What would Lord of the Rings be without Mordor or the Shire? Harry Potter without Hogwarts? Wall Street without NYC? The Originals without New Orleans? Friday Night Lights without Texas? Ocean’s Eleven without Vegas?
Point is, these settings are iconic. In some cases, even more so than the characters that traverse them.
There are hundreds of world-building questionnaires online, but the absolute best thing you can do to learn how to create unique and iconic settings is travel. (Me, recommending traveling? Shocking!)
And although travel unfortunately doesn’t allow you to actually live at Hogwarts (though you can try your best in Orlando!), it does let you experience some of the most extraordinary places the real world has to offer.
Dedicated research can tell you a lot about a city, but culture begs to be felt and experienced. Google Maps can show you the street view of a location, Yelp can show you the menus of the city’s best restaurant, and Instagram can show you the pictures the locals take. But that’s all they can do: show. TV, books, and the internet can’t help you taste the food, can’t let you smell the air, touch the water or the grass, or talk with the people. They don’t allow you to form your own opinions or make your own judgments through experience.
So, then, what shapes culture? Food, music, weather, religious and political views, racial and sexual diversity, history, architecture, language and dialect, customs, wealth disparity, fashion, urban vs. rural, work and industry, leisure and entertainment, sports, arts, lifestyle. On and on and on it can go.
But you don’t have to travel far and away. Just the next state over, the next city, the next town, down the road. If none of that works, look at where you live. Pretend it’s your first time ever seeing the architecture and the landscape. The first time you tried a local restaurant or coffee shop. The language spoken and their accents. Is it busy or quiet, quaint or hustling? Do the people smile, are they in a hurry, do they keep their heads down? What would you tell someone visiting for the first time, in order to truly experience where you live? What makes your home special? What do you see, smell, hear, taste, and feel? What’s something you’d have to live there to know, that a day-trip alone can’t explain?
It’s easy to become blind to the places we live, to take for granted its specialness, its beauty (and, sometimes, its ugliness). Travel allows us to escape this pitfall. To write unbiased and honestly and to create.
Mark Twain once said there were only four unique cities in the U.S.: Boston, New Orleans, San Antonio, and San Francisco. While I think travel anywhere positively influences writing, and while some may debate Twain’s four cities, there’s a reason some places are more iconic than others. (Re: Hogwarts. Also, please, send me my letter, JKR, I don’t mind that it’s fourteen years late.)
While part of world-building focuses on realism, creating a city just like your own doesn’t necessarily make it iconic.
Here, too, travel helps.
It helps you distinguish between ordinary and extraordinary. Between the things worth noticing and the items worth stopping for. To quote Mark Hertsgaard: “Travel is like knowledge. The more you see, the more you know you haven’t seen.”
And that allows imaginations to run wild.
So go forth and travel and explore, and create worlds all your own.
It’s on to Draft #2.5 for me! Time for revisions, revisions, and more revisions. I’m certain I’m not the first, and I definitely won’t be the last, to tell you how important revising and editing your drafts are.
For the longest time though, moving past the first draft was the hardest part for me. I could write first draft after first draft (NaNoWriMo had trained me well), but would never revisit the story after I’d typed “The End.” And if the goal is to be published one day, you cannot stop after “The End.” There is so much more work to do!
Part of that work, once you feel comfortable, is to ask for feedback. And that’s what I want to share with y’all today. Below is the note I sent my first reader, detailed what they can expect, where I’d like them to focus, and any expectations I have regarding a review. (Don’t forget to profusely thank your friends for willingly reading a draft not in its best version! And if they’re also writers, volunteer to do the same for them when they’re ready!)
Note to Start
This is a first draft, which means you will find:
- Rhythm/flow issues
- Tense changes
- Other grammar problems
I don’t want you focusing on these things, though! (At least, not right now…!)
If you’re like me, and it’s just TOO MUCH to not correct something, just mark through it! I’ll read over all of your notes and can figure it out.
The reason I encourage not focusing attention on grammatical errors is because this is the easiest change to make! I need your help on the BIG things. Which leads me to…
Where to Focus
- Do you like the plot? Do some scenes need more explaining? Do some scenes not make any sense? Do you just plain not like a scene (as a reader)? Do the subplots fit in the main plot, and add to it?
- Not to be confused with rhythm/flow of each individual sentence
- This is a bigger view. Does the pacing make sense within the chapter? Across a series of chapters? Not enough ramp-up to big events? Too much ramp-up and then the actual event happens too quickly? That kind of thing!
- Character Development
- This goes for main characters to supporting/minor characters
- Could there actually be someone like this? If not, is it at least amusing/add to the story?
- Does this decision make sense for this character?
- Do the characters seem like they’ve grown over the course of the story?
- This goes for main characters to supporting/minor characters
- Story Arcs
- Main plots and subplots
- Main plots and subplots
- Major Inconsistencies
- Were major or minor plot points abandoned? Did one character say something only to contradict it, without explanation, later? Does something just NOT MAKE SENSE?
- Do you see a place for the story to expand? Were you curious about something that wasn’t in the first draft, but you think should be? Were there scenes that could have been longer? Conversely, were there scenes that didn’t move the plot forward or seemed unimportant?
- YOUR OPINION/OTHER IMPORTANT THINGS
- Does the writing style come through? (Since I’m writing from first person, can you tell that the Main Character has a clear VOICE)?
- What do you think of the work as a whole, after finishing? Were all of your questions answered? Was everything tied together well enough? Since I imagine this as a sequel, would you be okay with the ending enough even though you have to wait a year for the next one (or does it seem like it could “stand alone” for a period of time)?
- Is this story marketable? Who do you think will read this/who would you recommend this to?
Feel free to take notes whenever or wherever you want, but my expectations are just a few notes at the end of each chapter and then maybe a written page-length at the end of the story to summarize your feelings and answer the questions above. They can be real quick jots and I’ll follow-up, if needed.
You da best!! Thank you so, so much for agreeing to read my “zero/first” draft! I value your opinion and really appreciate you taking the time to look over this. I hope it’s the first of many! <3
Okay, there you have it! This gives your reader plenty to focus on, and a much better idea of what kind of feedback you’re hoping to receive than “just read it and tell me what you think, mmkay?” Good luck to everyone working on their first/second/third/millionth draft! We’ve got this!
What has been the hardest part for you? Hitting “The End”? Revising? Draft #10? Querying? Let me know!
Inspired by a book on my December TBR, I decided to write a list of all the reasons I have ever not finished a book. (If you watch my videos on YouTube, you’ll find out which book soon enough. Confession: I only made it to Chapter 5.)
As a writer, it’s important to look for these issues in my own stories, but even more important is to remember that one person’s DNF (Did Not Finish) is another’s favorite book ever. Take these 16 Reasons Why I Have DNF’d A Book with a grain of salt, but hopefully a much larger grain of amusement:
1) The language is stunted or too flowery and I can’t jive with it. (Also, this isn’t a vocab test. I don’t need a GRE word every sentence.)
2) I don’t root for the Main Character.
3) I actively dislike the Main Character.
4) I want the Antagonist to kill the Main Character and plant their head on a spike, parading them around town, ending the story and thus my misery.
5) Actually the Antagonist kind of sucks too. Weak, empty threats, and I don’t believe their reasoning? Pass. Hard pass.
6) The characters have really weird names for no earthly reason and I haven’t figured out how to pronounce them and each page is a struggle for me not to rename them to Bob or Job or Clob or Whatever-Their-First-Initial-Is-Ob.
7) Why is this one guy the best that ever was? Has he trained? No? He was just born this way? He’s never practiced his power a day in his life but is somehow the absolutely best warrior in all the land? Stop.
NaNoWriMo 2016 officially ended 7 days, 12 hours, and 53 minutes ago (as of this writing).
So now seems like the perfect time for a recap post!
If you’ll remember, I decided to challenge myself to something I was affectionately calling #2books1month. And if you don’t remember, it was my silly little goal to write 100K words over two different story ideas for the month of November.
Not NaNoWriMo. You can’t fail NaNoWriMo unless you don’t try.
No, I failed #2books1month.
Y’all – we did it! We finished Week 1. Okay, collective breath in. Aaaaaand collective breath out.
Good. We’ve survived! We’ve made it past (in my opinion) the hardest part. First week down, just a few more to go!
Here are my current stats on Day 7:
Now, I mentioned it vaguely in my post about How To Plan for NaNo, and you may have seen me talk about it if you follow me on social media, but I never fully explained what my goal is this November or why I’m doing #2books1month.
So here’s the reason:
It’s my favorite time of year again! Not only is Halloween the best holiday, right after Halloween is National Novel Writing Month!
November is almost upon us and as my excitement for NaNo has crept into October, this month will forever be known to me as NaNoPrep month!
And you know what I do during NaNoPrep month? I outline.
Especially since this will be my first year going above and beyond the 50K word goal. If you see me on social media, I’ll be using #2books1month since that’s my goal this year! (Thanks to my friend for suggesting it.)
There are some people – affectionately known as pantsers, because they’re flying by the seat of their pants – who don’t plan at all for NaNoWriMo. They may have an idea for what they want to write, or they may not, but regardless. They. Do. Not. Plan.
I used to think I was one of them. (Spoiler: I’m not.)
I like planning. (This is true in all facets of my life so why I thought writing would be any different is beyond me.) And even if you don’t usually like planning, if you’re kicking around the idea of participating in NaNoWriMo, I ABSOLUTELY RECOMMEND IT.
Because 50,000 words in one month is no joke. This comes out to ~1,667 words per day, which is more than a lot of people are used to writing. If you’re working part- or full-time, going to school, have kids, etc., this can be a difficult number to achieve each day. And it is SO easy to get behind, especially in a month where a lot of people either get the holidays off to visit family, or are working extra hours during Thanksgiving.
Basically, what I’m saying is, don’t underestimate the 1,667 words.
You may be thinking that’s silly because you can type 100 words/minute because you’re a superstar like my friend who’s going for a crazy 500K words this month. That’s fine, congrats on your insane speed, now humor me for a minute while I crunch some numbers.
Let’s assume you actually only type at 60 words/minute (“above average”). That means it would take you approximately a half hour to get all your words for the day. But hold up! That’s typing without thinking. That’s not wondering what word you want to use for the greatest impact, that’s not thinking up what a character should say or do next to advance the plot, and that’s not considering the fact that you wanted to create a world with magic and – oh shit – you’re now realizing one of your magic rules contradicts the other and AHHHHHH.
This isn’t meant to discourage! This is meant to help you realize that there’s something you can do about it now, rather than being derailed halfway through NaNoWriMo and wondering why you let yourself get so far behind and if it’s even possible to catch up. (Hello ‘07, ‘10, and ‘13 me!)
The best tip I can give to make November easier is to outline. This takes away a lot of the sitting around, wondering what on earth you’re going to write next. (And it means, if you can type 60 words/minute, NaNo won’t take up a huge portion of your day!) Now I don’t think you need to get crazy with it! All I want you to do, at first, is fill out Freytag’s Pyramid (aka the dramatic structure):
This is the original structure (and plenty of people have made changes and better updates to it), but basically it can be characterized by:
- Beginning, with Inciting Incident
- Why does your story start? Why are we following this character? What do they have to gain/lose? Why should the reader care?
- Rising Action
- Throw all of the crazy crap in the way of your character(s)! This is filled with all the complications that are keeping your character from getting what they want. Or, if you want to think of a mystery novel, this is the uncovering of the clues and the setbacks faced to find them. (This can be used for any genre.)
- The turning point, the tip, the part of the story we’ve all been holding our breaths for! In our mystery example, this is the section where we find out whodunit or realize we’ve been chasing the wrong person all along.
- Falling Action
- The aftermath of the climax, it can sometimes include one final twist.
- Resolution! “The End”! This is the part that ties the entire story together for the reader.
Here’s an example of Freytag’s Pyramid/the dramatic structure for The Great Gatsby:
And here is (in my opinion) a more accurate version of what the dramatic structure should look like in a novel:
But you get the gist! Basically, you have a beginning, a middle with the most important events, and an end. If you do no other planning or prepping than this, I think you’ll find NaNoWriMo much easier than going in blind or pantsing.
(Of course, once you have this, it’s easy to separate the dramatic structure out into a chapter-by-chapter outline. That’s what I like to do!)
Just finished the outline for one of my stories for #NaNoWriMo!
— Kate Cavanaugh (@CavanaughWrites) October 10, 2016
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Are you a planner or a pantser? If you’re a planner, how do you do it? Any tips and tricks for the rest of us?
PRO: You’re writing a story with your best friend.
CON: You’re writing a story with your best friend.
It’s hard, man. (But can be so, so worth it.)
Story time! My best friend and I met years ago, while we were studying abroad. We got lost together in London and bonded over our early love of Meg Cabot, author extraordinaire, while we unsuccessfully navigated the Tube. (We accidentally happened upon Big Ben, which is an amazing feat seeing how huge it is (above), and had a great conversation with a police officer on the best place to get a pint.) We became friends after I was already pretty involved in our local NaNoWriMo group and had created the writing organization at our university, but she joined in both once we were back home!
Fast forward four years, and it just seemed natural to write a book together. We like to read the same genres, more or less. (I tend to lean more into sci-fi and she leans more into contemporary, but otherwise the same.) I’m not even sure how the conversation came about, but soon enough we were sitting down at our favorite bubble tea haunt and plotting a New Adult novel! (The picture below is actually from our first brainstorming session! The terrible penmanship is mine…)
As of a few weeks ago, we officially finished our first draft! We’ve even received feedback from our lovely first reader (check out his blog here)!
While the overall experience has been nothing short of UH-MAZING, there are still some arguments against (and for, I’ll talk about those, too) co-writing a story with your best friend, such as…
CON: As with co-writing anything, agreeing on direction/character motivations/subplots/etc. can be a challenge. This is harder with your friend, whom you likely haven’t worked as closely with as you will when writing a novel, and whom you may be completely disagreeing on a number of things with for the first time.
SOLUTION: Both writers need to practice give-and-take. If your friend staunchly opposes one character trait for your MC, and you only kinda don’t care, go ahead and go with what your friend wants. And vice versa! As your plotting, make a list of these things and check at the end, so that one friend isn’t being steam-rolled in the decision-making choices.
Another good solution is, depending on the story, splitting the characters each person writes and is responsible for. If you can agree on the plot, then each person has their respective characters to do with what they please (within reason).
If you’re following me on social media, you’ll know that I recently attended the Texas Teen Book Festival in Austin. (And if you’re not following me on social media, you should! I’m obviously hilarious and obviously not biased.)
This isn’t the first book festival I’ve attended, but it’s the first in a few months and OH. MY. GOD. It was AMAZING.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind.
I’m sure we can all agree on something: reading slumps suck. And at some point, they’re kind of embarrassing, right? I mean, we’re readers. Reading is what we do.
It’s not just one of our favorite pastimes, it’s a sort of identifier. We gravitate toward other people at parties who are talking about the most amazing book they just read (assuming we’ve been dragged to a party, because we’ve been in our homes reading too much and our friends are worried about our health, obviously). We sometimes decide we want to be writers, to create books that we aren’t currently reading but would want to. We make lists about books we can’t wait to read, and we have a TBR list so long we’ll never be able to complete it.
What about when you can’t, though? That’s where I’m at.
Technically can’t isn’t the right word. I could. I’m not incapable of picking up a fiction book, per se. But I’m on a sabbatical from fiction.
A forced reading slump.
And let me tell you, it sucks.
You might be thinking, if something sucks so much, why would you bother doing it?