Comma Little Bit Closer

Sorry, I’m a sucker for a good pun … and a bad pun…

Today I want to talk about punctuation specifically as it applies to dialogue. Authors should keep in mind that the US, UK, and Canada may have slightly different rules for this. I’m Canadian, and I read mostly works published and formatted for a North American audience.

Quotation Marks

North American industry standard is to use the double quotation mark to indicate spoken dialogue. “Like this”. Depending on the font you use, they will be curlier or straighter. ‘Single quotation marks’ are used to indicate thought (more on thought and inner dialogue later) or indicate that a word or phrase is being stressed or singled out in some way. (No, not ‘those’ apples.)

Dialogue Tags

A dialogue tag is the ‘he said’ or ‘she asked’ that is put before, after, or in the middle of the dialogue line to tell the reader who is speaking it. Generally, they are separated from the dialogue with a comma.

“Talk first,” she said. (Here, the comma is inside the closing quotation mark and the s in she is lower case)

He said, “Talk later.” (Here the comma is before the opening quotation mark and the t in talk is upper case)

“Can we compromise?” she asked. (Here, the question mark replaces the comma but the s in she is still lower case – this also happens when an exclamation mark is used)

He said, “No, we cannot compromise!” (Here, the comma remains between the tag and the opening quotation mark, even though the period is replaced by the exclamation mark. Note, too, that the period in example 2 and the exclamation mark in example 4 are inside the quotation marks)

“Please,” she pleaded. “I just want to know what’s going on.” (Here, the comma comes inside the closing quotation, as in example 1. The period between the tag and the second portion of the dialogue can be a period or a comma, but it must come before the opening quotation mark)

Using words other than said is a contentious point of debate in the writing community. My preference is to let the spoken words and the action/description tags (which I’ll talk about next) convey the emotion and intent of the dialogue. However, if used sparingly throughout the book, words like pleaded, moaned, groaned, gasped, chortled, etc. can be useful in conveying tone of voice.


Action/Description Tags

When you replace the ‘he said’ with an action that happens alongside or immediately following the dialogue or replace it with a description of the scene or the character’s emotions, the rules around the tags change.

“Talk first.” She slammed her hands down on the table. (The comma has become a period because these are two different sentences now instead of parts of one sentence)

He shook his head. “Talk later.” (Again, 2 sentences separated by a period)

“Can we compromise?” Her lip trembled as she struggled to hold back tears.

His chair dragged loudly over the floor as he burst to his feet. “No, we cannot compromise!”


Combined Action and Dialogue tags

When you combine the ‘he said’ with the action he is performing as he speaks, the rules shift slightly again.

“Talk first,” she said, slamming her hands down on the table. (Here, the comma inside the closing quotation has returned and the action is added to the sentence with another comma)

He shook his head and said, “Talk later.” (Here, the comma before the quotation mark is back and the action has been added before the tag, joined with an ‘and’)

“Can we compromise?” she asked, her lip trembling. (The ‘s’ in she is lowercase again, indicating it is one sentence and the action has been added with a comma)



Sometimes a character talks too much and the dialogue requires paragraph breaks. To show that the same person is still talking, you open the quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but do not close them until the end of the speech.

He stood before the crowd and began to speak. “My dear friends, it is an honour to speak before you today. Lots of talking. Talking. More talking. Gee this guy talks a lot.

“That is what it is so important to address this issue today. So, I’m going to talk about it a lot. And some more. I have a lot to say!

“I don’t want to keep you all day, but I like the sound of my own voice so I’m going to talk a little longer. So, thank you for coming to listen to me.”



Adverbs generally end in ‘ly’. They are words that add a condition to another part of the sentence.

He ran. He ran quickly. He ran desperately. (Quickly and desperately are adverbs).

Adverbs are overused in writing. One suggestion I came across was to use an adverb if it turned an expectation on its head.

She smiled. We know a smile means happy so saying “She smiled happily” is a waste of a good adverb. It doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence or clarify a detail. “She smiled sadly” on the other hand means something very different from “she smiled.”

In dialogue, we often add adverbs to the end of a dialogue tag to add emotion. “He said sadly” or “She said happily”.

As I mentioned with words other than said, I prefer to let the dialogue itself, the actions, and the descriptions, do the heavy lifting. Adverbs in dialogue tags should be used sparingly.

“Talk now,” she said angrily. (because the adverb is tacked on the end, there is no change.

Angrily, he said, “Talk later.” (Again, no change, except to add the adverb to be beginning with a comma.

Don’t combine adverbs with words other than said. Shouted angrily. Sobbed sadly. Cried loudly. One or the other UNLESS it is required (and really, really consider if it’s necessary) for clarity in some way.


Thoughts and Inner Dialogue

There are several options, and all of them are correct. The key to writing a character’s thoughts or inner dialogue, or to writing telepathic exchanges in fantasy or speculative fiction settings, is consistency.

Option 1: single quotations. “Speech is written with a double quotation,” he said. ‘But what I think is written in single quotations,’ he thought. (Note that the comma usage around the quotation marks is the same whether it’s double or single.

Option 2: italics, no quotation marks. “Speech is written with a double quotation,” he said. But what I think is written in italics, he thought. (Note that the comma usage at the end of the italics is the same as if there were quotation marks)

Option 3: italics with either single or double quotation marks. “Speech is written with a double quotation,” he said. ‘But what I think is written in single quotations,’ he thought.

I use option 2 for thoughts and option 3 with single quotations for telepathic dialogue. Whatever you choose, you must use a single option for the entire book to avoid confusion.


Written Communications

Emails, text messages, PMs on social media, scrawled notes, written letters … sometimes our characters need to write things down or read things that are written down. As with thoughts, there are a few ways to do this, and consistency is key.

Option 1: single quotations

Option 2: italics

Option 3: italics with quotations

(Do not use the same format for written communication as you do for thoughts)

Option 4: Bold

Option 5: Other punctuation marks. In The Underground I use ~ for short messages like texts. ~Answer your phone. ~

Option 6: Block quotes/modified margins – this is when you adjust the margin, so the body of the text has a 1” margin on left and right but a letter or email (especially if it’s several paragraphs) has a 1.5” margin on left and right

Option 7: Use the narrative to indicate it’s written (He read the letter) and use the same quotations as a speech


Questions? Leave me a comment and I’ll answer it for you. If you feel I’ve missed a special case/type of dialogue or if you have other options for thoughts and written communications, comment and let me know.


The Story Bible

That’s not a typo. I’m not talking about Bible stories – I’m talking about story bibles, or story canon. A story bible is a document, folder, or other reference device used by writers to keep their fictional world straight and consistent.

But how do you create one?

Start by recording all the unchangeable facts about your “world” – how your magic works, the climate, the seasons, the calendar, distances between locations, etc.

Next, make a list of characters – their birthdates, gender, name, family connections, backstory. Add to this how they are tied to various plot lines or other characters (best friends, romantic interests, enemies, allies).

Make a list of changeable facts – government, titles, corporate positions, allegiances, etc.

Lastly, make a list of all major plot points, the dates they occur, where they occur, who is there, and how that event changes any of the above facts.

Add to this as you add characters and events.

Why do you create one?

For consistency. Sometimes you have a single author building an extensive universe and a world bible will help them keep their facts straight. It is essential if you have a co-author so you can both stay on the same page. It is common for TV shows as well, where they employ multiple writers, often with a different person handling each episode. Events from each episode are added to the story bible so the next writer knows what has happened, what everyone knows, and the key personality traits and plot points.

It’s all about keeping your facts straight.

Prolific Works

I received a troubling email this morning from an app/site called Prolific Works.


The rest of the email was simply inviting me to click the link to upgrade my account. So, what’s so troubling?

I’d never heard of Prolific Works before today and I’ve never given them permission to distribute my books, let alone give my books away.

I went to their website intending to search their database to see if my books were indeed available there or if this was some new site trying to get me to sign up. It’s a little of both. First, though, I couldn’t search via their website, I had to download the app.

I downloaded the app and registered (I will be leaving a review before I delete my account and the app later today). I searched my name and bingo! 1 result listed under fantasy.

The good news is that the only book they have listed is a short story that I offer for free on Smashwords and their associate sites. Which gave me pause. Perhaps this is a Smashwords affiliated distributor? Turns out they are not.

I emailed Prolific Works next and this was their reply:

Hi Casia,

Sorry for the confusion regarding this message! Our company used to be called Instafreebie, and it looks like you ran a giveaway on our site in 2017. Our system automatically generates these emails, so it didn’t realize that you haven’t been active since that time. You do have one book and one giveaway on the site, and the book is called “Roses of Airon.” If you don’t plan on using our services in the future, I’m happy to deactivate your account for you! Again, I’m sorry for the miscommunication, and you won’t be receiving an email like this from us again. Let me know if there’s anything else I can clarify for you.

Aha! So, in 2017 I ran a freebie on my free short story, a prequel to a series I recently finished. If Instafreebie sent me an email about the change in name, I didn’t get it, because I didn’t get any results from the giveaway I ran with them at the time. But in the last 2 years, apparently, the story has been downloaded 200+ times. Sadly those downloads have NOT translated into sales for me. There was no “end” date on the giveaway, which is how it was still live on their site.

I have replied to their email, asking them to deactivate my account.

In the grand scheme of things I’ve lost nothing in this ordeal. The readers who downloaded my short story for free were never going to purchase my books, no matter where they downloaded it from. I’ve written about Free Culture before, and how it is killing the arts, and this is further proof.

I’m glad this turned out to be harmless. I’ve received some predatory emails in the past from sites that want to publish my work for free for their profit. If you have free stories and want to put them on another platform, you can look at Prolific Works. I’m in no position to review, rate, or recommend them, but they’re out there.

Race to the Bottom

Race to the Bottom is a phrase that is most often associated with rapidly decreasing prices or quality controls within an industry. As it applies to write, it can refer to book prices, book quality, and burn out.


“If it’s not free it costs too much.” With the advent of e-books, followed closely by independent publishing platforms, we’ve seen a steady drop in e-book prices. A lot of readers won’t pick up an ebook by a new or unknown author for more than $2.99.

The way I see it, a book’s price should reflect its length more than anything else. 99 cents is great for a novella or for an introductory offer (say, the first book in a series).

$2.99 is minimum for a full-length YA or adult novel (so, 250 6×9 pages if it was a paperback). For writers, this is roughly 65,000 words. $4.99 is still decent for this length. I often pay five and six dollars for an ebook without batting an eye. It’s still half the price or less than the paperback.

$9.99 is about the most I will pay for an e-book unless it’s a monster (400+ pages, dense text).

Really, you should charge no more than 50% of your paperback price for your ebook. Yes, you have editing costs and cover design costs, but that 50% mark puts prices at a reasonable place for both writers and readers.

Sadly, a lot of readers look at $4.99 on an ebook by an indie author and balk.  They email authors and ask when the book will be available for free giveaway. They go to places like Quora and ask for links to free books. (And users on Quora are happy to provide links to pdfs of popular books for free. And Quora doesn’t care one bit that its platform is being used to pirate books.)

This leaves writers in a bind. How do we compete? I don’t have a well-known name like Stephen King or JK Rowling. I don’t have a publisher’s stamp of approval, or a publisher’s distribution network, or a publisher’s marketing budget. A lot of indie authors look at this situation and think, “The only way I can compete is to be cheaper, more readily accessible to the reader,” and that’s sound logic – if consumerism worked that way.

I understand where readers are coming from – poorly edited indie books, indie books with bad plots, book stuffers, it all leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. They don’t want to spend their money on a product that may or may not be satisfactory, in production value or entertainment value. Short of adding “this book has seen 5 rounds of copy edits” to the description, what can the writer do to prove to readers their book is worth taking a chance on?

There are no easy answers. Contrary to what a lot of book coaches and marketing gurus will tell you, there is no fast track, no one-size-fits-all solution, no magic wand or magic hashtag. I do have a few ideas, but they’re slow, they require a lot of people to get on board, and they smell an awful lot like work and waiting.

  1. Value yourself, your work, and your brand. That means taking pride in how you present yourself to potential readers (a clean, easy to use website or blog, well-produced covers, good response time to comments and queries), but it also means setting your prices at an appropriate place (high enough to say ‘I have value’ but low enough that the reader doesn’t feel ripped off).
  2. Produce quality work. Get a beta reader or three. Get an editor, a paid professional. Take the time to polish your work instead of rushing to publish. The only way we can change the reader’s mind about the quality of indie work is to change the quality of indie work – let’s make the crappy stuff the minority. Make sure your interior formatting, be it for paperback or ebook, is professional and to industry standards.
  3. Review everything you read. Even if you just leave a star rating, it helps. And this goes for readers and writers both. If something is good, review it. Put in your review “this book was clean of technical errors” or “the editing was really good too” so other readers know they’re not wasting their money on garbage. And if you find a book with a lot of errors, here’s the polite way to write that in a low-star review: “I feel this book could benefit from further edits” or “It feels like the author rushed to release this book and did not take the time to make it the best it could be”. Again, this alerts future readers to poor quality products. Indie authors don’t answer to the traditional gatekeepers, so we need new gatekeepers, and reviews is one way to provide that. Keep your comments polite, to the point, and professional.
  4. Be a mentor and an advocate. If you are a member of a writer group or two, or if new writers seek you out for advice, emphasize how important the editing is. Let’s teach this to every up-and-coming hopeful author – HIRE AN EDITOR. There is no skipping this step, there can be no cutting corners here. Also, stress the need for professional covers. This goes with point 1. Let’s teach new writers to have pride in their work and their brand.
  5. Be respectful of costs. Editing and cover art cost money if you want the job done right. Just as we want readers to pay fair prices for our finished books, so too must we be willing to pay a fair price to the people who work for us – editors and artists. Familiarize yourself with the Editorial Freelance Association rates and respect people who follow these rates in their pricing. Share information on professional artists and editors instead of advising people to visit fiverr and other such sites (because these are causing a similar race to the bottom in editing and art that is frustrating our fellow creators and freelancers).
  6. If you edit or ghostwrite – charge fair prices. Value your work, don’t undercut other freelancers, and demand a fair wage for what you do. As a ghostwriter, I was making less than a penny a word and I was still being undercut.

This is an uphill battle for all of us on all sides of this. The economy isn’t great. Everyone with a love for books thinks they can be an editor and everyone with photoshop thinks they can make covers and that floods the market with cheap options that undercut professionals and make it easy to resent people who want to make a living doing what they are trained to do. If we stick together, work with professionals who value themselves and us, and refuse to cave to the “free or cheap” consumer mentality, maybe, just maybe, we can salvage the indie e-book industry before we’re all reduced to monkeys at typewriters.

Chapter Length

One of the frequently asked questions over on the writers’ group I belong to is some variation of “how long should my chapters be?” The short answer is “It depends on the book”, but this isn’t the place for short answers, so let’s explore chapters.

A chapter is a natural break in the story and should always occur between scenes. It indicates a change in characters, a change in point of view, a change in setting, or a passage of time. Somewhere in the first half page of a new chapter, there should be some indication of where you are, how much time has elapsed since the last chapter ended, and who is present. The ending should be the end of a conversation, a person leaving, or an event wrapping up. It can end with a reveal, a question, or a tone/mood.

So how long?

In my Underground Series, I aimed for 2000 words per chapter. This was a Middle Grade (grades 4-8) science fiction series and each book in the series was 20-30k total length. 2000 words per chapter, give or take, plus a prologue and epilogue in each book, gave me roughly 9-10 chapters.

When I was ghostwriting 50k erotic romance I aimed for 4000 words per chapter, or roughly 12 chapters. This allowed me to follow a common pacing framework within the stories.

Now, I’m working on an epic fantasy. I’ve got no clue how long it will be, but the outline fits nicely into 20 chapters. These chapters are ranging between 3500 words and 5800 words, give or take. I figure as long as none are over 6000 or under 3000 and all break at natural places, they’ll feel fairly uniform.

In all of these examples the length of the chapter changes in relation to the total word count of the book – a bigger book has both more chapters and longer chapters. But chapters don’t have to be uniform.

In the Rose Garden Series, I didn’t use traditional chapters. Instead of Chapter 1, Chapter 2 … each chapter starts with the date of the scenes taking place. Each chapter is one day. Some chapters start with a time-lapse recap if there is a gap of several days between chapters, but otherwise, one chapter is one day. So, some chapters were 4000+ words and some chapters were 250 words.

So, what’s right?

There is no hard and fast rule, but something to keep in mind about chapters is that they are put into books, not only to signify the changes I mentioned earlier but to give the reader a place to put in a bookmark and take a break. It’s a breather. Even if it’s just long enough to refill your tea and come back. If the chapters are too long, the reader may feel that the book is dragging (“When is this chapter going to end?”) but if the chapters are too short it can make the story feel broken and choppy, like too many interruptions at dinner.

Let’s sum this up into a few simple guidelines:

  • A chapter should end at the end of a scene.
  • A chapter should be as long as it needs to be to complete the scene, or related series of scenes, in a satisfactory way.
  • Longer books generally have more chapters and longer chapters than shorter books.
  • Chapters should be long enough to give the reader something to enjoy but short enough that they can take a breather.
  • Chapters do not have to be uniform in length so long as the follow points 1 and 2.


Now, what about chapters within chapters?

Off the top of my head, the first example I have of this, are the Black Jewel novels by Anne Bishop. The first book starts with “PART 1”. The next page says:

Chapter One

1 / Terreille

Now, Terreille is a realm in her world and chapter one happens to have three of these segments, each in a different place from the one before it. So, she has 3 books. Book 1 has 3 parts, each part has multiple chapters, each chapter has multiple sections. Sections start as soon as another ends (on the page – there are no page breaks), chapters start on new pages but no spacer pages in between (so they can start on either the left of the right) and Parts get a new page on the right with no other text on them.

Confused? It’s harder to explain than it is to follow when you’re reading. It works for her. It allows her to navigate a multi-planed world with several distinct settings without wasting a lot of time or words setting up each scene with needless description or exposition. Her method is not common and if you find it intimidating, or confusing, don’t use it.

I’m telling you about it because you can do it if you choose to. You can have Parts and Chapters. You can have Chapters and numbered sections. You can have all three. You can have just chapters. You can name your chapters “Chapter One, Chapter Two …” or use “Section” or “Part” instead of “Chapter” or you can name the chapters with words (I believe A Series of Unfortunate Events does this)

When do you decide?

For some writers, it works best to use no chapter breaks at all in the first draft. Just write. Once the draft is done and you’ve reordered the scenes to make a cohesive story, then you find the chapter breaks.

For some writers, they do it as they go along, putting in a chapter break where scene breaks allow or where it feels right.

For some writers, they do so much outlining, and have a decently clear idea of how long certain scenes will be and how they fit together, that they can break their outlines into rough chapters. This is me, though I’m often off by a chapter or two as scenes will run away with me or I’ll realize I need extra scenes somewhere (Whispers in the Dark started off at 18 chapters and now it’s 20, for example). This method isn’t better than either of the others.

The method you use depends on your writing style as much or more than it does on your level of experience. To be fair, I used the second method for years and only started doing the “chapters in the outline” method recently (I wrote crap for 15 years before getting published).

I hope this helps. If you have any questions, or you think there’s another point about chapters I should address here, or if you have suggestions for future articles, drop me a comment!


World Building 5 – Religion and Politics

As I said in previous posts, culture is a messy, complicated thing. There is no real linear way to go about creating a new culture for your book, but I’m going to try to break it down for you.

In my last post I talked about how the physical appearance of your species/group and their geographic location play into their culture. Now, we’re going to look at religion and politics.

I start by choosing a basic political structure for my group. Monarchy, theocracy, democracy, republic, oligarchy, or anarchy … those are the basic choices. There’s also the question of patriarchy vs matriarchy vs egalitarian. A patriarchy is a society that has male-based inheritance laws, men hold the majority of power positions and make the big decisions, and generally has a male-based naming structure (you inherit your family name from your father or husband). A matriarchy is the reverse – female-based inheritance and naming, women in positions of respect and power. An egalitarian society is one that does not favour one gender over the other.

Once I have that, I choose a style of religion – monotheistic or polytheistic. Then I build on it – what sort of holy scripture do they have? How much oral tradition do they have? Deity names and genders have to be selected. How does the gender of the deity affect the political structure? How ritualized is the religion? What symbols do they have? What things or days or people do they hold sacred? What sorts of religious laws do they have? How do the religious and political laws reflect or conflict each other?

Let’s jump back into the Thelaran Fairies we were talking about last post.

Fairies have a monarchy. Due to the rapid nature of their aging, sometimes the crown skips a generation – otherwise they can end up passing on the crown every few years and that’s hard on the population and their relations with their Human neighbours.

Fairies worship Olina, a female deity. Olina is known for her joy, reflecting the carefree nature of Fairy life. As fairies began interacting with other groups, they adopted other deities as part of Olina’s Court – Rhys, the god of the Dryads and Nymphs, represents fertility, while Helene, the goddess of the Humans represents magic. They are viewed as lesser spirits to the Fairies, “servants” in Olina’s Court who help the Joyful Goddess with her work. Fairy “church” is very casual and very fun. They gather a few times a year, based on the seasons, to celebrate the natural world. There is a lot of music and dancing and laughing. They also gather to celebrate marital unions and births, generally gathering every few weeks to celebrate everything that happened during that time.

After the Great War, as they began interacting with Humans more, they started creating new, stricter, religious “rules”. They wrote a holy book and introduced ritualized prayers for certain celebrations, because they wanted their religion to look more like the Human religion. (The Dryads and Nymphs on the other hand have almost no ritual or structure to their worship and even after the Great War rejected the Human notion of holy texts and rituals).

Laws – Fairies have pretty basic laws – no killing, no stealing, no rape. They ownership laws but have a trade based economy. Their laws of inheritance are based on age, titles, houses, and possessions go to the “next of kin” regardless of gender to be sorted out.

Because of their short lifespan and casual lifestyle, not much else is needed. They do have some “international laws” dictating territory boundaries, how and why and where Humans may enter or pass through their territory, and how, why, and how much as far as Humans gathering wood from their territory.

World Building 4 – Physical Culture

Okay, I just needed a short title for this post. Today we’re talking about cultural aspects shaped by the physical characteristics of the species and the geography of their home.

Let’s start by picking a species. For this example, I’m going to use the Fairies of Thelara, a world I’ve built for a series I’m writing.

Thelaran Fairies are small roughly 9 inches tall. Their body shapes vary (thin, slender, athletic, round) but obesity is rare, since they have to be able to fly. The average height for males is 1-2 inches taller than the average height for females (a tall male is taller than 98% of females, but a short male is shorter than a tall female) Their wings are similar to a dragonfly’s but larger (in proportion to their body) and less fragile. Their skin is similar in colour to Earth Mediterranean or Native American but with a slight green undertone. Hair colours span the natural human range, as do eye colours, though rare human colours like violet are more common among Fairies.

Lifespan – Fairies age/mature at twice the speed of humans. Pregnancies are 4-5 months. By 3 years they are ready for school, by 6-7 years they are into puberty, by 11 years they are physically and sexually mature. By 20 years they are “mid-life) by 30 years they are seniors, by 35 years most are dead. The oldest living fairy every recorded in history or myth was 48 years old.

Thelaran Fairies live in a small wooded area. East-to-West it is located centrally on a large continent but North-to-South it touches the northern coastline. They don’t often venture beyond the northern edge of the trees because the coastal winds are dangerously strong. There is a river running through their territory. There are Humans to the East and West of them, and Dryads living in the trees to the South.

At this point I have identified the major physical attributes and geographical setting. Now to build cultural ideas around that.

Their size will affect diet, fashion, and architecture. They are too small to hunt anything larger than a mouse so their diet consists mainly of fruit and nuts with a small supplement of mouse meat, bird eggs, and bugs. They have a friendly relationship with squirrels, for the most part, but are semi-adversarial with birds. Their clothes are made of leaves, bark, woven grass, and mouse-hide. They live in tree hollows or homes built in the forks of trees. It is rare for Fairies to live at ground level.

Their lifespan and aging pattern affects coming-of-age and marriage customs. Fairy lives are short so traditionally they did not stand on much ceremony. Offspring moved out sometime between 9 and 13 years, finding or building their own homes. Marriage was a casual affair, sometimes not even celebrated until the birth of the first child. They gathered twice a year, once to celebrate the long days of summer, once to celebrate the coming “hibernation”.

Because they live in a Northern region, Fairies enter a period of semi-hibernation from the equivalent of Earth’s mid-November to late-March. They sleep long periods, but not the entire 5-6 months. They stay indoors, often with extended families or multiple families staying together. This is a period of intense education for the children, while the adults pursue artistic endeavors, tell stories, and get pregnant.

During warm weather the focus is on hunting, gathering, and storing food. Everyone over the age of 4 years (the equivalent of 8 years) helps. The elderly help by looking after the young. There is a communal sense to childcare, education, and cooking.

After the Great War, their culture was influenced by greater contact with Humans and they started to develop stricter rituals and rules around marriage and procreation, creating a marriage ritual and deciding that fairies must be wed before having children.

It’s really hard to break down how this all works. For me, it’s a matter of looking at specific details in their geography and physical appearance and figuring out how that will change the way they dress, what they eat, etc. Each detail leads me to a new detail, or a new question to ask. Even though I was trying to focus on Geography and Physical Attributes, history also came into play (by way of interaction with geographic neighbours).

This is just an overview of the Fairies, and a brief example of one aspect of culture building. Here are some questions for you to consider as you start your own project:

  1. What are the basic physical traits of my species? How will their height, weight, or special abilities (like flight) affect where they can/can’t live, and what they can/can’t hunt/farm/gather?
  2. Where do they live? What resources are readily available to them and how can they use these to hunt/gather/build? What resources are scarce and how does that limit what they can hunt/gather/build? How will this affect their trade relations?
  3. What about climate? How does this affect what they wear and how they build their homes? What about growing periods for food?
  4. Religion – Things that are abundant and important are often considered blessings and become associated with a deity. Things that are scarce and important will become sacred and holy. Consider that Egyptians viewed paradise as a place with lots of water and trees and shade. How do geography, climate, and access to resources shape their deities and religious ideas?
  5. Geographic Neighbours – in this example they have two types of neighbours, ones they share their territory with (squirrels and birds, though they are not sentient) and ones their territory neighbours (Humans and Dryads). What is the nature of their political/trade relationships with their neighbours? How does their culture evolve through contact with outside groups?
  6. Classism/Elitism – how does your species/culture group use physical appearance or geography to mark classes? For example, Fairies would view those with houses higher in the trees as more important than Fairies that dwell closer to the ground. Are certain clothes/tattoos/etc reserved for certain classes or jobs (like political or religious leaders)?

We’ve barely scratched the surface of culture and we’ve only drawn on 2 cultural influences. As we go through the next two posts we’ll continue to build on this foundation until we have a well-rounded, functioning culture and society.

If you go back to the last post (An Intro to Culture), each of the culture posts will be linked at the bottom of the post for easy reference.

Don’t want to wait for the next posts? Or maybe you want more than just the overview the World Building posts are providing. Feel free to hope over to Amazon and order your copy of The Ultimate World Building Book.

World Building 3 – Intro to Culture

I don’t like the term “race”. If you’re talking Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Aliens then you’re talking species. If you’re talking Chinese and Japanese or Dale and Gondor then you’re talking culture or nationality. I’ll be avoiding the word race in the next few posts as I talk about building cultures for fantasy and science fiction where you can’t simply fall back on researching an existing culture.

Culture is a large, messy, complex term that provides an umbrella for a lot of other big pieces of the character puzzle. I took a semester of Cultural Anthropology, enough to know that it’s a huge messy complex thing to study.

Culture includes: religious beliefs, religious structure, political structure, gender ideas, marriage practices, parental practices, coming-of-age rituals and beliefs, ideas and opinions on sex and sexuality, the role of medicine, the arts, fashion, ideas on modesty, symbols, traditions, foods … I’m missing something, I just know I am.

Your job as a writer is to create a culture, not just for each planet, not just for each sentient species on each planet, but for each nationality and/or geographic region of each species on each planet. We only have one single sentient, dominant species on our planet and we have hundreds of cultures. I know you’re thinking “okay, but what about Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons? What about Orcs? What about …” What about cliches getting really old really fast? Mono-culture worlds were and are very common because they’re easy, especially in science fiction where we assume a spacefaring alien species has organized under a global government. Again, imagine Earth. If we organized under one religion would we be able to exist with a single religion? A single way of practicing a single religion? I doubt it.

There are options! Before you run away from your project, screaming in terror, there are options and short cuts to make this easier.

  1. limit the number of species you’re working with. David Eddings wrote 2, 5-book epic fantasy sagas in a single world following a single band of main characters and he had 3.5 species, humans, gods, “monsters” (sentient or semi-sentient species, one of which were the humanoid dryads, who had refused the gods and gone “mad” because of it) and “wizards” (humans that had discovered universal secrets and could do cool things). Most of the stories revolve around humans. That’s it. He had 12 maybe 13 cultures for his humans to belong to. You don’t even have to go that big because …
  2. limit the geographical scope of your book. David Eddings wrote a fantasy epic spanning a massive continent. You don’t have to. Sherry Peters wrote a comedic fantasy about a female dwarf in love with an elf. The majority of book 1 takes place in a single city. You meet 2 cultures and brush up against 2 others in passing. Most of the characters belong to a single culture and live in a single location. In book 2 she expands to a new city where this sheltered character starts to learn about other people. Limiting your story to a single city, or a single country, isolated from others by a magical barrier, a mountain range, or the ocean, is a good way to narrow your world building
  3. This applies to aliens too. When your crew meets the aliens, and you get the Q&A getting-to-know-you stuff, you can add in an exchange like HUMAN “Oh, so you eat XYZ by frying it in LMN!” ALIEN “Well, we do, but our neighbours in ‘country’ never eat it.” or “So all of you worship a god of technology?” “Actually, I failed my world religions class so I don’t exactly know. I know there are other religions, I just don’t know how to describe them to you. Alf in engineering might know.” By implying that the alien world is large and diverse, you can focus on the cultures of the characters in play and ignore the others

How do you go about building your cultures? My first step is to select a species and identify their physical attributes and geographic location and work out cultural aspects that are directly affected by those things (which will be World Building Post #4). Next, I like to tackle the big two: religion and government. I get the bare bones structure down for each but leave room to expand traditions, feasts, and folklore as I work on other things (we’ll go over that in World Building Post #5). Then it’s down to the nitty-gritty like laws, gender, and everything else on that list (you guessed it, World Building Post #6).

The whole process is a give and take because culture is a living breathing thing. Diet affects religion, geography and climate affect ideas on modesty, politics and religion affect gender roles and vice versa, available resources affect diet, fashion, architecture, and gender roles … you may add a detail to one thing and realize it ripples through things you’ve already built.

A NOTE ON CULTURAL APPROPRIATION: Humans have really done just about everything at some point somewhere on our planet. The trick to building new cultures is to borrow inspiration from a variety of places and weave it together, and to do so respectfully and responsibly. As I go through the this lesson on culture, I will be referencing some of the cultures I’m building for Thelara and I’ll be explaining where I borrowed from and how I intend to keep that borrowing respectful.

Don’t want to wait for the next posts? Or maybe you want more than just the overview the World Building posts are providing. Feel free to hope over to Amazon and order your copy of The Ultimate World Building Book.


How Do You Improve?

I’m looking at this question specifically from the POV of newbie authors, though I suppose the general answers would apply to anything.

How do you improve your writing?

First, you need to read, a lot, in a lot of genres. Read books about writing, like “On Writing” by Stephen King, or “Eats Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss. Honestly, many best-selling authors have written about their writing process. The more of these you read the more you find there is no right way to write. Also, read everything you can in the genre you write. If you want to write a memoir, read memoirs. Epic fantasy? Read George RR Martin, David Eddings, R.A. Salvitore, and others. 

Second, you need to learn the basics of spelling, grammar, and punctuation in the language you plan to write and publish in. Yes, you will be hiring an editor to catch your mistakes. Editors are cheaper if you have fewer mistakes to catch. It’s your job to understand the basic mechanics of your chosen language. There are online courses you can take. I’m a native English speaker and I still took an online course in grammar.

Third, don’t expect everything you write to be good enough to publish, especially in the beginning. You need to practice. There are no short cuts on this. I talk about this more here.

Fourth, slow down and spend some time in the pre-writing phases, as I explain in this blog here. Experiment with outlines, world-building, and character building. If you get stuck, go back to these steps and get to know your characters and your world better.

Get feedback when you can. Writers groups and beta readers are great for this. Keep in mind that family and close friends don’t make great critiquers, even literary-minded ones. They may be unsure of how to give you criticism without hurting you. When you get feedback, look at it honestly and accept it as part of your growth.

I’m in taekwondo and I regularly have more senior belts point out where my form or technique needs work. My response is “thank you”. They are not telling me these things because I’m bad or wrong or useless or anything like that, but because they want me to improve. I want to improve too. That means we’re on the same team.

The same goes for your writing. Beta readers and editors are not criticizing you because your writing is bad, they do it because they want to make you the best writer you can be. Thank them for their help, look at their advice honestly, not defensively, and use it to improve yourself.

That’s it. Read lots. Learn about the mechanics of language. Write lots. Let go of your inner critic. Learn to take advice and criticism and use it to better yourself. Practice, practice, practice, and never give up.

Contracts for Writers

There are multiple instances where a fiction or non-fiction writer will need or want a contract, or will be offered one by another person. Let’s go over the why, how, and when of contracts for writers.

Writer/Service Provider Contracts

This goes for every single service you wish to purchase in relation to your writing (editor, cover art, beta reader, formatter), YOU NEED A CONTRACT.

  1. The contract protects you. You can include a non-disclosure agreement to protect your work. You should include the agreed upon cost so it can’t be changed later. You should include what will happen should the service provider fail to provide the service.
  2. The contract is a clear, concise method of communicating and agreeing to expectations. Due dates, milestones, check-in dates, file specifications, project specifications – these should all be listed in the contract.
  3. The contract protects the person you are working with. You are agreeing to be held legally accountable for your end of the deal – the payment. Many service providers will not work without that guarantee.

This does not have to be a lawyer-official contract. Type up a document stating what you expect of the service provider, and what you are offering. Sign and date it. Have them sign and date it. Save it as a PDF and make sure you both have a signed, dated, unedited copy.

What if you’re not paying a Beta Reader? If you trust them, you probably don’t need a contract. If you are new to working with them you may get them to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or something simple with the deadline listed.


Author/Illustrator Contracts

I’m writing this separate because there’s some extra stuff to consider as compared to other service providers, and that’s rights and royalties.

  1. When the art is complete, who owns the rights to the images, which rights, and for how long? Is the artist allowed to share some of the images in their portfolio, or on their website?
  2. In what formats can the pictures be used (ebook, paperback, hardcover – you need individual usage rights for each format)? Can the author use the images in their advertising?
  3. Is the artist being paid the 100% value of the art upon completion? Are they due any royalties from sales?

Hash this out beforehand, make sure both parties are clear on costs and expectations and put it down on paper so no one can go back and claim differently. This is for children’s picture books and graphic novels.


Co-Author Agreements

If you are planning to write with someone, you should have a contract for the same reasons as above – it protects you both, and it outlines rights and responsibilities. What should you include?

  1. How much of the project are each of you supposed to complete? How many words? Which pieces are each of you to work on?
  2. When is the project due? How often do you have to check in with each other? When is each milestone due?
  3. How will you communicate? How often? What needs to be discussed?
  4. Will you create a world bible? Who has final say on world building changes/additions?
  5. Will you self-publish or seek an agent?
  6. What percentage of rights, and which rights, do each of you own? What percentage of royalties will be paid to each of you? If self-publishing, who will manage the KDP (or other platform) accounts? If traditional publishing, who will be the contact person for questions from agents/publishers? Who has final say on contract issues?

Again, hash this out before you start writing. You don’t want to spend a year writing a book with someone and then have it fall apart because you’re fighting over royalties.


Ghostwriting Contracts

The difference between co-writing and ghostwriting is simple. When you co-write, both parties are contributing actual written words to the project. When you are ghostwriting, the client provides ideas and information and the ghostwriter does all of the writing.

Fiction – the client provides a plot and a list of main characters. The ghostwriter takes this information and writes a detailed outline which goes to the client for approval. Once approved, the ghostwriter writes the entire story, sending in the required milestones, until the book is complete. The client pays the writer (usually at each milestone). At the end, the client owns 100% of the rights and when it is published will receive 100% of the royalties. Generally a ghostwriter signs a full non-disclosure agreement and cannot acknowledge in any way that they worked on the project.

Non-Fiction – this is most often biographical. The client sits down with the ghostwriter and tells them the story of their life, or a memorable event, or a parent’s life, or whatever, and the ghostwriter makes notes of facts, details, and tone of voice/word choice while recording the interview. The ghostwriter transcribes those notes and the recording into a book. The manuscript is passed between client and ghostwriter until the client feels the story and tone are accurate. While the ghostwriter may have a non-disclosure agreement for the duration of the writing period, and owns zero rights to the work, their involvement is generally acknowledged (by CLIENT, with the help of a ghostwriter). The ghostwriter is generally paid a lump sum, at the end or over specified milestones, and receives zero royalties unless otherwise negotiated.

The contract for either should include:

  1. Scope of the non-disclosure agreement
  2. Milestone requirements and due dates, and what will be paid at each milestone
  3. Total finished word count (especially for fiction), total payment, any offered bonuses, and payment method (paypal, etransfer, cash).
  4. What happens if the piece is longer than the agreed upon word count (or shorter)
  5. When and how and how often the client and ghostwriter will meet/talk, and what needs to be covered


Usage Agreements

If you need to use an image, or a brand, or someone’s name, you may require some legal paperwork. Usage Agreements outline the conditions an artist, photographer, writer, brand, or celebrity have put on their product/name/likeness.

  1. Images – you need to get commercial usage rights to ALL images that are not in the public domain if you intend to make money off the book the images are appearing in. They will have a value cap (once you’ve sold more than a specified dollar value of books you will have to pay royalties on the image)
  2. Brands/Companies – Fiction and non-fiction – if you are mentioning a brand or company in passing (we walked to Safeway – Doritos were my favourite chip in high school) you can generally get away with it on 2 conditions – the mention is positive AND you have a disclaimer in the copyright that you do not own or represent this brand. If they play a more extensive role (you have a character working for that private company or they play a major role in your memoir) you may want to send a notice that you’ll be doing this, that you’ll be mentioning them by name, and that you are only discussing them in a positive light – still include the disclaimer. If you cannot talk about them in a positive way: Fiction – make up a new company. Non-Fiction – talk to a lawyer.
  3. Celebrities – if you are talking about them (a character puts on a Black Sabbath record, you mention your favourite band/actor/etc in your memoir) you’re fine. If you are writing them (Bob Ross is a speaking character in your novel) then you need legal permission to use their likeness in your book. If it is non-fiction and you’re recording a conversation or encounter that really happened, it needs to be true, respectful of privacy, and you may want to attain permission.
  4. Friends and Family – for memoir writers – Get written permission to use their names in your memoir. Change names when you need to protect someone’s privacy or when you are saying things that would damage their reputation. Research defamation of character and reasonable expectation of privacy.


Agent Contracts

Agents do not charge reading fees EVER. Agents do not charge editing fees EVER. An agent can ask you to make changes, but they cannot require you to take it to a specific paid editor, EVER.

Your contract with your agent should include:

  1. How many publishers will they approach with your book (a minimum)? How often will they send the manuscript out? For how long will they continue to try with that manuscript?
  2. What happens if no one wants the book?
  3. If it is accepted, how much does the agent get paid (they get a % of your royalties/advances when they are paid by the publisher)?
  4. Will the agent also represent other formats (audio, movie, etc) and translations?
  5. Does the agency have a lawyer you can use?
  6. How does the agent leave your service, under what conditions, at what cost to either of you? How do you leave your agent, under what conditions, and at what cost to each of you? (THIS IS ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL)
  7. Does your agent want first-read privileges to future books you write?
  8. Is your contract with the agent or the agency? What will happen if your agent moves agencies or retires?


Traditional Publishing Contract, Anthology Contract, E-Zine/Magazine Contract

Congratulations! Someone wants to publish your work. What do you need to know about your contract?

  1. The contract should lay out clearly how much and when you get paid, by what method, and for what product (ebook, paperback, audiobook, hardcover, merchandise, etc).
  2. The contract should lay out ownership of rights – who owns what, for how long, and under what conditions. This gets complicated. For a new book, they should be asking for “first print and digital rights” for a set period of time (which means they are the only ones who can produce copies for that time period). If it’s a reprint they ask for reprint or second/third print rights for a set period. This also includes other formats (audio, video, translations), how much of the story the writer can share for free on their platforms, movie optioning rights, etc.
  3. There should be a timeline – editing, formatting, proofing, publishing – that lays out when the publishers will have things completed, and when the author is expected to return files.
  4. Author copies, how many? What format? When? At what cost to the author (at print cost, free)? Can you get more later? Do they count against royalties?
  5. Distribution and marketing – where will the book be sold? How will the book be marketed? Will they submit the book to writing contests and if not can you do it yourself? Will they arrange signings, when, how many, where? Can you arrange local signings and readings?
  6. How do you get out of the contract? Under what conditions are you allowed to leave? How does the publisher get out of the contract? Under what conditions can they cancel? What is the cost to each party in each circumstance of the contract terminating early?
  7. When the contract is up, what happens to unsold copies? What are the steps for negotiating a new contract?
  8. Does the publisher have first-look rights to other books in the series, books set in the same world, or unrelated works?
  9. Does the author have any say in cover design?
  10. Does the publisher REQUIRE you to pay for MANDATORY services you don’t want to purchase? THIS IS A RED FLAG, RUN AWAY! A legit publisher will not ask you to pay for formatting, marketing, cover art, or editing. This is done on their dime, ALWAYS. If they are marketing themselves as a hybrid press, the services they want you to pay for should be OPTIONAL (meaning you can outsource them to other people if you choose and pay those people instead as long as the end product is approved by the publisher).

Putting up templates and samples would make this blog post several dozen pages long. You can look up templates and samples online. If you’re not sure about something in a contract, ask someone. Your local writers’ guild will have a lawyer you can talk to and it’s free if you’re a registered member. Always research any publishing company or service provider you’re considering working with. If something is making you uneasy, trust that instinct and get a second (qualified) opinion or walk away.

Good luck out there!