Monday, July 21, 2014

Considerate Craft: A Whole New World

A lighter, later Considerate Craft for you this Monday, thanks to no internet at work for uploading. Apologies!

Recently I started doing a weekly query hashtag on Twitter during my lunch hour, called #querylunch. I go through my queries while I eat and tweet my responses, hopefully letting everyone get a glimpse into how my agenty mind works.

Monica from FRIENDS saying, "And remember, if I'm harsh with you..."
Monica from FRIENDS saying, "'s only because you're doing it wrong."

For me, it’s fascinating to have to put into words what makes a query work or not work, and I start to notice trends. A big one I see is failures in world-building.

Part of this is that I represent mostly science fiction and fantasy, so there’s more world-building to do and more room for falling short. Part of this is query advice tends to focus on plot and characters. Which makes sense, because that’s the heart of the story and should be the focus. But the world is the background, and it’s crucial for the bigger picture of the novel.

The key to world-building in the short format of the query is to work it in with your characters and plot, to show how integral it is to your story. Most of the queries I see at least attempt this. The two most common ways they fall short are (1) being too familiar and (2) being incomprehensible.

Here are a couple made up examples:
1) Brandt, a school janitor, is shocked when he finds out his best friend is a werewolf on the run from deadly vampires who seek to harvest his powerful blood on the new moon.

A blond character from SUPERNATURAL pausing and then saying, "And?"

Lost me at werewolves vs. vampires. The rest of the query would really have to show how this story is different to make me want to read more pages.

2) Brandt, a school janitor, is shocked when he finds out his best friend is a Maywaffle on the run from deadly Blardihorns who seek to harvest his powerful blood on the Toofaroon cycle.

From Supernatural, Dean looking at Sam and saying, "I don't know what that means."

Lost me at Maywaffle. Clearly the querier knows exactly what these words mean and they make sense in that world, but I’m from planet earth, so I need clarification. This applies to the manuscript as well; you don’t want the reader on page 50 still wondering what a Maywaffle is.

Instead, the sentence could read something like this:

Brandt, a school janitor, is shocked when he finds out his best friend is part-mayfly, part waffle and on the run from a deadly species of brunch-goers who seek to harvest his syrupy blood when the three moons of their world align.

Obviously the premise is absurd, but at least we all know what it is.

Spock from Star Trek turning around slowly, holding what is clearly a dog with a horn.

So when you consider your query world-building, remember:

1) Highlight what makes your world unique.

2) Make sure you describe your world using words familiar in this world.

Now get out there, write hard, build your worlds, and kick some query butt!

The two main characters from Pacific Rim high-fiving

And I’m curious, fellow sci-fi/fantasy readers, have you ever started a book and put it down because it kept using weird words for things without explaining them? Any of you stick through it and like it?


  1. Ugh yes too many unfamiliar words, and becomes an obstacle for me. I don't want to have to translate for meaning too much or disrupts the experience for me.

  2. The unfamiliar word problem happens in David Baldacci's _"The Finisher."_ He's a multi-published, multi-bestselling author, so I muscled through the whole book. It never got better. He calls all the people "wugmorts" and never once explains what makes wugs different from humans. He keeps referencing having "an Event" and you think he'll explain eventually, but I reached the end and NONE of it made sense. I never even knew what the character wanted, or even what happened to her at the end. Worst plot I've ever come across, even more so because the action, characters, and everything else was so well done.

  3. There's a fine line between "tossing the reader into a world and giving them enough of a life raft to keep reading" and "DROWNING THEM." Well. Maybe the line isn't so fine. Great article, Amy! Thanks!

    1. "There's a fine line between "tossing the reader into a world and giving them enough of a life raft to keep reading" and "DROWNING THEM.""
      I love that distinction forever and might need to steal it from you. :)

  4. To me, a good sci-fi or fantasy is one that creates terminology (or geography) and shows me what it means, and not swamping me with new stuff that distracts me from the story itself.

  5. Excellent. I think it's easy for those of us who are building words to forget that the reader hasn't been along for the entire ride. Once you're immersed in something (fantasy world, technical jargon, anything) it is sometimes hard to remember that not everyone carries that base knowledge around with them. Nice reminder!

  6. Absolutely - too many made-up words too fast can make my brains leak out of my ears. When I revise the openings of my books, I make a pass for this very thing - pulling out the incidence of "new" words and substituting descriptions. I have an informal rule of trying not to introduce more than one new word per page.

  7. Anathem is a good example of a book that walked the line. The interspersed definitions kept me reading, and the gradual introduction of vocabulary kept me from getting too overwhelmed all at once.

  8. China Mieville's EMBASSYTOWN drops you right into the middle of a party where they're using all kinds of local lingo, but I kind of loved it. Part of it means that the reveal at the end of the chapter works exceptionally well and it also matches the protagonist's sense of being both an insider (been part of this world before) and an outsider (returning after some time away).