you into the action of the story before we have to worry about all that character development/ world building stuff. I think it nicely whets the appetite for what is about to come.
Others are not so taken with the prologue. Things I’ve heard about prologue use include; ‘I will put a book down if I see it has a prologue’, ‘it is a tool for weak writers’, ‘It is the author being lazy.’
I must confess, I’m a bit perplexed by these comments, they certainly don’t hold true for my beliefs, for of my six novels (either finished or on the go) only two do not have prologues. Then again, maybe that is a sign of my weak writing? 🙂 Topic for another post perhaps?
Maybe it was my early reading affair with Clive Cussler novels where whatever distant disaster the book was about always took place in the prologue, so we knew what everyone was talking about in the main guts of the novel. I do not see this as a weakness, more as an excuse to do just one flashback –because everyone knows you are not allowed to do JUST ONE flashback in the body of a novel (aren’t you glad you don’t know all these rules).
For me a prologue can save you a bunch of clunky info-dumping later in the novel (another of those rules about things to avoid) or it can hook your reader so they get a glimpse of what will ultimately be driving the novel.
There are a couple of rules that I do respect when it comes to prologues; 1) short and sweet. You must keep your writing tight, and no more than two pages, half a page is even better! 2) If you start with a prologue, you must end with an epilogue. If your novel does not lend itself to an epilogue, try to knock the prologue on the head. They are the bookends to the novel and if you have one, you should always have the other.
I would love to know what readers think, as it is only other writers who I have heard make such denigrating comments about that snappy first chapter. I suspect most readers don’t even notice that they are reading a prologue! But I could be wrong…
Fiction gives writers leave to let our imaginations run wild and concoct a world of fantasy, where magic, true love and justice are as real and dependable as taxes in the non-fiction realm. However, there are some things that are acceptable in real life that cannot be sprinkled into fiction without a degree of caution; such as coincidences.
Coincidences happen every day. I was giving training where I needed to open my inbox for 30 seconds so I could show staff how to save an email. At the end of the session a girl came up to me and observed that we had both been invited to the same party by someone outside of my work life. We have been friends ever since. As if that is not coincidence enough, I sent an email to one of my friends who works in accounts when, unbeknown to me, she was training a friend of mine who had just started at her office. Both girls saw my email which broke down the degrees of separation to zero! So that coincidence has happened to me twice! TWICE! Yet I could never write it in a story because no one would believe it.
The only time that coincidences are slightly acceptable (but even here tread carefully) is if it is a bad coincidence. If it occurs at the beginning of the story and helps your main character find out her partner is cheating, or the world is about to end, or aliens are living next door, then that is acceptable. If it saves the day and prevents the tragic end to which the whole story has been geared, then you are going to find your book in the recycle bin.
One of the big rules of writing is do not pull your reader out of the story, and unfortunately, even though we have all had good turns of fortune because of them, a happy coincidence is going to rip your reader right out of your tale. So the coincidence is one facet of real life that generally can’t find a home in any genre, except maybe the memoir, and only then if it can be proven. We are a cynical bunch after all…
Embarrassing but true; one of the biggest mistakes we all make when we first start writing is with our speech tags. There is the tendency to make our characters cry, yell, exclaim, retort, whisper, slur, snap or beg.
The truth is said can cover all these things and many more. The action surrounding the speech, or the punctuation used should be enough to indicate if something is a question or if it is said in anger. You do not need the fluff!
We learn pretty quickly that repeated words look weird on the page, and some can “sound” weird in the reader’s mind if repeated too closely on the page (or horror of horrors, in the same paragraph), but ‘said’ is a strangely invisible word. Just like the character’s name in a story, it is one of those words that the brain will happily skip over, no matter how often it is repeated.
If you don’t believe me pick up the book you are currently reading (unless you are reading ‘The Dummy’s Guide to Mulching’ or some other non-fiction book) and turn to a page of dialogue. Pay attention to the number of saids on the page. Stand out like dogs… bowls, eh? Imagine if the writer had highlighted all those tags by using words like ‘gasped’ or ‘chortled’ it would have looked a bit clunky!
So as much as it can kill you when you are starting out, drop the superfluous speech tags and go with said. Then you will also be able to more easily see all the places where you don’t actually need any speech tags at all. Trust me, your writing will be much stronger for it.
“And that’s all I have to say on that topic,” said Nat.
Titles, they are one of the first things you notice about any story. So if your title doesn’t command attention you are at risk of losing a significant slice of the market before they have even read that crushingly great first line that you spent three months perfecting.
So what makes a good title? Obviously it must stand out, that goes without saying, but it also needs to be relevant. For example, I’m not going to mention anything about a crayon in this post, deadly or otherwise. Feel that flash of disappointment? You don’t want that to be someone’s reaction to your story.
I should point out, before you get too excited about the prospect of me giving you the formula for finding that perfect title, that I have a problem with titles. I have a novella with a working title of ‘science fiction story’ another is called ‘future story’ and a YA novel I’m 60,000 words into is called… ‘YA novel.’ Someone in my crit group recently subbed a first chapter of their book called ‘the New Novel’ so at least I know I’m not alone with this problem.
But bad-titleisis is not just an affliction of the unpublished. The following are examples of the author’s original title, as well as that which it was finally published under (or at least their English translations):
Something That Happened – Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
First Impressions – Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austin)
Men Who Hate Women – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson)
But perhaps my final word on titles will go to Dan Brown. He wrote an intriguing little story about the Catholic Church, and puzzles and death and stuff called Angels and Demons (ho hum). It sold less than 10,000 copies before the release of the next instalment; The Da Vinci Code. Now this title hinted at puzzles and intrigue, and has sold 81 million copies to date. I rest my case.
So don’t throw away your first and best chance to grab a reader. And don’t release a story called ‘Future Story’ –because I’ve got that one.