Universe Building

Building Universes

By J.A. Kenney

World building is one of the keystones of fiction. As vital as plot or characters, and as necessary to a cohesive story as grammar or spelling.

However, in most genres world building starts with research into real world settings, times, or myths, which have inspired the fictional location and characters.  New York, Victorian England, ancient Rome, all of these have already been defined for the reader and the author can build upon that knowledge. Even in fantasy or paranormal fiction the worlds and creatures are usually based upon some fairy tale or myth.  A vampire, ghost, elf, all are part of the common mythos of our society and when mentioned in a story the reader automatically has some association. The same is true of high fantasy, where the world is often very similar to a far distant historical reality.

In these genres, the key is to stick close to that common store of knowledge and to define any variations in a way that the reader will accept.

In Science Fiction, there are additional complications.

First: Alien Worlds

Whether it is a far distant future earth or a true alien planet, an alien world is a pure product of the imagination. The geography, plant life, animal life, even the very atmosphere must reflect the fact that it is NOT present day Earth.

The heat of a vast sun beat down from above; the rocks, plants, even the sky had taken on a reddish tone as the expanding star scorched the planet’s surface. The super-giant monster covered a third of the sky, its surface heaving and spitting radiation and plasma into space. (Excerpt from Slivers of Silver)

Second: Alien Creatures

For more detail here see my earlier post Writing Alien Species. However, to sum up aliens can be anything from the standard humanoid alien of classic television to aliens that are so different from us we would not be able to recognize them as living things.

Time was a true fourth dimension. Ages and epochs made long sweeping circles across the void, and immortals traveled between those rings like icebreakers smashing through a frozen sea. So we died just like everyone else, a truth that I thought a glaring irony. However, we came back, born again into new flesh, and in this new vessel, I could forge ahead in the eons long war against the Purists—a war that raged across the whole of space and time. (Excerpt from Silver Strife)

Third: Alien Technology

Whether, based in an alien or a future human society the technology that fills the fictional science fiction universe is all but a character in and of its self.

Current science theorizes a universe where faster than light travel cannot exist, and long distance travel in space is all but impossible. Within the fictional world of science fiction these physical laws are often ignored, for the simple expedient reason that without practical space travel, most science fiction plots are simply not feasible.

Without interstellar travel, interacting with alien life is highly unlikely. So too human colonies in space would be completely isolated and unable to trade or even keep in touch. Energy based signals would take years (the nearest star to our sun is 4.24 light-years away) and actual travel to that near neighbor using current technology would take 40,000 years. A generational ship that managed by some miracle to travel that far would not remember or be able to relate to the humans who remained. Human history as we can record it is only 10,000 years. We can only imagine that 4 times that length would do to a group isolated and alone in the galaxy.

So, science fiction writers have long chosen to overlook or even break the rules of modern physics in order to create a universe where these things would be possible. Worm holes, faster than light drives, etc…

The key to doing so is to create a satisfying technological construct that while it might break the laws of physics does it consistently and in a believable way.

“Number three reactor status critical. Catastrophic failure imminent.”

The looming disaster revealed by that flat unemotional voice overwhelmed any elation I felt about those out of date codes working. I pulled up the reactor’s diagnostics and surveyed the painfully bleak outlook. A reactor explosion would destroy engineering and several decks worth of equipment and personnel, while shutting the reactor and connected engine down for maintenance would weaken the already strained energy shielding and flood the ship with deadly radiation. There was no time for whispers in the Admiral’s ear or covert planning. I had to act. (Excerpt from Dark Silver, Coming Soon)

Fourth: The Known Universe

While some scientific facts are regularly ignored or altered by science fiction authors, there is one area where I and many other authors try to stay as close to reality as possible.  This is the action, structure, nature, and appearance of the universe.

What a black hole looks like, for example, is something that I have worked very hard to accurately portray. So to, the nature of planets, stars, and space itself needs to be presented as accurately as possible, both to give people a real glimpse into that far distant place, but also because it is never a good idea to unnecessarily ignore the science in science fiction.

Some stretches of current theory are necessary to craft interesting worlds, but such things should be used in moderation and only when necessary.

The vista visible from the ballroom extended across the horizon, streaks of burning matter flashed past where I stood to join a golden whirlpool decorated by random flashes of light. Trailing streams of superheated gases spiraled in from the nearby star and into a far distant pinhead of black nothingness. The dark spot was flanked by jets of energy that exploded out into space like dual geysers. Stars shifted in the background as we orbited the steep gravity well, as if an entire night sky had been time lapsed to show a planet’s rotation. (Excerpt from Dark Silver, Coming Soon)

Building a science fiction universe has unique challenges, but a well-crafted story is its own reward!

Keep Writing!

J.A. Kenney

Laws of Fantasy…

Do vampire eyes glow green? 
Do they sparkle or burst into flames in sunlight? 
Can werewolves shift at will?
Or mermaids breathe air?

Your answers to these questions is defined by what versions of these myths you hold dear.

But, the myths themselves can sometimes take on a life of their own.

Not that long ago I was discussing my current project Bloody Tidings with another author.

In one scene, my main female character, a vampire has a nightmare.  The other author’s response was to immediately point out that vampires don’t sleep, and thus can’t dream.

The absurdity of this statement was not lost on me.  After all vampires don’t actually exist, so what they do, and don’t do is all an amalgamation of books, movies, and televisions shows that we have internalized.  But it raised the question of what “RULES” exist in a fictional fantasy world.

We each have internalized a slightly different version of those rules, and they can change as we accept a new version of a myth.

The fore mentioned sparkly vampires, for example, were a HUGE deviation from the classic and modern vampire myth.  Ask most adults, and we would tell you vampires die in sunlight, they don’t sparkle.

As a whole, that version may be the greatest departure from the classic myth in recent history, yet the books were and are hugely popular.

So, the question is what are the “rules” and when is it okay to break them?

Defining Characteristics:
What makes the creature what it is?  The first thing that you would list when asked, what is a(n) “Insert mythical creature here”?  That is its defining factor…

Vampires? Drink Blood.
Werewolves? Turn into wolves (or wolf”men”).
Mermaids? Live underwater.
Ghosts? Dead people.

Changing any of these will get you in trouble.  It can be done, but only in a way that explains the deviation extremely well.

Charlie walked down the abandoned corridor.  His forgotten flashlight dangling from his numb fingers.  The apparition formed at the end of his vision, and he whipped his face around to examine the ghostly form.  The wolf glowed a soft blue, each fur starkly defined, as its ears twitched and its tongue lolled between long sharp teeth.

Ghost? Well maybe.  But you can see the problem.  It wasn’t human.  So if one of our defining characteristics is that Ghosts are dead PEOPLE…

Maybe the dead wolf is really a dead werewolf? Or maybe animals in our universe get to have ghosts too.  But make sure to explain either way.

The wolf shifted as it walked away, form melting and reforming as a tall man with shaggy black hair.  With each step the muscles under the ethereal skin tensed and relaxed, appearing more substantial. He stopped and turned.  The man’s mouth twitched into a crooked smile, then he vanished. 

Most of these rules cannot be broken or bent without a REALLY good reason.  A vampire who doesn’t drink blood isn’t really a vampire any more.  And a werewolf who can’t shift is just a person.

Negative definitions:

What is it NOT? Ghosts are dead people, but then so are zombies, and vampires, and ghouls…
So what makes a ghost NOT those things? They don’t have bodies.  So they are defined by the LACK of it.

What the creature lacks can be just as important as what they have.

Vampires? Can’t walk in the sunlight.
Ghosts? Don’t have bodies.
Werewolves? Can’t avoid a shift on the full moon.
Mermen? Can’t live on land.

These are often their defining weaknesses as well…
Why can’t vampires walk in the sun?  Can a ghost get a body? Do all werewolves shift on the full moon?

BUT here you can REALLY start to play a bit. This is where most of those big variations happen. Vampires that sparkle, werewolves that can shift any time, mermaids that can marry princes…

The strange dog gripped Charlie’s hand lightly between his teeth and pulled in the direction of the dark wooded path.  The gloom that lurked down that trail felt like a physical weight on his shoulders, an intense tangible dread. No way was Charlie going in there.  Yet, the dog persisted tugging, and growling while maneuvering Charlie towards the haunted wood. Annoyed, cold, and tired Charlie wrestled away from the persistent animal and turned back towards the cabin. A flash of blue light preceded the sudden weight on his back that forced him to the ground. The growling animal hovered protectively over Charlie’s prone form as a black shadow passed over head.

Can a were-ghost inhabit a dog’s body? Why not?  But that doesn’t give us authors free rein to make things up willy nilly.

INTERNAL Mythical Consistency:

When writing any fiction, but particularly fantasy internal consistency is KEY!  A contemporary novel that reflects the real world is easy to keep consistent, sun rises in the east, sets in the west, the houses, cars, and people are pretty much the same as all of us.  Historical novels are the same to some extent, the author just has to research and stay true to the period. With science fiction you try to stay within the real physical laws and possible scientific development. Or stick with the handful of “Star Trek Taught Us So” little white falsehoods that make space travel seem plausible.  Faster than light travel, artificial gravity, humanoid aliens.

But in FANTASY, literally anything can happen.  Giant flying lizards? Blood drinking immortal dead people? Magical cars? If you can think it up, it can be done.

That is where the danger lies.  If anything is possible, what is to prevent logical absurdity..

Charlie jumped as the ghost’s hand closed on his upper arm.  The feel of warm flesh, the pressure of a physical touch.  He spun to look and the man was gone, only the dark woods, and the blustering chill wind remained.
“Find me!”

The obvious problem being a physical touch from a ghost should not be possible within the rules I have already established.  Not when paired with a man’s form when he appeared as a dog earlier.  Why bother with the dog if he could just do this.

These don’t have to be “Written” rules…one of my book club friends mentioned werewolves that take a long time to shift and where it is painful for them as an inconsistency in a well-known series.  Because it makes them highly vulnerable, yet they are presented as big bad dangerous werewolves who no one messes with.

Charlie woke up flailing, his arms and legs tangled in the bed-clothes, those growled words still echoing in his head.

Not a real touch, so not a real inconsistency…but keep a list of your RULES and stick to them.

RULES of Creature building:

The classic Dracula vampire could walk in the sun, turn into rats and bats, and control the weather…but needed to sleep in the soil of his home.

So too, your version of any myth must have sufficient weaknesses to offset the strengths.

Vampires can walk in the sunlight? Maybe they can be killed by any blow to the heart?

Werewolves can shift at will? Perhaps they can’t shift back until they hunt and kill?

For each additional strength on top of the “established” myth, think of an additional weakness. Otherwise your fantasy creature can become overpowered and unbelievable.

Finally, don’t let people say something is impossible.  Explain it, show it, and make it real!

Keep Writing!


The Info Mystery…

When writing fiction one of the biggest challenges is how much information to give your readers.

Too much, the Dreaded Info-Dump, you end up spending pages on irrelevant back story and boring your readers to death.

Too little, the Big Question Mark, and literally nothing makes sense to your readers.  My blog post on GMC goes into detail about the bad things that can happen. To summarize, character motivations, plot movement, even the story itself can fall to nonsensical tatters.

The real challenge is knowing HOW MUCH to provide.

I’ve developed a few guidelines for my own writing.

These are things you SHOULD include:

What the Protagonist or Main POV KNOWS must be explained as soon as it effects their actions, reactions, or thoughts.

For Example:

If your Main Character is walking down a hall, sees a black cat, then jumps onto a table.  That would be a great time for you to include that she is afraid of black cats, and why.

These things can be integrated into the action as they affect the character for the first time. A full scene is often unnecessary, don’t over do, two or three sentences. Like this:

Maggie walked down the dark corridor with her candlestick grasped tightly in her hand.  Her nose wrinkled at the smell of dust, mold, and death. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted movement, and spun to see the one thing she feared most. A black cat, a witch’s familiar, the merest scratch of its fangs could kill.  The evil little feline sauntered towards her, so Maggie jumped onto a convenient table and brandished her candlestick as a weapon.

World-building Blocks, defining factors that influence your world must be shown or explained, either before or at the same time as they affect the plot.


Your world includes flying monkeys as messengers. Show and explain.

The monkey flew through the window, teeth bared, and scaled wings flung behind to slow his progress. A sealed parchment was clenched in his tiny fist. Maggie reached out a cautious hand to received the document without being scratched or bitten.  She never would understand why her mother insisted on using monkeys to carry messages.  One such flea-bitten creature had left a ragged scar on her wrist when he bit her three years ago.

Plot developments, must be clear and laid out.  No off stage or behind the scenes events should change the course of the plot without being discussed or explained in detail. As the effected characters discover them.

“What do you mean he was killed?” Maggie screamed.
“The battle went badly, my lady.” The captain ducked his head and lowered his eyes with shame.
“You were supposed to keep him safe!”
“We were separated in the heat of battle. I’m so sorry, my lady.”
“No, no, you’re lying, my brother isn’t dead!”
“He died bravely under a charge of elephant cavalry.”
“No…” Tears streamed down her face.

NOW..here is the major caveat to those rules.

The information given, shown, or “known” does not have to be CORRECT!  Maybe cats aren’t really poisonous but Maggie has been told they are.  Maybe the monkeys are really spies and assassins, the messenger role a cats-paw. Or maybe the captain killed her brother. You can let the reader into the secrets by showing the scenes or other characters POVs, or leave them in the dark until the Main Character discovers them.

Now, what you should NOT include:

Random Unimportant Facts, something fun or quirky about your world that doesn’t influence the story?  Leave it out.  We don’t need to know that the protagonist had a dog growing up, unless it influences them now.  Birds in your world bark instead of sing?  Unless it factors in the story, we don’t need to know.

Overt Foreshadowing, this is an opinion, but I HATE this in novels. This decision will impact the person’s life?  That doesn’t mean you should write the phrase:

Maggie didn’t know it, but this decision would have lasting consequences in her life.

Instead, just let the reader come to their own conclusions based on the actions and thoughts of your characters.  Unless your character is a precognitive psychic they shouldn’t have “feelings” that this will impact them later or a sense of deeper meaning. Nor is such a “feeling” necessary.  If you present the action, and then the consequences this is totally irrelevant.

The villain’s MASTER PLAN, can be a mystery if you never give their POV or that POV is brief.  Most of the time not knowing what the bad guy is doing adds to the tension.  So leave the bad guy or girl as a mystery.  Only revealing the truth as the heroes discover it.

Anything not mentioned.  Yes, anything.  If it doesn’t influence the main characters or the plot, leave it out…

The key is to have everything you need, and nothing you don’t.

Keep Writing!


Editing Effectively…

Writing is easy, Editing is hard.

Or so goes the standard writer’s complaint.  Putting words to paper is just a matter of time and motivation.  But rewriting or editing your work into a publishable piece?

Well that is just tough…

So how can you edit in an effective manner?  Follow these steps:

1. Read! 
Slowly and Carefully reread the entire piece from front to back. If something sounds awkward or icky…rewrite it.  This will take a LONG time if done right. When you start skimming, stop for the day, and come back later.  Skimping out on this will hurt your story.

2. Auto Crit and/or Spell Check!
In Word, there is a “formal” option on spellchecker, which finds all kinds of writing errors or weaknesses.  Passive Voice, Wordiness, etc…RUN IT and consider every single thing it points out.  Not all of them will be Right, so don’t just assume.  But it will help you identify problem areas.
Auto Crit is another option. http://www.autocrit.com/
They have a free trial version that allows some feedback, but the paid one is better. This will point out overused words and phrases as well as homonyms, and other discouraged areas such as too many adverbs. Honestly, IMHO, worth the investment. Again it is often wrong, but all the areas identified should all be addressed.

3. Identify problem areas and overused words.
These can be identified with AutoCrit or critique comments. Make a list!
Use the word “clearly” 10 times in one page?  Odds are you did it in the rest of the book too! Find and replace these “filler” words to eliminate them, or use find and adjust them manually.

4. Outsource it!
Have a trusted critique partner reread it for “structural” issues. They may see something you do not!

After all of these things have been done, start over and reread.  Look for any issues that were caused by the editing process, or things that were missed. I can’t tell you how many times I have read a book where a sentence was revised to death…
i.e. I was thinking thought things had changed.
The new version is blended right into the original so that neither makes sense.

6. Auto Crit and/or Spell Check AGAIN!
Did a rewrite result in a misspelling or other new problem.  Go through this process once more!

This is your proofreading run through. No additional edits here, just the oops patrol. Say peak instead of peek, miss another mistype, or just use the wrong word. Catch it here.

Followed religiously these simple steps can and will make your book better!

Keep Writing!

Blogger’s Block

We have all heard of and experienced writer’s block, but what about blogger’s block.

Nothing interesting to talk about, no witty insights, or new writing tips…

Watching reruns of the Original British version of Top Gear, and trying to stick to my new blogging goals.

Failing.  I have been rewriting the prequel (Dark Silver) to my soon to be released novel Silver Strife.  Re-writing or intensive editing, whatever you want to call it.  Much harder than the original creative output.

I also have a novel and short story I am working on…none of which are presenting any brilliant insights.

Have a new dog…who is much more distracting than the three cats.

She is a Box-huahua we rescued from an animal shelter.  A half Boxer, half Chihuahua, (a prospect that boggles the mind) who we have named Kitty.  AND she may have been a Dark Lord of the Sith in a previous life…

So there you go, a cute picture of a dog, a Star Wars reference…

Blogging complete.

Keep Writing!


The New Writer’s Trap

You want to write, but you haven’t before.

So, you sit down, write a few chapters, and start wondering if they are any good.

A search on the internet reveals local writers groups, internet groups, critique partner ads, all with hundreds of people willing to review your work as part of a fair exchange.

Here is where it goes wrong.  You join them all, start critiquing 10-15 stories a week to get feedback on your work.  You post a chapter or two, get some feedback, and post some more.

Before long you find yourself posting 100,000 words chapter by chapter and reviewing 5 or 6 times as much just to get a few good critiques and a bunch of useless ones…

You get discouraged because you realize that no matter what you do, you can’t seem to satisfy your audience.  Because, you can’t please everyone, ever.

In the end you find yourself either quitting, or spending 90% of your “writing” time reviewing other people’s stories.  I have seen this happen to TOO many new and talented writers.

IT IS IMPORTANT to get feedback on your work.  But don’t over do.

One or two writers you know and trust who can read your whole story are worth dozens of strangers doing tit for tat a chapter at a time.

You WILL improve your work with appropriate constructive feedback from other writers in your genre.

People writing other genres, or who are only there to get their own work reviewed aren’t worth your time.  They will either miss the point, or shrug, get their “required” words in, and bail.

Focus on your own work, and find a handful of trusted reviewers who will be brutal but honest.

Don’t obsess over getting “enough” feedback or feel you have to please the doubters.

We all have our own taste in stories, and even a critiquer has to rely on that to judge a piece.

Most of all, stay true to your vision!

Keep Writing!


Fictional Inspiration…

Where do you get your ideas?

A member of one of my writer’s groups asked me this question, because I mentioned a specific concept she really liked: a murder mystery with romantic and paranormal elements. In response, I disclosed that I have a running list of story ideas.
My current list consists of 23 story ideas. Once I start a story it comes off the list, and the idea moves into my story folder where it remains as my “inspiration” as I am writing.
Of those 23, only three are sequels to existing projects. The rest are unrelated ideas ranging from a historical romance in 1920’s America, to a high fantasy epic, and a science fiction/military erotic short story.
So, the underlying question remains…where did they all come from?
Well some were dreams I had, others based on news reports, real life events, or even video games. One was based on a nasty nightmare I had about feral vampires in modern-day France…
When I was a kid, my favorite entertainment was creating stories in my head. At the time, this was purely for my own enjoyment, but now whenever I do this it goes on the list.
So, a story pops into my head, and I write it down.
Each story gets a summary, and any plot or character concepts I think are important.
Then it stays on the list until I have time to write it.
If you are struggling with new story ideas, follow these simple steps.
1.  Carry a Notepad with you at all times. Leave it on your bedside table at night.
2.  Write any interesting dreams, or thoughts you have down. As soon as you have them.
3.  Create a Document on your computer called something like “Story ideas.”
4.  Once you have a story outline add it to the file. Include:
a.  General Concept & Title (i.e. Werewolf Romance)
b.  Main Character Short Profile (i.e. Colorado Ranch Owner, or Elementary School Teacher)
c.  Overreaching Plot (i.e. Broken-hearted woman falls for neighbor)
d.  Vital details: Names, Places, Back Story that affects Plot or Characters (i.e. Rachel was dumped by fiancé a month ago)
5.  When you need inspiration go back, pick a story, and write it!
This will help you get through dry spells, and you will be surprised by some of the things that pop into your head at random moments!
Number 24 appeared in my head while I was writing this Blog post!
Keep Writing!

GMC: Not the Car Brand…

The fiction holy grail, well maybe not.  But it is a vital tool that any writer should know, learn, and love.

There is internal (character) GMC, and external (plot) GMC.  You can find the definition on a ton of blogs, and in pretty much any creative writing textbook.

But the bottom line is for each scene, chapter, and most importantly story you should write down the Goal, Motivation, and Conflicts.  Your main character or characters must have a separate internal list.
My pocket-sized example:

Bram Stoker’s Dracula-External

Goal: Kill Dracula
Motivation: Save family, friends, and London from the undead fiend.
Conflict: Dracula fights back!  Fairly successfully…

Jonathon Harker- Internal

Goal: Advance career.
Motivation: Wants to marry.
Conflict: Runs into fiendish vampire…

These three little words can guide your story telling to a new level, and help you solve problems with clarity and flow.

I read a short story a few weeks ago that redefined GMC problems.  The author and story will remain entirely anonymous, but I want to share what I saw in that story help other writers not make the same mistake.

The story concept was interesting, the descriptions and dialogue had promise.

But from line one I started asking questions for which there were not any answers.

Why does this character do that?
What what happened to cause that emotion?
What is the MC afraid of?
Why is he afraid of it?
What expressions did those people have?

It went on and on…

This like most fiction was written in 3rd Person Omniscient, and it was clear from the story that the writer intended it to be dramatic and suspenseful.

No Doubt that writer believed that by leaving those questions unanswered he would draw the reader in, leave it to their imagination, etc…

But instead of adding tension the lack of MOTIVATION resulted in a blah tale that told us all about the bad things without letting us see, hear, or feel them.

Too much back story can bog down a story, but a complete lack of it results in a breakdown of the entire GMC structure.

Without that motivation the conflict and goals are confused and messy.  The reader gets lost and frustrated…and in really extreme cases the story makes no sense.

So don’t forget your motivations!

And no this doesn’t mean you need five pages of back story before your plot.

A Sentence here and there goes a long way to explain why your character acts and thinks they way he or she does.

Read through your piece.  See what questions you ask then answer the important ones.

Keep Writing!


Unique Fiction…

I’ve been querying my first novel, and the feedback I have received is very telling.  They like the story, the writing, and the characters.  But it is just too OUT there for them.

Too different, too unique…

Oddly enough I have been chatting with another writer who is facing a similar problem.  Her story is based on an unfamiliar mythology (Norse) and had a Siren concept.  She has faced the same problem,  either they didn’t like the different mythology or they jumped to Sirens being too cliché…

The impression this gives me is that publishers and agents have a vision of what they like will sell, and compare all manuscripts to this.

Anything that does not match is a no…

The sad part is anything unique and interesting never makes it past their first query reading.

I think they underestimate readers and their desire to see new and different stories…

Like the movie, television, and music business they are playing it safe and missing out on great stories that just don’t fit the mold…

Maybe in the near future they will realize that unique and different is a GOOD thing.  And that playing it safe will only push the written word into an overused stereotype, instead of the groundbreaking and unique art that it should be.

Those other genres look to us for something different…what happens when even we don’t have that to give…

Keep Writing!