Category Archives: Library talks

Sneaky World-Building Part 1: The Why

This is the first in a short series of posts about one of the most frustrating subjects for authors. I hope to share some solid tips on the best ways to build the world of your story for readers, and I would be eager to get your feedback about what I put out here. I’ll answer the other classic questions in the following five posts. But first, the big one:

WHY do we have to world-build, and why does it have to be sneaky?

Two reasons.

Because There’s No Point Otherwise

This is one of those it-gets-worse-before-it-gets-hard things. Because let me guarantee you, if someone picks up your fiction book and puts down hard cash real money in its place, they are NOT seeking to find out more about their own lives, or what happened yesterday down in the living room or anything else they already know.

They are seeking escape.

And it doesn’t have to be another planet, or a dragon’s island, or some office where people turn their shoes into guns and hide supercomputers in chips under their skin. It doesn’t have to be a city where every guy and gal is drop-dead gawhjuss, and violins play whenever two people talk. Those people don’t need to have purple skin, or high arching eyebrows, or be six hundred years old. It doesn’t have to take place in a palace with a murder to solve or a deep cave with a quest to achieve or a twisting, enormous library with a code to crack.

But it can’t be in the reader’s “here” and it can’t be about “them”. Nobody pays money for that.

They paid the hard cash money for your book to be taken to another world.

But not to learn about it!

Because Readers are Ungrateful Wretches

I hate hyperbole so let me be clear. When I say “ungrateful wretches” I’m probably being a little too kind. Also unreasonable and illogical.

In short, they demand to be taken away from their “here and now” and plopped into the middle of an extraordinary, fascinating place. BUT- the very instant you start to tell them about this place, they scream. Maybe I’m biased because epic fantasy writing involves probably the most world building of any genre in terms of the default setting (more later), but it sure doesn’t take them long to fidget in the presence of the facts they need to know about the place you’ve created.

They need to know it.

They will fight kicking and screaming against having to learn it.

So you have to be sneaky.

The Patience Horizon is Shrinking

As writers, we tend to imagine our readers investing some fraction of the same time and effort to learn about the place we’ve come to know, that we ourselves did. And we KNOW how cool that place is, we are already in love with it. Why WOULDN’T a reader be willing to plop down and dig in a bit? That’s common sense. You’ll need to get rid of that if you want to understand the reader.

Like I said, ungrateful and illogical. What really happens is the reader opens your book and a candle starts to burn down. The sun is already past noon and headed toward setting. In other words, their store of patience begins to wane. And your book is burning that candle, pushing the sun out of the sky. Your tale is read only with a kind of clock ticking behind every page. And the reader has to “get it”: they have to arrive at the point where you’ve demonstrated the coolness and gotten them hooked before their sun sets.

I call that the Patience Horizon.

And it varies by genre, in terms of number of pages. I write for the epic fantasy tribe, and we are few but fierce. My readers see the dragon or the sword on the cover and they know, there’s not much they can safely assume about that “default setting” of my world. No modern technology, maybe mythical creatures, magic spells and effects; there’s a lot on the table for me to explain, but my readers tend to know they have to have a long Patience Horizon to give me that chance.

And here’s the killer thing–

the Patience Horizon is shrinking.

All the time, and dramatically.

Because there’s so much else a reader could be doing. Mostly with video and audio. Things that just pour entertainment into their heads, and are more passive by far than reading is. Hell, they don’t even have to flip the page! And everyone knows the ratio of pictures to words. Nobody could ever read fast enough to catch up. In a movie, even a fantasy movie, the viewer can be clued into the races, the monsters, the magic, all of it in a single scene, not in fifty pages but in fifteen seconds.

The Times They Are a Changin’

Many of the great writers we admire did not have to deal with this. Tolkien, the Moses of my genre, could craft his tablets in peace and present them to people who had no TV, for whom seeing a movie meant a road trip. He could take his time to build the world. And boy, did he…

When I got to the Council of Elrond, I was totally hooked– I became so engrossed in the tale I didn’t even notice that I had finished book 1 and picked up book 2! But that was the early 70s. Nothing on the tube. Four feet of snow blocking the driveway.

My readers have choices.

And if you write in other genres? Well God bless you!

Sure, sometimes you have less to explain to the reader about gravity, taxes, nuclear families. But they are not going to wait. You’re stuck.

  • If you don’t explain what’s different or special about your world, the reader will complain when they realize their default setting was wrong, and blame it on your poor writing.
  • If you do explain it right away, the reader’s Patience Horizon will set and there will come a day when they put your book down and never pick it back up again. And blame it on your poor writing.

Are you noticing a common theme there? Like I said, ungrateful.

But No Escape from the World You Built

Nevertheless, you are writing about a place, or a time, or a state of mind that the reader doesn’t know. Even literary fiction (or “high” fiction, stuff set in the Alleged Real World, with “real” people and “normal” situations) takes the reader away. In some ways, the worlds built in literary fiction are more crucial–and probably harder– to portray than wild far-out sci-fi or dystopian paranormal cross-undead romances, because they require such a fine precision of description, or interior voice or allegory or any one of a dozen other things that are completely unrelated to finding the artefact of ancient days that will destroy the demon ravaging the kingdom. There are readers who want to go to every world we can imagine. You must remember that.

They want to be “there”, they bought the book.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you why you must build the world for your readers.

Coming up, five paths you can take to sneak it past them!

Come back on Two-World Tuesdays for each installment, where I’ll add a little color to five aspects of world-building. All are related and the general theme of sneakiness applies. I hope you enjoy them and will share your thoughts about world-building for everyone’s benefit.

The times have changed. The Patience Horizon is shrinking. You know the only place you can still find a reader curled up for hours with a book? IN A BOOK!

Year-End View: That Happened, This is Coming

The last two weeks have definitely involved reflection for me, an unaccustomed state with all that normally happens. Officially on vacation from work (still peeking at the emails each morning- confess, you do it too), and of course I submitted Book Four to Findaway Voices last week, so the audiobook series is finally out the door. Christmas light drive was Wednesday night and now I’m waiting on the big day and musing about what actually hit me in 2018, as well as what’s to come next.

2018 Year in Review: One Big New Thing

I did some of the more usual authorly stuff in the past year:

  • Fairs- Smyrna Opera House (Feb), Cecil ComicCon (Apr), Dover ComicCon (Aug)
  • Library Talks- April (‘By’ the Cover) and December (I Can Show You)

I sold some copies, met some folks, and I think I generally made a good impression. Most of all these gigs are FUN. For me. I’m so aggressively extroverted I would never pass up a chance to be in front of customers, fellow authors– really anyone who will stand still and listen to me talk is a friend in my book. What can I say, I’m easily pleased. I want to keep all these on my docket for 2019 and hopefully add at least one more fair (Ocean City ComicCon, which I hear is great but was far away and conflicted with a rehearsal for my daughter’s schooling).

The Traditional Thing

There was also some writing. Specifically, I lobbed out drafts of three short pieces (going into the Tales of Hope collection, where I’m aiming for a second volume at about twice the total size as current). I got good feedback but haven’t polished them yet. Also I created a “tall tale” that will be the seed for a longer piece about the origins of the hero Treaman, perhaps called “The Crust Runner”. As I reflect on my world, this well-traveled young Woodsman has to rank as one of the greatest and most important heroes of the new generation; and if Solemn Judgement has an origin, why not Treaman? It could be a short story, or perhaps a novelette, I still have to flesh this out and I’m looking forward to that in January (as I complete it for my assignment in Myth-Fantasy Writing!).

But far and away, what I did in 2018 was record my voice.

A Lot Like Writing

I can’t imagine how many hours I spent, just recording. Two hundred, maybe? Probably less, but then the editing, production effects, totaling the files and shipping them off with bated breath to my distributor.

And the waiting. That counts too. That WAS hundreds of hours.

Rejection, don’t forget that part- especially early on there was lots of learn-by-doing-wrong (most people drop that last word, but I’m being honest  here). The big audio houses have fairly tough technical requirements and I kept getting little things wrong. But the pipeline APPEARS to be moving smoothly now- The Ring and the Flag and Fencing Reputation are out (book 2 still waiting on Audible); Perilous Embraces entered distribution as of December 19th and should be popping up in various outlets soon; Shards of Light is awaiting technical checks but was recorded in identical fashion to the others so I anticipate it will go through. Maybe in time for Christmas?

I signed onto Findaway’s new Voices Plus service, a no-brainer for someone in my position. If you distribute to every partner and only use Findaway to do it, you can qualify for a few extra perks including piracy protection (which certainly caught my eye), and maybe a slice of preferential treatment when new abilities come to the platform. I certainly have no bandwidth to seek alternatives, so this seemed a great option for me. At least the next six months, I’m in.

I’m mentally quite exhausted by the effort to record, post and blog about my audiobooks but I am also proud of my efforts. I had no earthly notion it would suck up 90+% of my writing time for the entire year, so I will have to be careful about making promises to myself or others in future. But if the sales do at all well I would probably consider continuing to narrate in some capacity.

2019 Plans: Several Smaller Things

Much of this you can already guess.

  • The same fairs, plus one
  • Hoping for two or three library talks
  • Polish those three drafted short tales (perhaps add one or two more)
  • Grow the story-seed of Treaman’s origin into a short tale or novelette
  • Return to actually blogging sometimes. I will edit my world-building library talk into a six-bullet series which should be easy to take in, hopefully helpful to aspiring authors (and amusing to interested readers). After that, I have a few ideas.
  • Then back to writing for real with my long-abandoned start of The Test of Fire. This sequel to The Plane of Dreams is actually the end of the trilogy (the first book has yet to be written, so sue me). It is a ripping good tale, focusing more strongly on one of the terrific characters in that someday-to-be-middle book, the young knight Qerlak and his close companion the human Dream-seer Galethiel as they fight for what’s right on several levels. Can I finish this ~100k novel with less than 20k drafted? Probably yes! But that’s assuming a lot goes right for me and my family, which was never a wise bet

Like life itself, it’s an adventure and we’ll have to see. But as my college motto says:

Laying it on a bit thick? Maybe. But this is the time of year to feel ambitious. Remind me in May and we can both look back and laugh.

All the best to those reading my blog so faithfully; here’s to success whatever your plans for 2019 (unless your plans involve becoming a famous new epic fantasy author- I’m not secure enough to wish you well in that!).