World-Building: Making Up Your Own Games

One totally optional, but (in my opinion) totally fun aspect of world building is making up fictional games for your world. Like holidays and festivals, games unique to your world can give it a deeper feel and provide an endless source of subplots, conflicts, and climactic settings.

And they're easy to come up with: just take a real-world game and change it slightly. Put Chinese chess on a circular board and change the tiles. Play chess with holographic monsters. Combine Blitzkrieg with Stratego.

For a lot of fictional games, the rules don't actually matter. Although fans have made up rules for Avatar's Pai Sho and Song of Ice and Fire's cyvasse, nobody knows the rules used in the actual worlds because they don't matter. The writers have an idea of the basic concepts of the games (taken from the real-world games they combined) and they only reveal what they need to keep the plot moving.

But sometimes you want more than that. A critical event might turn on the outcome of a bet, like in Pirates 2 or Phantom Menace. Or your entire plot might center on a game, like Ender's Battle Room. In these cases, the reader needs to understand and care about what's going on. They need to know the rules.

If you're not into game design, keep things simple. Liars' Dice, podracing, and even the Battle Room are directly translated form real-world games. The writers only made slight alterations for their settings.

If you want something more complicated, be warned: an unbalanced game, whose rules are detailed in the story, will shatter the reader's disbelief. You can solve this by asking, "How could I break this game so that I win every time?" and then fix it, but that's getting into game design techniques, which I don't think you came here for.

Got that? Here's the summary:
  • Fictional games are easy to make: take a real-world game and change it slightly.
  • If the plot does not hinge on the outcome of a game: be vague about the rules.
  • If the plot does hinge on the outcome: stick as close to the rules of a real-world game as possible.
  • If the plot hinges on the outcome and you really, really want to come up with something unique: welcome to the world of game design, my friend. Here's a list of games to study up on.
Next week, I'll talk about one particular fantasy game that doesn't work, why it doesn't work, and why the novels end up working anyway. Until then, what are your favorite fictional games and why?

First Impact: ROGUE PRINCESS by J.J. DeBenedictis

We've got one last First Impact submission for September! This might be the last critique for which I offer a monthly prize so remember: anyone who shares their thoughts in the comments is eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N or a 20-page critique from me. Your comment doesn't have to be long, just useful!

And I will still take First Impact submissions as they come in. So if you want a critique, send it to Details here.

Huge thanks to J.J. DeBenedictis for submitting the query for her novel, ROGUE PRINCESS. If you don't already know, J.J. runs her own excellent query critiquing/rewriting blog. You may recall she helped make my own query successful. I'm more than happy to return the favor!

Remember all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it. Any in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

Query Letter
I don't imagine necromancers with
mustaches so much, but otherwise
I love this opening.
Everyone thinks necromancers are moustache-twirlers in goth make-up and disturbing wardrobe choices. But really, they're more like Wynne--a considers himself sensitive and friendly young man who. He sees his job less as magically wrangling souls and more as offering comfort and closure to the bereaved.

The 2nd half of this sentence feels
cliche and vague to me.
So when the king tries to kill Wynne to hide the fact the queen has been murdered and reanimated, it thrusts the necromancer into a world of intrigue and violence he has no capacity for.

I'm unsure of the meaning of the
highlighted bit here.
To save his life, Wynne shimmies escapes down a drainpipe and joins the Rogues' League, a military company that offers sanctuary to criminals in exchange for service to the crown. Unfortunately, Wynne's plan to then enlist the help of the warfront necromancers disintegrates. The queen's continued un-life is weakening the walls between worlds, and Wynne's peers are too busy stopping angry souls from creeping onto the battlefield as walking dead to help Wynne crowbar the queen back out of her corpse.

I'm not sure "bigotry" is the right
term here. It makes me hate the
princess more than I think is
In fact, the only person willing to help him is the bigotry-driven princess (also hiding out in the Rogues' League) who murdered the queen in the first place. Unfortunately, her bigotry mainly consists of hating she hates anything to do with necromancy, and Wynne isn't sure this is an alliance he can survive.

"The walls between worlds" feels
repetitive to me here.
But he has to. There's more at stake than the comfortable life he had planned. If Wynne doesn't break past the palace's security and re-kill the queen, the walls between worlds will tear, angels and demons alike will spill through to wreak havoc, and the dead will rise and begin to eat the living.

ROGUE PRINCESS is a 77,000-word fantasy that will appeal to readers who enjoy the dark humor and relentless action of Joe Abercrombie's novels or Richard Morgan's A LAND FIT FOR HEROES series. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Adam's Thoughts
This sounds like fun! I think the voice and Wynne's character comes through really well, and the plot sounds intriguing. I do want a more sadistic choice to leave me wanting more (I always do, don't I?), but I think this does a good job getting the story across. I think most agents would immediately be able to tell if this was the kind of story they were into.

One thing you do want to be careful of is wordiness. You can see I trimmed a lot, and I bet you could trim even more. There's plenty of great voice and word choice here that you can stand to streamline it without losing any of it (though even I'm rethinking cutting the word "shimmies" -- it's a great image).

What do the rest of you guys think? Would you read this?

The Reality of Time Travel

"Time travel is theoretically impossible, but I wouldn't want to give it up as a plot gimmick."

— Isaac Asimov

So. Back to the Future. You know, the scene in the third movie where Marty complains they can't get the time machine to 88 mph because they'll run into a movie theater, and Doc says, "You're not thinking 4th dimensionally, Marty! When you go back to 1885, none of this will be here."

It's clever, cuz see, even though you're traveling to a different time, you're still in the same place. So while there's a movie theater in 1955, it's all prairieland in 1885. Where a bridge is under construction, 100 years later it'll be finished and you can just sail across.

But if you think about it, that's ridiculously Earth-centric.

See, during the time you skip, the Earth will have moved. For one thing, it rotates constantly. California (where the movies take place) moves through space at about 700 mph. So unless you are arriving at the exact same time of day as you left, the Earth will have shifted underneath you.

Pic by JasonParis, cc
In the DeLorean's inaugural voyage, Ein would've crashed into a house 12 miles west of the mall.
Also the Earth is traveling around the sun at about 67,000 mph. So not only would you have to arrive at the exact same time of day, but also the exact same time of year (we won't talk about that quarter of a day that makes Leap Day). So Einstein would have appeared somewhere past the International Space Station.

"Was that . . . a DeLorean?"

But that's assuming the sun is our central reference point, which is just as arbitrary. Why not use the galactic center? Or the (impossible to define) center of the universe? By some measurements, Earth is shooting through the universe at over 1 million miles per hour.

Poor Ein would end up a tenth of the way to the moon. And that's just for traveling one minute in to the future. Marty's first jump would land him somewhere past Neptune. His final 100-year trip would shoot him out of the solar system entirely.

Don't get me wrong, I love time travel stories. But writing them gives me a headache.

Who's not thinking 4th dimensionally now, Doc?

Twitter Horror

So I'm out of First Impact subs. I will continue to accept submissions as they come in (because, hey, one less post to think up), and September will still have a prize because I said it would, but I might not continue the prizes after that. We'll see.

In the meantime, I present to you this true story, told in tweets.

Buy a Book, Save a Baby

My friend Natalie Bahm is releasing her first book on September 28, but this isn't your normal debut.

I mean, it is a little -- bank robbers, secret tunnels, 12-year-old crushes -- but Natalie isn't selling this book for herself. All the profits are going to help Baby Jayden.

Just watch the trailer.

Jayden has been ill since birth. His parents have almost lost him at least a dozen times, and now they're struggling with a massive debt. This little guy is fighting to survive, and doing a heck of a good job with it. How much would it suck if he lost because of something stupid like money?

Plus you get a book out of it. You can pre-order it at Amazon or iTunes. Help Jayden's parents sleep better tonight (God, wouldn't that be great?).

Fixing Mary Sue

Who is Mary Sue? Mary Sue is a character that is too perfect, the one that has or does cool things just because they're cool. Everybody likes them, and anyone who doesn't gets their comeuppance in the end. Mary Sue is the author's wish fulfillment.

Sue is most common in fan fiction.* You know, where the author's character is best friends with Luke Skywalker, Jayne Cobb, and Jean-Luc Picard. I don't think there's anything wrong with Mary in these contexts, but if you're trying to get published, you want to do away with Sue.

I don't think real Mary Sues appear in fiction as often as some say they do, but they do happen.

How do you avoid this? I mean, I [try to] make a living out of writing cool characters who do awesome things. And basically every character draws from myself in some way. How do I keep my super-cool pirates/ninjas/mech pilots from becoming wish fulfillment?

Here are some ideas:
  • Give them a flaw. Not an adorable non-flaw like "clumsiness," but a real flaw like "hell-bent on revenge and too proud to admit it."
  • Support their awesomeness. Why are they the youngest, most clever assassin in history? Did they train harder than everyone else? Were they kidnapped at birth and brutally trained to be a killer by a father figure who never loved them?
  • Make them fail. It's even better if it's their flaws that cause them to fail.
  • Don't let them be the best at everything. Have other characters be better than them at some things, both friends and enemies.
  • Give them likable enemies. Not just spiteful, ugly step-sisters, but characters whose opinions the reader can respect.

I don't think Mary Sue appears as much as the internet thinks she does, but it is something to watch out for. If you think you've got a Mary Sue, you need to cruelly examine everything about them and everything they do. Mess them up, make them fail, and ask why they are the way they are.

Who's Mary Sue in the end? It's you (and also Steven Seagal).

* The term 'Mary Sue' was coined by Paula Smith in 1973, when she wrote a parody Star Trek fan-fic starring Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest and most-loved Lieutenant in the fleet. You can read it here (page 25). It's kinda hilarious.

First Impact: DEAD RECKONING Query by Aline Carriere

We're still low on submissions for First Impact. I'm happy to continue this feature as long as there's interest, but if there isn't, I'll just drop it. To get a critique, send it to Details here.

August's winner, and recipient of a 10-page critique from agent Tricia Lawrence, is maine character!

This month, anyone who shares their thoughts in the comments is eligible to win $10 for Amazon/B&N or a 20-page critique from me. Your comment doesn't have to be long, just useful!

A big thank you to Aline for submitting the query for her novel, DEAD RECKONING. (You may remember reading the first page here).

Remember all this is just my opinion. If it doesn't feel right to you, ignore it. Any in-line comments are to the right, overall thoughts at the end.

Dear Agent,

The middle of this paragraph feels
like telling to me. I say get to the
story, so we can see what Anne does.
When eighteen-year-old Anne Davis, is captured by pirates, she may be a victim of circumstance but she refuses to be a victim, and. She uses her wits, sex and sense of justice to navigate and survive the treacherous world of 18th-Century piracy, become a legend and find love. Based on the story and characters of TREASURE ISLAND, woven with the lives of actual pirates, my historical erotic adventure novel DEAD RECKONING is complete at 75,000 words.

The 2nd sentence here moves too fast
for me. A lot of events appear out of
nowhere (it feels like).

"With her own crew": Is she a
pirate now?

The end of this gets vague (for me)
and telling again.
Both attracted to and repulsed by the brutal Captain Flint, Anne finds her place aboard the pirate ship Walrus, until she refuses to kill and is marooned on Treasure Island. Following her rescue by the Hispaniola, Anne returns to the sea with her own crew after making a rash and heartfelt promise to a young boy to bring his father home. She embarks on a star-crossed journey across an ocean, through two trials, an execution and to the brink of death, with joy and bitter loss as her life careens out of control and she travels towards her destiny. DEAD RECKONING is a character-driven story of choices, calculations and chance, as Anne decides whether to return to her life of privilege or forge her own future.

I'd cut the first two sentences, unless
you got pro rate (5+ cents/word) for
one of those markets.
I have been writing professionally as an attorney for twenty-years. Recently my stories have been published at Suspense Magazine and in the Elements of Horror anthology. Additional stories and essays may be found at

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Aline Carriere

Adam's Thoughts
A love a good pirate story, and there are a lot of elements here that I love, but I think you might be trying to cram too much into the query. For example, the query lists a lot of exciting things -- two trials! an execution! near death! bitter loss! -- but without context, it's just a list.

Like if I were talking about Pirates of the Carribean, I could say, "To save the governor's daughter, Will Turner must commandeer a Navy vessel, outwit the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, and face a crew of the undead before they sacrifice the girl he loves."

OR I could say, "To rescue the girl he loves, Will Turner seeks help from the thing he hates the most: a pirate. But as he tries to stay one step ahead of the Royal Navy, and the pirate who's supposedly helping him, he discovers there's more pirate in his blood than he would like to admit."

Okay, so it needs work, but do you see my point? A list without context is not as interesting as a character with a goal and an arc. It's not enough to say what Will does (seeks help from a pirate) and learns (that he is a pirate), we have to know why it matters (because he hates pirates). You can even skip things (the undead crew) for the sake of focusing on the main arc and why it matters.

I know it's not the best example, but I hope it's helpful. I bet somebody else can give you better advice in the comments.

Controlling the Internetz

Original picture by HeyGabe, creative commons.
The internet is a beautiful, wonderful thing. I mean, without it, I'd be stuck alone out here, still waiting for my hard copy of Writer's Market to show up so I could send letters to agents asking if it was okay to query them my fictional novel.

But it's kind of a time suck, yeah?

I can't say I've solved that, but here are a couple of things I've found that have helped me tremendously:

1) Take an internet sabbath.
Some people say you should unplug for a couple weeks or a month. Maybe that's right for you. To me, a month-long break just means 600 e-mails I'll have to slog through when I come back online.

But one day a week? I can totally do that. I have been for nearly a year now. It's not always easy, but it definitely reminds me that I don't have to be All Online, All The Time.

2) Study (and limit) your internet usage.
There are lots of browser extensions that can help tell you how much time you waste spend on certain sites, and can also limit your usage.

For Firefox, I used Mind the Time to track how much time I spend and where, and once I know that, I use LeechBlock to cut off my usage after a certain time. Safari and Chrome have a similar extension (that I've never used, but it looks solid) called WasteNoTime.

They're not perfect, but these things definitely help me pay attention to why I'm on the computer.

Do you manage your time? How do you do it?