4 Rules for Assembling a Planet

Millions of my fans well remember when I first posted back on February 24, 2013 about assembling a planet. That seminal blog post dominated the news and captivated the world (our world, the real Earth, I mean).

Why revisit the topic, then? Has the process of world-building changed? Well, some links in that previous post don’t work, and it’s time for an update with some better information.

Pixabay.com, image #1275774



Here you are, ready to write a story set in a world different from ours, and you want to know how to do it. Or you’re partway through writing the story already, things aren’t working out, and you want to know where you went wrong.

You can get good information from reading the Wikipedia article on world-building. Roz Morris’ post on the topic encapsulates her advice into three rules. Ruthanne Reid posted a fine article discussing approaches to world-building. What follows is my view of the topic, but you should review these other sources, too.

Here are my four rules for creating a world for your story:

  1. Think through the consequences. You’ve thought of some interesting and original ways that your world is different from the real one…great. But have you thought through the ramifications? Think of Frank Herbert’s Dune and Arrakis, the desert world. Herbert thought through the implications of that type of climate on people’s behavior, clothing, lifestyle, and other animal life.
  2. Set limits on your magic or technology. Sure, it’s fun to imagine a world of amazing magic or super-advanced technologies. But add some constraints. If your protagonist is some all-powerful wizard, then she or he could simply wave a wand and resolve the conflict in the opening scene. Story over.
  3. Make your world clear to readers. Authors who set their stories in the real world have it relatively easy. They can assume readers understand the rules and norms. They needn’t spend many sentences describing the Earth we know. You don’t have that luxury. You’ll need enough (but not too much!) descriptive text to transport readers to your world.
  4. Be consistent. Sure, you’re thinking, you’ll remember the rules of your world as you’re writing your story. I wouldn’t add this as one of my rules if it were that easy. For some reason, there’s a tendency to forget and slip back into our own world.

Armed with my rules, you should now be ready to get out there and build your own world. It’s freely provided services such as this that makes millions around the world (the real one, our Earth) thrill to the mere mention of the name of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Writing Success, Thanks to Mr. Pareto

All things being equal, no two things really are equal, are they? That strange little fact, along with a rule thought up by an Italian economist, could improve your fiction writing, or at least allow you to manage your fiction-writing time and other resources better.

220px-Vilfredo_ParetoVilfredo Pareto came up with a principle now named for him—the Pareto Principle. It’s also called the “80-20 Rule” and the “Law of the Vital Few.” Pareto noted the following inequalities, or uneven distributions: only 20% of the Italian people owned 80% of the land, and in his garden, 20% of the peapods contained 80% of the peas.

It’s surprising how often this rule applies in everyday life, and it could even apply to your writing. Let’s say you’ve written ten stories and had them published, and over a given period, here were the number of sales:

Title Sales
The Wind-Sphere Ship 12
Within Victorian Mists 40
Alexander’s Odyssey 8
Leonardo’s Lion 4
A Steampunk Carol 9
The Six Hundred Dollar Man 6
A Tale More True 1
Rallying Cry / Last Vessel of Atlantis 2
To Be First/Wheels of Heaven 1
Time’s Deforméd Hand 4

If I sort the data in order from most to least, make a bar chart, and add a line representing the cumulative percentage, I get a Pareto Chart, like this:

Pareto chart

If these really were my sales numbers, I’d note it’s not quite true that 20% of my stories were getting 80% of the sales, but this graph still illustrates the concept of the vital few.

Seeing this data, you might be tempted to shift all your marketing efforts to the three or four books currently selling well. Not a bad idea, but I’d caution you to continue monitoring the books out at the ‘tail’ of the curve. Watch for a book that’s trending leftward and increasing in popularity.

If you had enough data on your (and others’) writing efforts, you might find:

  • 80% of your writing time is spent on 20% of your writing product. Thanks to Bob Parnell for this one, and the next two.
  • 20% of all writers achieve 80% of the sales income.
  • 20% of writers are sending 80% of the submissions to publishers.
  • 20% of your science fiction world-building will be enough to satisfy 80% of your story’s needs. Thanks to Veronica Sicoe for that.
  • 80% of your sales come from 20% of your marketing efforts.
  • 20% of your blog posts get 80% of the hits.
  • 80% of all fiction book sales occur in 20% of the genres.

I’d caution you not to take a strict interpretation of the Pareto Principle. It’s just a guide to show you the outputs of your efforts are not uniform, and give you ideas about where to focus. There’s a good critique of the Pareto Principle written in a guest post by author Debbi Mack.

For now, I think we’d all agree that 80% of the best fiction out there is written by 20% of the authors, especially that one who calls himself—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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15 Writing Virtues

Many people believe you aren’t just stuck with the way you are now, that you can better yourself by persistent act of will.  I’m one of them, but let me just focus on self-help as it applies to the writing of fiction.

Benjamin_Franklin_1767Benjamin Franklin was an early example of someone who developed a program of self-improvement.  His method was to list thirteen virtues along with a brief description, then he would set about to focus on one virtue per week.  Franklin actually kept a log of this, giving himself a black mark on days he fell short.  Presumably, by focusing on one virtue at a time, it did not mean he was abandoning the others during that week.

Examples of his virtues include:

1. Temperance.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

4. Resolution.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, I’ll offer some virtues of writing fiction.  I’ve grouped them into ‘process’ virtues dealing with how you write, and ‘product’ virtues dealing with aspects of the manuscript itself.

The Poseidon’s Scribe 15 Virtues of Fiction Writing

Process Virtues

1.  ProductivityFill hours with writing, not researching or time-wasting activity.

2.  Focus.  Turn off your inner editor during the first draft.

3.  Humility.  Seek other trusted people to critique your work; be receptive.

4.  Excellence.  Only submit work you’re proud of.

5.  DoggednessBe persistent in submitting to markets; be unshaken by rejections.

Product Virtues.

6.  Relevance.  Ensure your work passes the ‘So What?’ test.

7.  AppealHook readers from the first paragraph.

8.  Engagement.  Put your characters in conflict with something or someone; make the story about conflict resolution.

9.  Empathy.  Create vivid, engaging characters.

10.  Action.  Weave logical, interesting plots with appropriate causes and effects.

11.  Placement.  Provide clear but unobtrusive descriptions of the story setting, without overshadowing character or plot.

12.  Meaning.  Ensure your story’s theme explores eternal human truths.

13.  Style. Seek your own voice, then follow it.

14.  Communication.  Ensure your characters’ dialogue is appropriate and advances the plot.  (Mentioned here, here, and here.)

15.  Skill.  Salt your tales with symbolism and appropriate metaphors.

Your list would likely be different.  One way to go about it is to examine critiques of your fiction you receive from members of your critique group, from editors, etc.  Are there repeated criticisms?  Turn them around and express them as a positive affirmation or goal, not as a negative to avoid.  Those goals represent things to work on, and would be on your own list of virtues.

George Carlin fans would likely point out to me that there’s no such thing as self-help.  People who get their list of virtues from their critique group, or from this blog post, aren’t exactly engaged in self-help, since they got help from others.  Moreover, if beginning writers truly helped themselves get better, then they didn’t need help.  Witty gags aside, it can be a comfort to a struggling writer that there exist methods for improvement, but all I offer is a framework for starting; the writer must shoulder the burden of actually doing the work to improve her writing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found my list useful, or if you’ve developed your own list, or even if you’ve embarked on a completely different method of improving your writing.  Let me know in your comments to this blog entry.  For now, back to improving his writing goes—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle

Years ago, while reading Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, I was struck by a memorable passage.  He’d titled the fourth chapter “Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle.”

After stating that he’d read how other authors found writing a difficult chore, Mr. Bradbury wrote:

Zen - BradburyBut, you see, my stories have led me through my life.  They shout, I follow.  They run up and bite me on the leg—I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite.  When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off. 

That is the kind of life I’ve had.  Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it.  Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next.  But you’re on your way before dawn.  And the trip?  Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration. 

Always fun to read Bradbury; even his nonfiction hums with an electric rhythm.  But today I thought I’d examine his metaphor a bit, since it has stayed in my mind for at least a decade.

Drunk on bicycleI understand why it appealed to Bradbury.  First, the phrasing is a bit odd to American ears, and he often sought interesting new ways to express ideas.  Second, I’m sure he had a distinct mental image of what it would be like to be drunk and in charge of a bicycle.  That idea of going somewhere but not knowing where; the wobbly, weaving way you’d be ever on the edge of falling.  Bradbury saw that as being akin to his writing experiences.

Third, I’m sure he enjoyed the concealed contradiction, the playful paradox, inherent in the words “drunk, and in charge.”  There’s no doubt the bicycle rider is going where the bike goes.  If arrested, there’s no doubt whom the police would hold responsible.  But who, after all, is really in charge?  If you’re drunk, as Bradbury says, with life, then you’re in the grip of events beyond your “charge” and it’s your stories that are leading you.

That muse of yours, then, is the one in charge.  You follow where she beckons even when that way seems outlandish or bizarre, because she’s never steered you wrong before.  You’ve no idea where you’ll end up, and the notion of ceding control leaves you with that mix of half terror, half exhilaration.

But when you submit your story before the squinty eyes of the editor, when it’s picked over by readers and critics, where is the responsibility then?  It’s only your name on the story; the muse has vanished, gone on to her other affairs.  Like the drunk bicyclist trying to explain himself to the constable, you can’t point the finger elsewhere.

When I set out to write about this topic today, my aim was to poke holes in the Bradbury’s metaphor, to state that my writing experiences weren’t like that at all.  Especially the half terror part.  I was going to create my own metaphor for my writing life.  I wanted to capture the godlike act of creating a world, of designing the initial conditions, then winding up the characters and letting them go, interacting and confronting their problems.  All the while, that godlike me would be taking notes, watching these wind-up characters’ every move.  If I did my creative job well, readers would enjoy the result.  If not, well, back to the drawing board to create another world peopled with other wind-up dolls.

But instead of condemning Bradbury’s metaphor, I’ve praised it.  From his grave, he laughs at the irony of it.  I thought I was in charge of this blog, thought I had it all planned out.  Now I see I’ve been drunk and in charge of a bicycle, in the grip of other forces.  Yet the one person responsible, the name at the end is—

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe

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How to Assemble a Planet

Oh, did you really think you could surf to this blog entry and learn how to design and construct an entire planet?  Well, okay, you were right.  So long as you’re expecting a how-to about fictional planets.

transparent-planetAuthors call this ‘world-building’ and they sometimes use the term ‘world’ in a different sense than the term ‘planet.’  In fiction, the world is not just the physical planet, but its inhabitants, their culture, and their environment too.

In most fiction, it’s not necessary to build a world, since the authors use the present-day (or historical) world we already inhabit.  They can assume readers are familiar with Planet Earth.  Such authors are free to focus on key aspects of Earth that are relevant to their story, to paint a biased picture of our world as seen by the author or one (or more) characters.

But in fantasy fiction or science fiction, it’s often interesting and fun to imagine and create very different worlds from Earth, or a very changed Earth.

Memorable, classic, examples of world-building include (1) Middle Earth from J.R.R. Tolkien’s books including The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, (2) the planet Arrakis from Frank Herbert’s novel Dune and its sequels, and (3) the strangely-shaped structure of Larry Niven’s novel Ringworld.

If you set out to build a world for your fiction story, what things might you consider?  A partial list includes the particular laws of physics, the solar system, the planet’s size and gravity, configuration of solids and liquids internally and on the surface, the atmosphere, geography, climate, plants, animals, and sentient creatures.  If your world has sentient creatures, then you could consider such things as cultures, languages, religion, art, education, economics, government, law, traditions, taboos, and technology.

Although Wikipedia has an interesting article on World-building, there are two other sites that I found more beneficial:  this one, and this one.  The latter site is run by Melanie Simet, who has come up with four cardinal rules of world-building that I really like, starting with zero:

0.  Be Original.

1.  Don’t distract your reader.

2.  Make your world coherent.

3.  Know at least one level of detail deeper than you need to.

She explains these in more depth on her website, so I won’t repeat those details here.  I would like to emphasize Rule 1, though.  It can be a temptation to get so involved with world-building that you forget it’s just a setting.  Stories are about characters dealing with problems, so don’t give your readers a documentary.

I’m sure this world-building is starting to sound like an awful lot of work, when all you set out to do was write a story.  It can be involved, but it needn’t consume you if you keep Simet’s cardinal rules in mind as you go.  If you write short stories, like me, you don’t have as much need for comprehensive world-building as a novelist would, unless you’re planning a long series of stories set on the same world.

That’s a glimpse at the basics of world-building.  Have fun.  Make your world an interesting one to read about.  Enjoy your taste of God-like power.  If this blog entry has inspired you, and you end up selling your story set in a fascinating new world, please let me know.  Your world could well be visited by—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

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February 24, 2013Permalink