Worldbuilding: Establishing the rules

This post is not so much about a how-to as much as a please-do. Too often writers have built themselves a fun world without ever building boundaries about what is possible. Example, you ask? Why, sure. Star Trek is about flying around space, exploring in a ship named Enterprise (in case you grew up under a rock on Vulcan).

This was a fun movie that made no sense

This was a fun movie that made no sense

In Star Trek: Into Darkness, the villain (Benedict Englishname) blows up some stuff on Earth and teleports himself away to Kronos (Google told me it’s properly spelled Qo’noS, for some reason.) Starfleet can’t chase him there, because Kronos is the home to the warlike Klingons.

There’s a reason no one transported themselves from one planet to another in the TV show. If you can just jump from planet to planet instantly, WTF is the point of the Enterprise? And don’t get me started on the whole magic-blood thing. The gods of science fiction and logic wept.

Similarly, the Time-Turner in the Harry Potter books so break any reasonable rules of magic that the reader is forced to ask “Why the hell don’t they just do that again?”

An aside: It’s okie dokie to break these rules in the right place, by the way. In fact, the start of your story may be “Evil Lord Kongoth(®) just took his power to tier 8, when we all know and have previously established that tier 6 is as high as it goes!” You know, just as long as your characters react appropriately when someone DOES break the rules.

Anyway, the final impact of your story can be wholly ruined by poorly established rules. If in your knights-and-swords historical fiction someone pulls out a shotgun and blows away your villain, you make your reader feel cheated and you’ve lost the impact of your work.

“Why didn’t he just do that earlier?” the audience asks. “If King Arthur had guns, Guinevere didn’t have to die by Atomic Hamster in scene 2! I feel cheated! And the impact of the author’s work has been lost!”



So invent some rules for your story. And then, for your own sake, don’t break them lightly.


The Query Letter: Everything You Need to Know

Part 1: Tip of the iceberg

Query letters are hard.

Damn hard.

Harder than writing the book itself, and almost as hard as the synopsis (I’ll probably write a post on synopsaises sometime. After an antacid and alot of whisky).

For the most part, your query should read like the inside flap of a book. It makes the agent want to read more. Don’t give away the twist ending (you’ll do that in the synopsis. Did I mention the synopsis was a b***h?).


It was anything but another day in the sixth lower plane of torment when Beelzebub woke up with a halo

This is crucial: HOOK ME IN THE FIRST LINE (OR TWO).

Line and sinker, too

Line and sinker, too

Agents claim to get hundreds or trillions queries every second. And most also claim to know, after the first margin at least, if they care about your project. So make it interesting. Unique. Gripping. Or write in the agent’s home address and include a picture of their pet hamster. My point is, get them to read the rest of it.


In a world where Galileo spotted an alien message in the stars, what else could ruin an opening like a rhetorical question?

Don’t start with an open-ended question. It’s cliché and some agents hate it. If you start your query with “What would YOU do if…”, the answer is “Rewrite my opening line.”

Dave must save Ruthie from the evil cyborg Schnozbot before his mother, Voldermom, can destroy the planet Omicron Persei Four.

Holy crap that’s alot of names to remember. Try to keep things as simple as possible. You can name people in the actual story, if you can get me to read some pages. What I need to know is your protagonist’s name. For now we’ll just call the love interest “The cute guy in fourth period with wings”? Now I know something interesting about him, but I don’t need to remember yet another name for later.

"These are all named characters. Let's start with the guy on the left..."

“These are all named characters. Let’s start with the guy on the left…”

If you were selling Fellowship of the Ring, you could probably call Gimli a “Dwarf companion” and Legolas “Some elf chick.” You’d only really need to mention the protagonist’s name: Samwise Gamgee. Just keep it as simple as possible.


This book is way better than Twilight or the Bible

Whoa. Whoa, whoa whoa. Do not badmouth anybody. Ever. Even if you made it cute or funny, don’t. Seriously. I cannot stress this enough.

Comparing yourself to existing works is okay as long as it sounds like, “Fans of Jonathon Franzen will love my novel THE HUNT FOR RED HAWKTOBER”. See how that doesn’t disparrage Mr. Franzen?


The publishing industry is like one pea in a pod. Intimate, let’s say. Hell, 90% of them live in NYC. All in one little town! Remember that!

And that’s everything you need to know. Everything. Okay, there may be more.

Worldbuilding: The Proxy Audience

I read and write fiction in fantastic worlds with their own unique rules.

As writers, we need more than just a pretty, unique setting. Story is god (and in this case, demigod). But alot of the time, the story and the world can’t exist without each other.

We can’t just start a story with “Here’s the world. Here are the rules. Here’s the glossary you’ll need. Got everything? Okay. Now here’s why you should care about the setting, starting in chapter 2.”

So how do you do all that and tell the story at the same time? Well, often, we use a PROXY AUDIENCE.

What is the proxy audience? Here’s an example.

Pictured: The Audience Proxy

Pictured: The Proxy Audience

The Star Wars universe has countless aliens, republics, rebellions, and space-wizards. Our hero, Luke Skywalker, will become one (a space wizard, not a republic).

Star Wars: A New Hope uses two great methods for world-building. First, it just lets characters live in their universe and the audience picks it up through osmosis. Galactic denizens buy secondhand robots from tiny sand-people? Okay. Aliens are as scummy as humans and they hang out in filthy cantinas? Sure, why not?

But for the story to progress further we need to know the RULES of space-wizards. So to do that, Luke doesn’t know jack shit about them. Having an ignorant character is method number two.

Everything about space-wizards has to be explained to Luke. He has misconceptions about the rebellion so Han Solo can disillusion him.

Luke Skywalker is the stand-in, or PROXY, for the audience.

When Obi Wan tells Luke that the force is an “Energy Field created by all living things blah blah,” He’s really saying that to the audience. Remember, the writer could have had Luke just already know this.

So remember, the easiest way to create a world with new rules is just to write in an idiot.

Harry Potter didn’t know what british-wizards were, so they held his hand along the way.

Neo didn’t know what techno-wizards were, so Morpheus gave him a tour.

And Ryan Gosling didn’t know what notebook-wizards were until Rachael Mcadams sent him to notebook school.

I think. I didn't actually read this one

I think. I didn’t actually read this one

And it doesn’t have to be your main character. Your sidekick leans over your main character’s shoulder and says, “What are you doing?”

BAM, there’s your chance to explain that Barney the Dinosaur was a serial murderer in your universe and why it’s important to the story.

Whether or not it’s mentioned, that’s true in all of my stories.

Overwriting action


Next up: Tightening the action.

Your prose is glorious. Your narrative is full of thought-evoking sentences. But then comes the action.

God, I love this scene

An example of a perfect action scene


Let’s say your main character is facing the evil overlord. You’ve spent the last 800 pages building up to this swordfight.

Dial back the flowery wording, Shakespeare.

Let’s look at two examples I’m about to make up on the fly.

Example the first:

Desmond prepared himself, setting his feet as his instructor had demanded. Feeling the weight of the iron and the beading of sweat on his forehead, he arced the blade upward and deflected the Dark Lord’s blow. The chime rung in the air and vibrations shook bones and confidence. Time and again he parried, never finding purchase in the sand to launch his own attack.

Okay, that was awesome, right? I know, I kind of got caught up there. But the reader doesn’t get the feeling of urgency.

Example beta:

The Dark Lord drove at the boy’s heart. Desmond deflected. Again. Again. His bones shook. So did his confidence. The sand shifted and Desmond couldn’t find purchase. There was no chance to launch his own attack. Every dodge, every parry reminded him: the Dark Lord could not die.

Okay. Which seemed faster? More actiony? The second. The first sounds like a dance. The second sounds desperate. I often wanted my scenes to feel like life and death, but they sounded like a deadly stroll in the park.

Coming soon: Fixing more errors in writing. From the blogger who’s never made none.

We know who you’re talking to

How to improve your dialogue. Stop calling each other by their names.

When first writing third person, characters addressed each other by name WAY too often.

Edwin: “How’ve you been, Bob?”

Bob: “Fine, Edwin. You?”

Edwin: “I’ve got this weird itch on my ovipositor, Bob.”

Clive Owen: “Look out, Bob and Edwin! The Atomic Hamster Reserve is about to explode!”

All my posts are hamster-related

All my posts are hamster-related

See what’s wrong with that dialogue? Correct. You don’t actually say the name of the person you’re addressing that often in real life. It’d be weird. Also, the whole point of an Atomic Hamster Reserve is that it’s nonvolatile.

I’m not really sure why novice writers like myself add so many of these in their dialogue. Perhaps it’s because, when writing 3+ characters, it’s crucial to make sure the reader knows who’s talking. So constantly saying names becomes a type of dialogue tag.

After all, if one character addresses another by name, you can follow that up with “Blah blah blah,” she replied. We know exactly who’s talking. You just named her in the previous dialogue.

Overusing prepositional phrases in your writing

I decided to throw together a post about problems I actively need to correct in my writing or things that I see in other writers’ stuff.

Pay attention. This might help you

I overuse prepositional phrases in my writing.

See that?  That was an example. A better way to write that: I overuse prepositional phrases in my writing. See?

I remember I had a character sitting at a desk and I wrote a line like She pulled her gun from the holster and slammed it down on the desk.

A critiquer said, “She’s sitting at a desk. You don’t need to tell me where she slammed it. I was already picturing it happening at the desk. Only tell me if she slams it somewhere less likely, like her own forehead.

Review: The Martian

I’d really, REALLY love to tell you about a book that I read recently that I spent much time eviscerating in my mind. I’d like to work with that author’s agent and publisher, though. I don’t have the star power to speak my mind.


So, instead, I’ll review a book I loved and pick apart the reasons why I loved it.


And this cover art is gorgeous. I’ll make a whole post about covers

The Martian by Andy Weir. I really, really liked this book. It’s about a modern-day astronaut stranded on Mars and how he survives day-to-day. Think Robinson Crusoe but with a much redder landscape.

Let me get a couple quick things out of the way: I like the engineering, the layman’s math, and thinking about space-travel in general. Mileage may vary, reader to reader.

I posted about how you can have conflict without assholes. This book proves it. There is constant tension as the main character meets and overcomes obstacles. The astronaut battles the elements, the folks on Earth battle physics, weather, and budget crises.


I’ve read plenty of books where I’ve thought, “These people could die on another planet alone and I’d be fine with it.” This book is not one of them.

Here’s how any OTHER author would add conflict for the sake of conflict: the astronaut would have a wife back on Earth.

We’d spend pages – even chapters – listening to the protagonist opining his lost love or constantly wondering “Will I ever again get to see my little girl/dog/stamp collection!?”

The writer would say, “What could possibly be more gripping than a romance ripped apart by the planets themselves?”

The answer: NOT having a whiny character.

Author Weir’s  characters face conflict on every page. But while making people one can like. If something bad happens, it never feels like it’s because the writer said, “Well, I better insert some conflict.”

Read this book. It’s FUN, dammit.


Observations at a Starbucks

I write at a starbucks near my home. Mostly because I enjoy being a cliche’. Also because the baristas are nice to me and know me as “The guy who never buys anything, but puts something in the tip jar anyway.”

But being surrounded by people stokes my creative side. I find it easier to write in a busy environment.

Or, perhaps more accurately, I find stupid things on my computer FAR more distracting when I’m alone.

Some things about my starbucks:

  • Wedding planners meet with clients here alot. Does starbucks cater weddings? Take note, coffee execs.
  • There is a inverse correlation with how much I enjoy a book  and the chance someone will come over to me and gush about it or start a conversation about it.No matter how much I enjoy Emperor Mollusk Versus the Sinister Brain, a person with a bare ring-finger will only start a conversation with me if they see me reading The Magicians by Lee Grossman. I have major issues with that book.
  • A certain Persian barista has yet to ask me about my time-travelling book

Good vs Fun (Stories I Care About Pt. 2)

I love things that I enjoy.

Some things that are good are not always enjoyable.

Lemme give examples from movies. I’ll pick on Spielberg. Schindler’s List is a good movie. So is Saving Private Ryan. ‘Good’ may be understating it a bit.

However, I can’t really ENJOY these movies. They’re a beat-down, emotionally. God, that moment where Mr. List is talking about he could have saved a few more… I cry like a little non-gender-specific girl.

I can’t watch these movies more than once. I know they’re GOOD, I just can’t ENJOY them. I know quality when I see it, usually. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Probably a great book. I refuse to find out.



But Jurassic Parque and the Indiana Jones trilogy? Those are good AND fun. I can watch those, love those, base romantic relationships around those, et cetera.

So the ideal stories are good and fun. But the latter is more important to me than the former.

Some examples of good stories I dislike:

  • The Dark Knight
  • Anything by Neil Gaiman
  • The Name of the Wind (But I enjoyed Wise Man’s Fears)
  • Most scif/fantasy by Stephen King (Most recently 11/22/1963 – The poor man does not know how to end a book)
  • Minority Report

Some examples of flawed stories I like alot:

  • Pacific Rim
  • The Harry Potter books (I’m probably not going to hurt her readership by calling her stories flawed)
  • Most movies starring Will Smith
  • Books by Dean Koontz where the villain is a monster and not a human/pedophile
  • Pirates of the Caribbean (it has a zombie pirate monkey! This might require a new category)
  • The stuff that I write.

Coming soon: Write conflict on every page. But for the love of god, stop doing it by adding unnecessary asshole characters (I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead)

Stories I care about

Everyone’s opinion is subjective. Except mine. My opinions are the right ones. I wanted to write a primer for what I like. That way I can immediately drive away as much web-traffic as I can by alienating the majority of readers. Because most of you read and watch terrible stuff.

A few of my favorite things: Puppies, whiskey, books by Lois McMaster Bujold

First of all, I love Fiction. I’ve never understood folks that see me reading and say “Why are you interested in that? It never happened.”

Yeah, that’s the point. My life is nonfiction. I don’t want to spend my free time in the same exact world. For me, reading nonfiction iss like when you get up, brush your teeth, dress, and go to work. Then you wake up and have to do it all over again because it was all a really boring dream. Ugh.

My favorite stories spark my imagination or are just so fantastic my brain can’t stop thinking about them. Overwritten as they may be, I’d rather read Nosferatu’s memoir than a former presidents.

This post is getting long, so I’ll write more in the future.