The Secret to World Building

"Part of the attraction of the Lord of the Rings is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed."

                               -- J. R. R. Tolkien, Godfather of World Building

The secret to creating a compelling world is to maintain the illusion that there is always more.

The second biggest mistake amateur world-builders make when showing off their world is to explore all of it. The worst is when they let the narrator or the protagonist or, God forbid, some professor character infodump all over the reader about their beautiful world -- all its countries and cultures, its languages and latitudes.

But even those that avoid the infodump -- who take their protagonist through the world so the reader can experience it -- will sometimes make the mistake of showing everything.

As the author, you need to know everything about your world, precisely because of what Tolkien says above. The reader wants hints that the world is much bigger than what they see. And if you always "go there," if you tell them all about it, you destroy the magic.

The Hunger Games still has districts we know nothing about. Mistborn implies the existence of undiscovered metals, with undiscovered powers. Even if you've read everything the Tolkien estate has ever published, there are still places in Middle Earth that you've only heard about. That is what will make your world compelling.

What are your favorite fictional worlds? What parts do you wish you could see more of?

A Lesson on Color

Okay, I know I said we weren't supposed to hate on the haters about the whole Rue and racism thing. And I don't intend to hate, but there was one tweet in particular that, two months later, still nags at me:

So I guess "dark brown skin" is not the same as "all the way black." I'm not entirely certain what color palette they were using, but in the interest of teaching instead of hating, I'm going to give a color lesson.*

Presented here are people with varying skin color. For each image, I have taken both a light and dark average of their skin and placed it next to the colors implied by traditional skin color terms.

This is white:
These are the color averages of this girl's skin:

This is yellow:
These are the color averages of this guy's skin:

This is red:
These are the color averages of this guy's skin:

This is black:
These are the color averages of this girl's skin:

I know I'm not the first person to point out that "black" does not, cannot, literally mean black (shoot, even Drizzt is basically gray). But let's go back to the comment in question.

Rue's description in Hunger Games was "dark brown skin," which a number of people interpreted as meaning "brown but not black," and so were upset when Rue appeared in the movie as "black." Let's compare:

This is dark brown:
These are the color averages of Rue's skin:

So . . . Hollywood actually lightened Rue from her description in the book. Weird.

* If the person who tweeted that actually reads this, I do apologize for the semi-snarky way this is presented. Feel free to chew me out for hypocrisy.

A Common Query Problem (also Kung Fu Panda)

Disclaimer: The only query slush I read is on the internet, but there's a lot out here, and I read most of it. So don't knock it.

Every query letter is different, but I've seen a lot lately with the same problems. It looks kinda like this:

Paragraph 1: Hook.
Paragraph 2: Innocent World.
Paragraph 3: Inciting Incident (often repeating the Hook).
All his life, Po wishes he could be a kung fu master, but he gets more than he bargained for when he's mistakenly named the legendary Dragon Warrior.

Po has spent his whole life in his father's noodle shop. Blah blah [his father's a goose] blah blah blah [Po plays with kung fu action figures] blah blah [he doesn't actually want to cook noodles] blah blah, etc.

Until the day it is announced that Master Oogway will decide who is to become the Dragon Warrior. [Po tries to get in to see it. Can't.] When Po crashes a slapped-together rocket chair in front of Master Oogway just in time to find the master's finger is pointing at him, his life is changed forever.
A few reasons why this doesn't work:
  1. The hook is repeated and redundant.*
  2. The reader is forced back in time at the beginning of paragraph 2.
  3. Paragraph 2 is setup and backstory. There is no plot.
  4. The query stops before it tells us the meat of the story.
  5. There is no difficult choice for the MC and, therefore, no stakes.

What you want to do with your query is more like this:

Paragraph 1: Hook, Innocent World, AND Inciting Incident.
Paragraph 2: The struggles that occur as a result, leading up to...
Paragraph 3: The Sadistic Choice

Obviously the three paragraphs are just a guideline (mine had four; your story might do it in two). The point is to start with your inciting incident and end with your sadistic choice. A compelling choice is what will make agents want to read more.

Let's look at Po again:
All his life, Po wishes he could be a kung fu master instead of making noodles, but he gets more than he bargained for when Master Oogway names him the legendary Dragon Warrior by mistake.
(See? The inciting incident IS your hook, and you don't need to spend more than a few words on the innocent world. Now the rest of the query is free to talk about what agents really want to know: the story. Moving on.)
Unfortunately, Po suffers from weight and incompetence problems. The Furious Five mock him, and Master Shifu is trying to get rid of him. Even so, Po is determined to learn everything he can, and his refusal to give up eventually earns the respect of the Five, even if his kung fu skills do not.

Master Shifu receives word that the powerful Tai Lung has escaped from prison and is on his way to seek his revenge. He runs to Master Oogway, the only master who has ever beaten Tai Lung, but Oogway insists Po is the one who will defeat Tai Lung. When Oogway passes away, Po must decide if he will risk his life based on the ramblings of an old man, or if he should run away, risking the destruction of the entire valley.
It still needs work of course (query letters are hard, guys), but hopefully you get the idea. Start with the inciting incident, end with the sadistic choice, then connect the dots (all the while being specific and skipping everything that isn't necessary for the agent to understand the weight of the choice -- hey, I said it was hard).

What do you think? Is this helpful? How would you handle things differently?

* The concept of a "hook" paragraph comes from query help sites like this one. It's a sound idea, but often misunderstood.

Who's Your Favorite Villain?

I am a huge fan of sympathetic and redemptive villains. So my favorite villain of all time is . . .


Honestly, he had me at Agni-Kai.

Runner-up villains include:
  • Darth Vader
  • The Operative
  • Lord Ruler 
  • And climbing the charts for me is Jaime Lannister, but it remains to be seen how sympathetic he will become (before George Martin kills him).

So who's your favorite villain?

Uncle Iroh on Revision

When I talked about why I don't hate synopses, some of you were disappointed. I talked about how I got myself to actually write one, but you wanted to know how to write one well, to which my completely useless solution was "Make it sound good."

It's good advice, but not very practical. Drafting is (for me) the hardest part of writing, but revision is where real novels are made. It's something you have to be good at to make it in this business. Unfortunately, it's not something I can give an algorithm for (not yet). But I do have some tips to share with the help of my favorite uncle.

Remember Your Basics
You know all those rules you learned? About commas and semicolons and spelling and grammar? About description and metaphor and not starting a story with the MC waking up? Revision is where you apply them.

Feel the Flow
When you read your story, you see everything you've ever dreamed or imagined. When someone else reads it, they only see what you tell them. As you're revising, you have to empty your mind and think, "Does this actually flow? Or do I just think it does because of all the extra stuff in my head?"

Kill It With Fire
You might not be able to predict when your reader will be bored, but you can tell when you are. If some part of the story (query, synopsis, etc.) is boring to you, it will bore someone else. Insert some voice, connect us with the character through emotions or goals, or just kill the whole thing. You'd be surprised what doesn't have to be there.

Credit: Dark Kenjie
Work Your Belly Off
Revision is hard, and like all hard things, it takes practice. You have to develop a feel for how a new reader will interpret things, an eye for where things slow down, an ear for voice. You can practice by getting critiques and fixing your own stuff, but you can only do that for so long before you run out of material.

If you really want to practice hard, the trick is to critique other people's stuff. You don't even have to network to do it. Just hit up Miss Snark's First Victim or Evil Editor or Work those critting muscles like a fat fire-bender stuck in prison!

Yeah, I know I just said to work your belly off, but you need to relax too. Partly because you need a break from the story to even hope to read it like a new reader, but also because writing is hard, and you need to take care of yourself. A man (or woman) needs his rest.

What are your tips for revision?

Getting better at something is a very, very, slowly, gradually, very, very slow thing

And that's all I have to say about that.

(Totally unrelated, my agent sister Daisy Carter is having a Q&A with our agent on her blog. So if you've got any questions for Tricia Lawrence (and maybe want to win a free book), head on over there!)

Why Should You Get an Agent?

(Remixed from a post over two years ago, when self-publishing wasn't quite the thing it is now. I'm still of the opinion that agents are a Very Good Thing. Opinions on self-publishing can be found here.)

When I first started querying, I didn't know if I should query agents or editors. I was only vaguely aware of what agents did. Based on my experience with real estate agents, I knew they handled the legal stuff and took a cut, that was about it.

I wanted help with the legal stuff, and preferred an agent to a lawyer. I figured I'd get one eventually, but I wasn't very adamant about it back then. Two things tipped me over the edge.

The first (though I don't remember where I read it) was this: say you submit to all the hundreds of agents and they reject your work. You can still submit to the editors.*

But, if you submit to all those editors who accept unagented queries and they reject you, any agent you get afterward will be quite disappointed to find half their prospective editors already said no.

* Though if all the agents are rejecting you, I don't know why you'd expect different from the editors.

The second was Tobias Buckell's author advance survey. I love statistics, and Tobias got some good ones from a decent sampling of authors. If you're at all interested in what authors make, I suggest you read it. But basically: the median advance for first-time authors with an agent was $6,000; the median advance to the unagented was $3,500.

Some quick math: the agent's cut is 15%. For the agented authors, then, the net gain was $5,100. Still significantly more than that of the unagented.

As far as I know, that 15% is the only downside to having an agent. If agents are making back 3x that, while simultaneously haggling for your rights, selling those rights for more money, and generally ensuring you don't get screwed -- all while you are busy with the task of actually writing -- the choice of agent or no seems like a no-brainer.

(From a publisher's point of view, it seems to me that they could save a lot of money by encouraging writers to submit to them unagented. But then Moonrat has a good list of reasons why editors would prefer to work with agents anyway. So there you go).