World Building Primer

Nat RussoBasics, How-To, World Creation 28 Comments

World Building is something that all writers of speculative fiction need to do at some point in the story development process. I’d go so far as to say World Building is one of the primary things that drew many of us to this craft in the first place. 

In today’s post we’ll cover the following:

  • The Map
  • Borders
  • Religions
  • Cultures
  • Cities

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I Won a Liebster Award!

Nat RussoAwards 2 Comments


Well how about that! Just when I thought no one was watching what I was doing out here on the interwebs, a couple of lovely folks nominate me for a Liebster award!

Priest. Philosopher. Policeman. Programmer. Pencil Pusher.

Follow the jump link for details on why I only choose professions that begin with the letter “P”!

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How Do You Come Up With Story Ideas?

Nat RussoBasics, How-To, Idea Net, Story Ideas, Writing 27 Comments

Perhaps another way to phrase this question is “where do story ideas come from?” The answer is simple: story ideas are all around us.  Everything we see, touch, smell, hear, and taste has the potential to be a story seed that blossoms into a full-fledged story if nurtured properly.

For some of us, this nurturing process is intangible, defying attempts to be described or squeezed into a bullet list. But for most, full story ideas aren’t something that spring up like eureka moments. Instead, the full story only emerges after idea “seeds” are watered and nurtured.

I’m one of the latter. Rather than waiting for the mysterious process by which a story miraculously springs into existence in the rusty innards of my mind, I take small ideas or observations and massage them into stories, similar to how Orson Scott Card uses his “Idea Net”. Let’s take a look at how this works.


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Revision Checklist – Part 2 of 2

Nat RussoChecklists, Dialogue Attributions, Editing, Filter Words, How-To, Misused Phrases, Misused Words, Passive Voice, Present Continuous, Revision 10 Comments

[Updated 5/09/2014]

Welcome to part two of my two-part series on Revision.

If you haven’t read part one yet, I recommend it, and not in an entirely self-serving way. In this post I’m going to dig into the second half of my Common Revision Checklist, and I’m going to assume you’re already familiar with the first half.

Today we’re going to take a look at the following topics:

  • Commonly misused words/expressions
  • Filter words
  • “Something of Something” constructions
  • Superfluous Movement Verbs
  • Passive voice
  • Dialog attributions
  • Superfluous “That” usage
  • Confusing “ing” constructions

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Revision Checklist – Part 1 of 2

Nat RussoAdverbs, Capitalization, Checklists, Editing, How-To, Qualifiers, Revision, Word Count 22 Comments

[Updated 5/09/2014]

In an earlier post titled Revising Your First Draft: The First Read-Through I teased you all with mention of a Revision Checklist and going into a deeper dive of my own revision process. Before I go there, I want to caution you: if you are still in the middle of writing your first draft, you do not want to read this post.

You heard me.

If you’re still producing your first draft, close this browser tab and back away from the blog. Better still, bookmark this post for later review…then step away from the blog.

Ok. We should be alone now. If any of those “first drafters” come back, someone nudge me or something. We can’t have them poking around here just yet. They’ll get overzealous and start editing themselves prematurely.

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How Do You Find a Character’s Voice?

Nat RussoCharacterization, How-To, Voice, Writing 39 Comments

Finding a character’s voice and personality comes easily to some, and with difficulty to others. In fact, even for those of us who don’t struggle with this issue, some characters are just more enigmatic than others. So what can you do?

In a couple of #writetip auto-tweets that I send out periodically (we’ll debate the merits of auto-tweeting later) I mention a process of interviewing your characters to get at the heart of that person’s character traits. I’ve received an enormous response to those tweets asking me to go into some detail, so I decided to write today’s blog entry on that subject.

In the past, I’ve taken a number of approaches to this problem that usually wind up being a type of exploratory writing: short stories, stream of consciousness, random scene from current project, etc. Those are all tried and true techniques, and they are worth experimenting with to see if they are more to your liking. But I’ve since stumbled upon another technique that has added more depth to my characters than any of the previous techniques I’ve tried.

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Merry Christmas

Nat RussoHoliday Leave a Comment

I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas! I probably won’t be able to blog until closer to New Year’s.

I’ll be spending the holidays with my extended family in Texas. It’s our first Christmas without my mother-in-law, Arnette. She passed away this summer, far too soon, and we all miss her dearly. If any of you are the praying kind, please keep my family in your prayers this holiday season.

God Bless!

The Basics: So You Want To Write A Novel

Nat RussoBasics, Characterization, How-To, Plot and Structure, Reference Books, World Creation, Writing 10 Comments

Where Do I Begin?

If you’ve landed here, you’ve got a good head start. I’m going to make a couple of assumptions about you, if that’s ok:

  1. You’re an avid reader.
  2. You want to write a book-length work of fiction (i.e. you want to write a novel).
  3. You’ve never done this before, or you’ve had a lot of starts/stops in your past.
  4. You’re willing to dedicate the next several months…perhaps years…of your life to telling a single story.
  5. You have no idea where to begin.
You may think I’m a mind reader now. But the simple truth is that I’ve just described most of us. And by “us” I’m referring to pretty much anyone who has ever taken the first step on the journey to becoming a novelist. Those 5 assumptions definitely describe where I began.
I have some answers for you. They may not be the best, but the advice I’m going to give is the advice I took myself. It’s the same advice that helped me complete my first novel, which is a goal I had wanted to achieve for more than 20 years.


The Highlights

If you’ve read my About page (you’ll find the link at the top of the screen), then you know I’m a fantasy writer. Most of what I write here will be from the perspective of a person who writes in that genre, but I think you’ll find the advice to be general enough to apply to your specific area. About the only section that won’t apply directly is the first – “World Creation”. Although, on some level, every novelist has to go through the process of learning the milieu they intend to write about.
Everyone’s process will differ, and eventually you will settle on your own. But this is about beginnings, and I’m the type of person who usually finds new things a little easier if I have some sort of template to follow. So, I’m going to let you in on my process…the process that helped me complete my bestselling debut fantasy novel Necromancer Awakening.

World Creation

If you’re writing speculative fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, etc.), then you probably need to do some amount of world creation, unless your setting is a direct copy of your present time/place. However, it is doubtful that your story is going to be very “speculative” if it doesn’t contain elements of…well…speculation: non-existing technologies, strange modes of travel, magic, alien creatures, etc. Those things, after all, are the bread and butter of speculative fiction.
Whether you intend to write a series of novels in the same setting, or just one, your world needs to be believable. It has to seem like a real place to the reader, or you’ll fail to transport them there in the fictive dream you create.
Give some thought to the following when building your world:
  • Map. 
    • What does your world look like? What is the geology like? How does the geology impact your political divisions?
    • What types of natural resources exist in your world? Are some in abundance while others are scarce?
    • Where are your cities? Why did they form there? Trade routes?
  • Culture.
    • Do you have many cultures or only one? What are their governments like? Do they have many religions? A single religion that is interpreted in different ways depending on geopolitical affiliation? Are some locations/territories on your map considered sacred by one or more of these religions?
    • What about modes of dress? Dialect? Customs and behaviors?
In short, you’re building a world, so consider the elements that make up our own world and change them up a little! Here’s a link to a great book I read on the subject. It started the whole ball rolling for me.
Orson Scott Card gives some wonderful advice about the entire writing process, so don’t miss out on this great craft book! I can’t overstate how helpful I found this book, in more ways than one.

[Update 8/22/2013: In a recent article, I discuss Card’s opinion that a writer should never use profanity. For my take on it, give Profanity in Genre Fiction a read.]

I wrote an article a while back that has since become one of my most popular: World Building Primer. I intend for that article to be the first of a series that I’ll be writing in the future.


Plot and Structure

You’re going to hear a lot of different things about plot and structure. Some writers will point out that plot is a four-letter word, and react as strongly to it as other four-letter words. Other writers will claim that if you’re “plotting” then your writing will be formulaic…another word with horrible connotations. When you’ve been writing for a while, you’ll form your own opinions, as we all do. For now, I’m going to assume you’re looking for a starting point.
The Three Act Structure is a tried and true structure for telling just about any story. The technique is an ancient one, and it works for a reason: it resonates with people. There are many other structures we could use, but let’s start here for the time being. The entire structure can be summed up like this:
  • Get your characters up a tree (Act I)
  • Throw rocks at them (Act II)
  • Get them back down (Act III)
You need to start by taking your main character and throwing the literary equivalent of a hand grenade into his life (get him up a tree). From there, you spend most of your novel placing one obstacle after another in his path (throw rocks at him). Then, when you’re finished torturing the poor person, resolve the situation (get him back down).
After spending years trying to finish one novel after another, and failing miserably, I stumbled on a book written by James Scott Bell that made everything click for me. After reading it, I realized what it was I had been doing wrong all those years. The symptoms were many, but at the most basic level I never took the time to develop a plot! Once I figured this out, the story just flowed out of me like water from a spring.  
Here’s a link to it.


You probably have some idea of the characters that will make an appearance in your book. If you’ve gotten this far, I hope you know a little about your main character. And since you’ve already planned a few of those “rocks” you’re going to throw at him/her, then you probably know something about the person or people that will be your main character’s primary opposition.
This is a good start, but you need to flesh these people out, otherwise they’ll be paper thin and unbelievable. And that’s not what you’re going for.  Orson Scott Card wrote a book on the topic of characterization (which I’ll link below for convenience). In that book, he says “A character is what he does.” No truer words have ever been uttered on the subject. Don’t tell the reader that your main character is a good guy who should be liked by everyone. Show the reader! Give your main character behaviors that a “good guy who should be liked by everyone” would possess. Put him on the stage and have him perform those behaviors and your readers will agree with you.
Here’s the link. 


You’ve made it! You’ve created your milieu. You can quote fictional works of theology and philosophy written by the ancient sages of your world. You know where all the good fishing holes are. And you know you’d better not go near that cave over there, or the Blue Brothers of Boopsie will think you’re trying to steal their Bouncing Ball of Bippity.
You’ve crafted a plot that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud, and your characters promise to be engaging, living and breathing people.
Now what?
Well…now you have to write it. This is where the rubber meets the road! Sit yourself down and type one word after another until they form sentences. Then the sentences form paragraphs, and so on. You’re a writer now!
If only it were that simple. A detailed look at Writing as a general topic is beyond the scope of this article. In fact, this entire blog is about the various facets of the craft of writing, so it would be impossible to encapsulate the entire topic in a single post. But here are some pointers that have helped me:
  • Find a quiet place with no or few distractions. You need to be completely immersed, at least in the beginning. Many writers will tell you this will always be the case. It’s going to be hard enough as it is, at first, so take as many obstacles out of your way as you can. Obstacles are for your characters, not for you.
  • Back up your work. I store most of my stuff in the cloud (as well as locally) so that it is always safe and available.
  • You are your own boss…so act like you’re a boss. Make demands of yourself. Be disciplined. If you wait for the muse to arrive, I hope you’re not holding your breath while doing so. The muse only visits writers who are writing, not waiting to write.
Remember the first item in my list of assumptions? You’re an avid reader. I hope this is a correct assumption, because one of the best ways to learn how to write is to read. Pick up a book in your chosen genre and read. Heck, pick up a stack of books in your genre and read all of them! You’re going to learn something about the craft from each experience. Some lessons will be simple: how does that author indicate internal dialogue? Others will be complex: how did that author manage to weave five separate plot lines together so masterfully?
Don’t just read books in your genre. Read others as well. Every genre has its own bag of tricks, and there are few rules that can’t be broken with wonderful results, when broken by the right hands. Read books on the craft. They will be invaluable to you in the beginning.
Speaking of which, here are my favorites. All of these books are on my shelf right now, and several have taken up permanent residence next to my keyboard.
This is a great book about crafting individual scenes. Elements of Fiction Writing – Scene & Structure
Great tips on style. I keep this one with me at all times. The Elements of Style Illustrated
I spoke about conflict and how to “throw rocks” at your main character. This book will teach you how to do that.  Elements of Fiction Writing  – Conflict, Action & Suspense
Stephen King is a master story teller. He wrote this book while he was recovering from a hit and run accident. It’s a wonderful memoir and guide for would-be writers.  On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft
So grab one or more of those craft books and learn as much as you possibly can! And while you’re at it, follow me on Twitter at @NatRusso I’m very active and offer some writing tips throughout the day.
Writing is a learned craft. You can learn!

Revising Your First Draft: The First Read-Through

Nat RussoBasics, Editing, How-To, Revision, Writing 37 Comments

[Revised 02/10/2015]

What have I gotten myself into?

If you’re in the middle of your first draft, you’ve probably asked yourself that question several times by now. Writing that first draft can feel like running a sprint at times. Your head is full of ideas for setting, characterization, dialog, plot, and interesting scenes. Thoughts are flowing so fast that your fingers can’t keep up. Putting the words on paper is like a mental dump of information. Did you capture it all? Did you get that last thought translated from brain signals to keyboard strokes? You’re not certain, but if you stop to look back you just might miss that next thought that’s bubbling to the surface.

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