World Building: Build It Like an Onion

According to Gabriela Pereira, your world should be built layer by layer, like an onion.

Earlier this week I was listening to an interview that Gabriela Pereira did with author Dana Alison Levy. Pereira mentioned that world building needed to center on the character. As she talked, she discussed that if you worked out from your character, you will layer your world building like an onion, adding scenes and details. By the time you reach the end of your story, your reader will have a good idea how the world works but they will have acquired this knowledge little by little.

I’ve been getting ready to jump into a rewrite on my middle grade science fiction novel, Airstream. One of the things that I’ve been concerned with is the world building. This is science fiction. Space and space travel play a big part in the first half of the book. Only later do you find out what is happening on Earth.

I had worried whether or not this would work but as I listened to Pereira, I realized that I had instinctively started in the right place. I started where my character is. The reader knows what my character knows. Yes, it will be a bit frustrating for the reader but it is also frustrating for the character so it only seems fair.

As my character figures out what is happening, it will be relayed to the reader. Obviously, I am going to have too much information in some places and not enough in others but that is the beauty of the first draft. There is no expectation that it will be right from the start. During my various rewrites I will have a chance to fix various setting issues.

And that’s a good thing. Because I’ve been doing more reading. I’m almost done with a great memoire by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Based on what he had to say, I’ve got some serious reworking to do. I’m going to have to change the look of my space station and how my characters respond to various crisis.

But I’m getting a better feel for my setting and that is going to contribute to the tone I want to set in my novel. I’ll have to see what setting details I’ve included, remove what is unnecessary, and then make sure that I’ve built it layer by layer, just like an onion.


You Have to Be Visible

To find readers, you have to be visible.
Photo by Cameron Readius on

Yesterday I read a post on Janet Reid’s blog where she talked about whether or not you need to be on social media. A reader commented that they did not want to Tweet or blog because they want to keep their thoughts to themselves. They are a very private person.

If you want to publish and reach readers, you need to be visible. Okay, I guess you really don’t. You can write and write and write and hope that readers will find you some how. But you are improving the chances that this will happen if you are visible.

Visibility looks very different from person to person. I have one writing friend who almost never posts a photo. This includes photos that include her daughter. She almost never mentions her daughter and when she does never calls her by name.

I have another writing friend who posts photos constantly. She talks about her kids. She posts about her husband. But I have no clue what their names are. On social media they are called “Husband Man,” “Girl Child,” and “Boy Child.” I honestly couldn’t event tell you if they are actually a son and a daughter because she repeats funny conversations but doesn’t include their photos. Instead she constantly posts photos of the urban wildlife in her neighborhood – squirrels, foxes, and deer.

Both of these writers are concerned about privacy but they handle it very differently. The first writer never posts about her family at all. The second writer posts about them regularly but we never see them. And, in all truth, the second writer is the one who has built up a vibrant social media presence. Is it because she talks about her family?

Nope. It is because she is present. And there are so many ways to be present and preserve your privacy. Here are a few suggestions.

  1. Post about favorite books. These don’t have to be your books. Post about books by other writers.
  2. Post interviews with other writers.
  3. Post about your hobbies. I know one writer who collects pencils. Another collects fountain pens. One woman collects historic sewing accessories. All of these things make good social media posts.
  4. Create posts about libraries or anything else that interests you.

I hope you are getting the point that you can post about such a wide variety of things. You don’t have to let people into your world but you do have to convince them that that is what you are doing. Do this and they will feel engaged with you. And when you sell something? Half your marketing work will be done.

Why? Because they can find you and they will care.


Narrowing Your Cast of Characters

Last week I attended a webinar on writing fiction. One of the things that she mentioned is that having massive casts of characters is old fashioned and not something you see in modern books for young readers.

Wait! Wait!

I can hear your objections already. What about Harry Potter and the Hunger Games? There are so many amazing characters in both series.

And that’s true. You have Harry, Ron and Hermione. There are the twins, and Jenny, and Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. Hagrid, Dumbledor, McGonaggal, Snape, Lupin and oh so many more. But as Mia Botha pointed out, they aren’t all primary characters. Think about it. Who is the main character in the Harry Potter books? Duh. Harry. And most adventures involve at most two other characters. Early on it is consistently Ron and Hermione. Other characters move forward as needed with allies coming and going, sometimes rather permanently.

I have to say this is a relief. In Airstream, I have two sibling groups for a total of six characters. For various reasons, all six characters are essential in that they play a part in the story. One has been strictly humorous and I’ve been thinking that maybe but maybe he needed to go. But Botha reminded us that one of the best ways to bring humor into a serious story is with a pair of comedic characters.

Yes, a pair. Just like Fred and George.

The key to having six characters will be to make sure that all six have a purpose. So far I have POV character, 2 sidekicks and a comedic character. One of my spares will become my second comedic character and the other will become a nurturing mother. This last one is technically a Jungian archetype but I think she’ll play well with the others.

The key to having six characters in play is to decide who will generally be in the forefront. Then I have to make sure that they each have enough to do while bringing the three remaining characters forward periodically. Now that I understand the part that each of them will play, this is something I can handle.


Where to Go with a Rebellious Character

From picture books to novels, we know one thing. Our characters need to grow and change. So what do you do when you start a story with a rebellious character?

This question came up during a webinar I attended last week. The writer had created a middle grade character for a historical novel. The girl is rebellious, not fitting securely into her parent’s or society’s expectations. She’s outspoken, doesn’t like to wear dresses, and thinks for herself. Where do you go with a character like this?

This is the kind of question I hear so often. We think of being outspoken as a virtue because in the past women were repressed. And I’m not saying this is incorrect.

But where do you go with a character like this? There are several directions this could go, depending on your story.

Let’s say that your character refuses to wear dresses and is outspoken because she refuses to be a superficial kind of girl, seen but not heard. Through the course of your story, this girl could discover that a rebellion that is 90% about appearance is just as superficial as what she is rebelling against.

She could also discover that she is rebelling against all of the wrong things. So she wants to wear jeans and boots instead of skirts and curls. But she has no interest in supporting herself or anyone else. That’s a limitation she could overcome in the course of the story.

Rebellion can take a wide variety of forms. It can also be against a wide variety of things.

My mother refused to call herself a feminist. Why? Because she grew up in the ’50s and was condemned for wanting to get married and have kids. “If the issue is choice, why is my choice wrong and their choice okay?” You’d have to have known my mom to know just how angry she had to be about this to speak up.

But what if a feminist character realized that she had to support her cousin’s right to choose a different path if she wanted people to support her right to choose work and higher education? I don’t know that any of this would work in the story of my fellow writer but I hope this helps you see that a character may seem to be in a place of strength and still have room for growth and reflection.


Fact and Fiction in Picture Book Form

If picture books are your form, take a moment to read Luli and the Language of Tea by Andrea Wang. There are other children in the play room but Luli always plays alone. Each child sits in isolation because none of them speak the same language. Their parents are in an ESL class and the children are simply biding time.

But that isn’t going to work for Luli. The next time she comes, she brings a treat to share – a pot of tea. She calls everyone over and begins to pour. I’m not going to tell you the two marvelous twists in this story. You’ll have to read it yourself.

This is a story all about tea and the fact that the names for tea worldwide are variations on a closely related theme – tea or chai. In the author’s note, Wang explains that the similarities in the word for tea worldwide have always fascinated her.

She could have written about this in a nonfiction book. That’s what Ann Morris did in Bread, Bread, Bread. I haven’t discussed this with Wang but perhaps she didn’t choose a nonfiction route because it would be too similar to the many books written by Morris on bread, hats, shoes, homes, weddings and more.

Many topics can be approached either way. But a straight nonfiction approach, handled less artfully than Morris does, can feel at worst preachy and at best like a lesson. “Hey, kids! I’ve got something you need to know.” With skill, Morris has created numerous books that show of the joyous variety found in our world.

Wang’s fictional story does the same thing while also demonstrating the compassion of the young characters and just a bit of humor. Do you have a nonfiction story that isn’t quite working? Could you spin the information into a fictional story?


Research Is More Than Gathering Sources

Team Lioness: Anti-poaching rangers in Kenya.
Photo by International Fund for Animal Welfare on

Earlier this week, I blogged about researching both fiction and nonfiction and just how much research is necessary. When you are doing your research, you need to remember that not all sources are created equally.

Last Sunday, I started doing research on Kenya. This isn’t for a writing project although if I keep reading ideas will start popping into my head. This is because my church is working with a minister from Kenya who works with the street children. I know next to nothing about Kenya and I want to remedy that. So I immediately looked to see what I can find.

I found a series set in Kenya. The Heat of the Sun takes place in Nairobi in the 1930s. It is a British production.

I found numerous single episode documentaries and lots of children’s books about wildlife in Kenya. That’s interesting enough but animal nut that I am, I already know a lot about this aspect of Kenya. I want to learn more about the people.

And I want to learn it from a Kenyan perspective. As a colonized people, Kenyan’s are going to tell their story very differently than Brits will tell it.

The Heat of the Sun may be about the colonial experience, but it isn’t pro-British. The protagonist is a rebel which is how he ended up in Kenya. Scotland Yard didn’t want him underfoot once he disregarded the British class system. There is a female pilot and a doctor who is German and Jewish. There are African characters galore and many of them are portrayed as smart and capable. But they are not the ones who solve the mystery, save the child from the burning building, and literally save the day.

One competent white man does it all.

Yes, this example is fiction but nonfiction will still be colored by the lens through which it is perceived. To learn about Kenya, I need to find Kenyan material in English. It won’t be easy but it will bring me much closer to a Kenyan reality.


When Opportunity Knocks, Should You Say Yes?

Should your answer be yes or no?
Photo by Dids on

Recently the opportunity to enter a contest fell into my lap. To enter, you have to be an unpublished novelist. All that is required is 10 manuscript pages. There isn’t even an entry fee.

My first response was “I should enter this.” After all, I think I’d stand a pretty good chance of winning. I may be an unpublished novelist but I’m a solid writer. And the first few chapters of my work-in-progress are really good. It isn’t until about the half way point that the story wanders into the weeds.

Irritatingly enough, my husband is Prince of the Practical. “What’s the prize?” Admittedly it isn’t something I especially want. What I do want is the pat on the back and the ability to say, “Look at me! I’m a winner!”

The problem with taking the hour or so it would take to apply is that this is an hour or so that I couldn’t spend working on one of my four ongoing projects. That’s right. Four. Two picture books. My middle grade novel. A younger middle grade nonfiction project. Bringing any or all of these things to completion would be a really good thing.

Entering the contest? Meh. It’s a thing but not really an essential thing.

I am all about saying yes to opportunities. That’s why I’m generally willing to attempt a requested rewrite or to try a new format with a project. But entering this contest won’t move me closer to having an agent. It won’t be a step toward publication. As far as I can tell, winning wouldn’t move me toward either of these goals either.

As writers, we are often hungry for recognition or a pat on the back. Money is also tempting. Because of all of these desires, we often jump at every opportunity. The key is recognizing the opportunities that will actually move you toward your goals. This means that you have to know what your goals are.

So as you consider the various opportunities that come your way, give it a little thought. What are your goals this week? This month? This quarter? This year? Does this opportunity further any of these goals? If not, try to figure out why it is tempting and then you will know whether or not it is worth your valuable time and creative energy.


Research: Vital for Both Nonfiction and Fiction

One of my writing pals and I joke about our research. Her summer reading pile is stacked around the television on her credenza. She has books on angels and demons, bigfoot, black-eyed children, Ouija boards, sleep paralysis, cannibalism, Gobekli Tepe, Akan funeral dirges, witchcraft in Ghana, fairies, and poltergeists.

Research is part of the writer’s life.
Photo by Christina Morillo on

Next to her, I look like a bit of a slacker. I’m researching mountain lions, black cats, prickly pear, napoles, astronauts, and space flight. Of course, she teaches at a local university and has to get her reading done over the next 6 weeks.

A lot of people think that you have to do more research for nonfiction than fiction. I don’t know about that. As a nonfiction writer, the amount of research I do varies from topic to topic with some books requiring almost 200 sources and others only 75.

But my research into black cats, napoles, prickly pear, astronauts, and space flight are all for fiction. One book is about a cat. Another involves prickly pear and napoles. Still another includes space flight.

Just how much research you need to do is going to vary based on your topic, the length of the piece you are writing, and the nature of your sources. What do I mean?

A contemporary picture book about a child preparing for a holiday event at school may require research into the various holidays currently celebrated in schools. The nature of the celebrations would also be researched.

A picture book about an immigrant child in the 1950s seeing the department store Christmas windows for the first time would require photo research. You’d need to know what 1950s holiday displays looked like – I’m assuming that they were even a thing. But you would also need to know what types of store window displays might be found in other countries.

A craft write-up about making something that would appear in such a display would require relatively little research.

A young adult book about a teen immigrant in the 1950s would require even more research about the holiday, teen fashions, and school events, studies, and teen jobs.

If you were to luck into a source with a great deal of information, you might not have to find many additional sources. But the teen piece would likely require more research than the picture book, but maybe not. Shorter pieces often have just as much information. It is simply presented in a different way.

Really, there is no easy answer to how much research you need to do. Yes, it depends on what you are writing. But no matter what you are writing, you will simply need to research until you find all that you need and, most likely, much, much more.


Listening to Books

June is Audiobook Appreciation Month, and I’ve been listening to a top-notch audiobook. Portrait of a Thief is a novel by Grace D. Li, about a group of Chinese American college students who rob museums of looted Chinese art to return it to China.

It isn’t political in the sense that so many books are political – red vs blue, Rep vs Dem. But it is strongly political with themes or racism, narrowed expectations, and colonialism.

That sounds weighty, doesn’t it? But this is a fast-paced book that would make a great summer read. I’m sure the print or ebook would be great, but I really recommend the audiobook.

I have writing friends who have quit listening to books. They say that they cannot listen to a book and simultaneously study how to improve their craft. For me, this isn’t a problem but it may be that I love the sound of language and play with that even in my teen nonfiction.

Because of this, when I finish a manuscript, I use Microsoft Words Read Aloud function. All I have to do is position my cursor at the top of my manuscript and click “Read Aloud” in the ribbon at the top of my screen. I’m not in love with the computerized feminine voice but it isn’t too bad.

Listening to my books, I hear repeated phrases. I can also hear when I’ve used the wrong word. Often these are typos but they are typos that for some reason Word’s editor doesn’t catch. Believe me, it has no qualms about telling me to change punctuation or a word even when I’ve used exactly the right word!

Another feature that I’ve just discovered in the updated version of Word is “Dictate.” This is on the right end of the ribbon. Click the button and, as long as you have a microphone, you simply start speaking. Word types out your text.

I haven’t played with this yet but I’m curious. I’ve never tried “telling” a story vs typing a story.

Also, I’m not sure if it would work to transcribe a Zoom call but I intend to find out later this week! If it does, it would be a great way to capture an interview. Yes, you can, with permission, simply record the interview and transcribe it. But, NOTE this. It takes approximately 6 times as long to transcribe as the original interview and that’s if you are really good.

Audio is one of many tools in the writers toolbox. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I left the characters in a really tense place. Perhaps you’d like to recommend a great audio book to everyone?


How to Create a Picture Book Dummy

Snip, tape, edit and sketch. Yesterday I dummied a picture book. If you write picture books but have never dummies your work before, you really should. I dummy allows you to test out your work. You check to see if you have enough story to fill every spread. You may also discover that you story is far too complicated.

A dummy also helps you to see if you’ve made use of page turns. A page turn helps you conceal a surprise from the reader. Page turns are really useful when something is funny or shocking. A dummy really helps you make use of the picture book’s unique structure.

Each spread needs to be a unique scene. There has to be something for the illustrator to depict.

But what if you’ve never created a dummy? Here is how I do it.

Staple together 16 pieces of paper.  

Wait a minute. Isn’t a picture book 32 pages long. Yes, it is. But 16 pages stapled together gives you 32 pages front and back. You can use half pages or quarter pages. Whatever works for you. For this one I used half pages.

Mark off title page, etc.

End papers and the title page don’t contain any of your actual story.  There are generally three such pages at the beginning of a picture book. Sometimes the copyright info is on a page at the back of the book.

If this ambiguity makes you uncomfortable, look at some picture books from your dream publisher. Do it how they do it.

Cut my text into blocks.  

Next, cut your text into blocks. These blocks of text will become spreads. Some will be one page spreads. A one page spread is a single page with text and an illustration. It stands independent of the preceding and following pages. Some text blocks will become two page spreads. Two page spreads are one block of text and the accompanying illustration that takes up two facing pages.  

One page spreads are often detailed. They are close ups.

Two page spreads are panoramic. They slow down the pace of the story.

Tape the spreads into the dummy.

I’d love to say that this step is easy peasy. That would be a lie.

Sometimes I have more blocks of text than I have dummy pages. I have to ask myself if each scene is essential. Or is there a scene that can be cut?

Sometimes I run out of blocks of text before I reach the end of the dummy. Have I left scenes out? Or it might be that there isn’t enough story for a picture books. Or I might need to add another attempt to solve my story problem.

This time around, I was trying to figure out how to squeeze it all in (all I needed was one more two page spread) when I realized that two pages of my dummy had stuck together. Also, remember that it is natural for this step to take multiple attempts.

Once you’ve got your text in place, look at each spread. Think of it as a scene. You may need to change a word or two. There may be something you can cut. This might also be where you note that something doesn’t flow or that your verbs or your action needs to be more dramatic.

It is far better to figure these things out for yourself then to have someone else point it out to you. Now off to make my story sound more like a picture book.