Do You Really Read Your Writing Aloud?

When I was a kid, my family went on frequent road trips, and our favorite way to pass the time was listening to random audiobooks we picked up at gas stations. They don't come on cassettes anymore (though I still call them "books on tape"), but audiobooks are more available than ever. Audible and other subscription services make it easy to absorb a new book a piece at a time--on your daily commute, or while you're waiting on an oil change.

There's something different about fiction when it's read aloud. A dull reader will kill even the liveliest story, but in the hands of a deft voice actor the music of words is infectious. It was the venerable David Dukes who first introduced me to Isaac Asimov, and if it weren't for his vivid reading of the Foundation books, I might not be the rabid Asimov fan I am today.

You've probably heard that it's good to read your own writing aloud, and my experience with audiobooks leads me to agree. Reading fiction aloud engages your other senses, and this means more of your brain is working on the story. It helps you enjoy a story more, and understand it better.

Still, it feels kind of silly, doesn't it? Do you really have to do it?

I wouldn't say you have to read every word of your manuscript aloud, but I definitely advise reading any tricky passages aloud. Any time you're not 100% satisfied with a sentence or any time you get stuck revising the same passage over and over, try reading it aloud. Yes, actually do it, and do it loud enough to hear. As Browne and King said, "The eye can be fooled, but the ear knows."

One of the biggest obstacles in revision is separating what you meant from what you said. As the author, you always know the intentions behind your words, so it's easy for you to bridge small gaps in clarity without even realizing you're doing it. If you read your writing while it's still fresh, you probably don't even see half of the rough spots, because your brain doesn't even really see the words themselves. You just perceive their meaning.

Time is the best way to distance yourself from your writing, but reading aloud is also highly effective. It forces you to see the words themselves, and to approach them in a different way. It also helps develop your voice--your artistic voice, not your literal voice--by allowing you to hear it when it sings to you.

Voice is a nebulous thing, and it's tough to have a meaningful discussion about it. But reading aloud helps you hear consonance, assonance, and alliteration, which will help you develop the music in your words. Listen for music, but don't try to put it in your writing. Let your voice develop naturally, or it will sound forced. If your writing is a cake, voice is the icing. You need to bake the cake first, and you need to make it delicious on its own merits, or the cake will suck, no matter how sweet and pretty the icing is. Still, reading your work aloud is a habit that will gradually foster whatever music is inside you.

On a more down-to-earth note, reading aloud helps you catch errors that the eye reads right past. A few things to be on the lookout for:

  • Clumsy Phrases: Any time you stumble over your words, that's an opportunity to improve. You may not always be able to express an idea more fluidly, but it's worth a try. Ideally, you want words that never have to be read twice.
  • Cumbersome Words: Any time you run across a word that's hard to pronounce, look for a more common synonym. Reading aloud is a great way to catch yourself substituting grad-school words for simple ones that everyone can understand.
  • Vagueness: If you read a long sentence, and halfway through you've forgotten what you're talking about, that's an opportunity. Even if you like run-ons (many successful authors do), even if the sentence isn't technically a run-on, sometimes it's good to break things up. Vague pronouns are a big problem for me personally. Sometimes it's hard to keep all your him's and it's straight. (More on pronouns next week!) Any time you have to backtrack to remember who "he" or "she" is, try to rephrase with fewer pronouns.
  • Character Voice: You want all your characters to sound different. Ideally, they'll each be so unique that a reader can identify the speaker from the dialogue alone (this doesn't mean you get to skip speaker attributions though!). Reading aloud is a great opportunity to hear the differences in cadence, word choice, and even dialect. If you can, and if you're not too embarrassed, go ahead and "do" the voices; try your villains in a cultured, Severus Snape accent, or speak your hunky hero's lines in an Oklahoma drawl. Even if you can't "do" voices, try to play the parts when you can. Speak the lines with emotion, and hear if your words actually sync up with those emotions, or if they sound horribly out of place.
  • Author Voice: Again, author voice isn't something you can force, but you can listen for it and identify it. Any time a particular passage stands out to you, make a note of it. Do the same any time something just sounds ugly to you. Don't try to analyze it, or you'll lose the flavor of the experience. Just try to develop an ear for your own voice, and eventually you'll learn to coax it out at will.

Reading aloud is awkward and embarrassing, even if you're alone, but it can tune you in to many subtleties of your writing. Maybe don't do it at Starbucks, and maybe don't feel obliged to do it with every scrap of writing you ever put out there, but keep it in your writer's toolbox. Sometimes reading aloud provides the simple solutions that evade every other method.


The Seven Heavenly Virtues of Fiction Writing

You hear about the Seven Deadly Sins everywhere, but it's rare to hear about their opposing virtues outside of a church. Heck, even there, it's rare. I went to Catholic church and Sunday school for the first sixteen years of my life, and I found out about the Seven Virtues from Wikipedia.

I won't try to sell you on these virtues as a lifestyle (though most of them are pretty hard to disagree with), but when it comes to writing, we're all guilty of at least one of the Seven Deadlies, at least some of the time, and that means it's good to know the opposing stances. The virtuous writer is likely a happy writer, whether she is successful or not.

The Seven Heavenly Virtues of Writing


The opposite of pride, humility takes many forms for a writer. First and foremost, humility means never assuming you know everything, or even "enough" (what's "enough" anyway?). Language and storytelling are always changing, so a writer should always be learning, period.

Humility also means submitting to the will of an editor or publisher. While a writer has every right to defend his work, he must acknowledge that there is wisdom in the experience of overseers. A soldier on the ground may think it's wise to ascend the hill in front of him, to attain the high ground. But the General knows that there's an enemy army on the other side, and mounting the hill will invite disaster. 

The editor and publisher have the bird's eye view. In a good writer-editor relationship, there will be times when the writer is right, and times when the editor is right. But it takes a humble writer to see that.

Another form of humility is placing one's own agenda--be it fame, literati recognition, or a soapbox message--second to the desires of the reader. Don't forget: people read to enjoy themselves. I've never read a book because the author deserved it. I only read things that I enjoy. I love an author who makes me think, even challenges my worldview, but if you can't make me enjoy the ride, I'm getting off.

Humility is about creating a path of least resistance for the reader. If you want to be read (and if you didn't, you wouldn't write), you need to make it easy, worthwhile, and enjoyable for the reader, or you simply won't have many readers. It won't matter how good your writing is.


The opposite of envy, kindness is all about how you regard your fellow authors. Whether they are above or below you in skill and accomplishment, they deserve your respect.

I will admit, I struggle with this one. If you've read this blog for very long, you'll know. I make a lot of hot-headed statements about amateurs and hacks. They're mostly for comic effect, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit I occasionally believe what I'm saying.

Cultivating humility helps one be kind. We are all students of this mysterious craft, and we are all on different paths. There is no single trajectory from novice to bestseller. Heck, not everybody wants to be a bestseller. And some bestsellers got there by sheer dumb luck; Stephanie Meyer sold Twilight to the very first person she submitted it to. Meanwhile, Frank Herbert's Dune was rejected over twenty times, even though it had already enjoyed success as a magazine serial.

You can guess what readers will like, but you'll never know. Even the people in the crow's nest (editors and publishers) don't know. They just guess better. 

Fiction is a crazy, unpredictable game, and it pays to have good sportsmanship. That's what kindness is all about. Respect the people who aren't as far along as you. Help them if you can. And learn from the people ahead of you. Don't waste your life trying to be them, or hating them for being on top. When it comes down to it, we're all on the same team.


The greedy writer will write anything to gain fame or recognition. The charitable writer shares themselves with the reader.

Few people read a book because the author deserves it, but everyone who reads does want a piece of the author. Readers want a story first and foremost, but they want that story to come from a unique voice. They want the story to embody some kind of artistic vision, no matter how humble. To attain true fame and recognition, a story must feel genuine.

That's what charity is all about. The greedy writer writes so that she may take. The charitable writer writes because she has something to give.

Figure out what you have to give, then figure out who wants that thing, and give it to them. It's simple, really. If you look at the demand first, then try to become whatever fills it, the result will feel contrived and artificial. But if you find your audience based on what you want to write, then use the audience's desires to guide and hone your offering, it becomes a give and take. It's tough to strike the balance between writing for yourself and writing for the reader, but authors do it all the time. The key is charity; a willingness to give. Without that, you're just a beggar.


Writing that indulges the author's poetic or descriptive whims is gluttonous. Temperance, then, is when you only give what is necessary, when it's necessary.

When you're in the trenches, up to your elbows in words, sometimes it's hard to know how much is too much. We're all guilty of a long-winded, tell-y description once in a while. But that's what makes editing so great. We aren't committed to the first words we choose.

Temperance, then, is your inner editor. No, not the negative one who says you're a hack. The other, reasonable one, who says "maybe you should tighten that up a little." It's perfectly fine, even advisable, to turn this voice off when you're writing a first draft. But once the draft is written, this voice should take charge and hone your writing down to its leanest, meanest self.

In this sense, temperance takes on another meaning. We temper metals by repeatedly heating, quenching, reheating and quenching again. This process removes the hardness and brittleness of a metal, and makes it tougher and more flexible. Your writing should be the same. Smooth over those rough spots. Rebuild brittle sentences so they don't shatter on first reading. You want your writing tough--assertive--but flexible enough that anyone can understand it. Tempered writing can withstand the test of time.


That word is bound to bum a few people out, so let me be clear: chastity is NOT abstinence. Chastity is merely the avoidance of empty sex and violence.

In writing, this means only including graphic details when they really matter. There's no sense in showing a character getting their hand cut off unless that disability is going to change the way they behave. There's no reason to show two characters making love unless the act has consequences, good or bad. Either they fall in love, or they regret the encounter and that regret drives their choices from that point on.

Chastity is not avoidance of sex, drugs, violence, and cursing. Chastity means taking something "impure" and making it pure by imbuing it with meaning. Sex between loving partners is wonderful. Meaningless sex between strangers leaves them feeling cold. It's the same way with writing. A steamy sex scene, or a gruesome fight can fire our passions if it means something. But if it's just there for show, it will turn us off.

Even when the sex and violence do matter, there's something to be said for restraint. After all, reading is about stimulating the imagination, and the imagination is always more satisfying than reality. Think about it: a horror movie is always less scary once you've gotten a good look at the monster. It's the unknown that scares and tantalizes us. A woman clasping a sheer cloth across her chest is sensual. A woman with her ankles behind her head is just pornographic, and frankly boring. You can't give everything away right away. In writing and in life, Chastity is the art of savoring the reveal.


The wrathful writer crafts a story as a means to an end. The story serves his message. The patient writer doesn't feel the need to cram anything down the reader's throat. The patient writer understands that people change gradually.

I'll admit that sometimes it's good to be shocked out of your complacency. Sometimes we need the horror of war to motivate us toward peace. But if we're to sustain that peace, we must gradually change our attitudes toward our enemies, or history will repeat itself.

Writing with a message works the same way. Maybe you want to convince the world to go vegan. You can't just show people a cow in front of a band saw and expect them to convert on the spot. If anything, it will only make them dislike you for exposing them to that cruel reality. As a writer (or a speaker, for that matter), you are just a messenger. The idea you want to convey is bigger and probably older than you. Chances are you don't even own this idea you're trying to sell. So unless you're peddling one of the few new ideas in the world, people aren't going to hear what you're selling. They already know all about it. All they're going to hear is how you're selling it.

People are stubborn. They only change when they decide to. People rarely change for others, and when they do, they screw it up as often as not. To enact change through storytelling, you have to make people want to change. and that means being subtle. They have to think it's their own idea. That means planting a seed, surreptitiously if you have to, and waiting for it to grow. And that takes patience.

There's another kind of patience that wise writers practice too, and that's waiting for success. Successful writers will tell you that it doesn't come overnight, or even at all. The writer who claws and scrambles after success like a dog scratching at his cage is just wearing himself out. He'll quit before the gatekeeper lets him through. But sit and wait patiently, and the gatekeeper can be kind. And the writer will be wiser and happier for it.


Alright, maybe you shouldn't just sit and wait. Be patient, by all means, but use your time to improve your craft.

Again, sloth is probably the most common and deadly sin for writers. It keeps great books from being written, and good authors from getting better. Whatever you write, whatever your goals are, there's always a way to grow. Anyone who doesn't believe that is prideful, but that pride is probably masking sloth.

I believe one of the deepest flaws in our society is that we go through a period of education, and then at a certain point we're "done". But that's not really how the human mind works. Humans always need to be growing. The minute they stop, they start dying.

So if you're a well-educated writer, whether you have an MFA, or just a stack of dog-eared craft books and a full RSS feed, get over this idea that you're "done". There's always more to do.

Even if you've accepted that learning is a lifelong process, there may still be a lesson for you to learn about diligence. You may be the best writer you can be, but each piece you write must go through a similar process of forging to become the best piece it can be. Just because you're a hardworking author doesn't mean you crap gold. Even successful authors need to edit. Every word should be questioned.

Forget "good enough". "Good enough" is for losers. Make your writing as good as you can, no matter how much work it takes. You can't expect devotion from readers if you don't plan to repay them in kind (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). People can tell when an artist is resting on his laurels.

Furthermore, diligence is about finding the writing habit. Figure out what your peak hours are in a given day, and try to use them for writing. Figure out what habits, settings, and motifs put you in a diligent state of mind. Writing is art, but it's also work. In fact, it's mostly work.

Get to it.

Bonus Virtue: Hope

Though it's not listed among the classical Heavenly Virtues, in my preliminary readings for this article, I encountered several mentions of the idea of hope.

Hope is a uniquely human phenomenon (as far as we know). Hope is a happiness that looks to the future. Animals, smart as they may be, are governed first by instinct. Instinct lives in the present. Instinct is either satisfied now, or it desires something now.

Humans, however, willingly sacrifice in the present to store up treasures in the future. Looking fondly to that future is what we call hope.

As a writer, you must always have hope that you will succeed. You must hope that you become the best writer you can be. You must hope that you will land a literary agent, or successfully market your self-published book. You must hope that readers see and hear what you're trying to show them.

And a good writer will instill hope in her readers. Sad endings and negative character arcs have artistic merit, but in the end, readers are unlikely to return to an author that makes them feel like shit. If you use a negative character arc to teach the reader a hard lesson, you should at least leave them feeling like they're better people for having learned it. If you make them feel like they're a shitty person living in a shitty world, they won't be lining up to buy your next book.

Maybe people deserve to feel shitty. Maybe you believe that. But even if they do, the don't want to, and that means they're not going to willingly subject themselves to something that makes them feel that way.

Is that the kind of writer you want to be? Someone who readers unwillingly subject themselves to? If that's you, you're probably not reading this.

Good books give us hope, even if it's bittersweet. Keep that as your goal, and you'll never stray too far from the virtuous path.


Well? What did you think? Was I too harsh on the sins? Are the virtues naiive? Let me know in the comments!


The Seven Deadly Sins of Fiction Writing

Alright. I'm not the first to publish a blog article along these lines. You caught me. What can I say, it's a grabber!

Despite how often people trot out the idea of the Seven Deadly Sins, I still think there's some use in listing the worst things you can do to damage your writing and your career. What you don't hear about often are the Seven Heavenly Virtues, which oppose the better-known sins. That's what I plan to add to the discussion; not just the diseases, but the cures.

First, though, we have to take a look at the bad stuff:

The Seven Deadly Sins of Fiction Writing


For a writer, pride can take many forms, but it usually boils down to one poisonous thought: "I'm better than other writers".

Many who are stricken by pride may not even admit it to themselves, but deep down they labor under the pretense that they, above all people, know what they are doing. These are the amateurs who think they don't need to learn grammar, story structure, and self-editing skills. These are the journeymen authors that think their lengthy publication record exempts them from criticism.

Most successful people in the world agree that successful people never stop learning. Recently, I saw a video that highlights another disturbing facet of this notion: once you stop learning, you get old. When a writer decides he or she knows everything they need to know, that's the moment they begin their inevitable descent into irrelevance.

If life and history have taught us anything, it's that new ideas and innovations are constantly overtaking established methods. The person who balks at new knowledge refuses to accept this. Even if a writer really did know everything about writing, language is a living, changing organism, and there will always be new things to learn.

So never assume you've seen it all. They're coming up with new stuff all the time. And never assume you can't learn something from someone just because they're in an earlier stage of their career than you.


Writers are readers (at least they should be), and that means we all have our favorite authors that inspire us. Many of us feel indebted to a particular author for motivating us to start writing in the first place.

Envy is what happens when that admiration turns bad. Instead of learning from our idols, we hate them for their success, or we try to ape their style in an ill-conceived attempt to ride their coat tails.

The more time you spend talking shit on other writers, the less time you spend growing in your own career. That's the real sin of envy; by focusing your emotions and efforts on another person, you do yourself an injustice. Sure, some famous writers are hacks. Some of them didn't work for their success. Some of them don't deserve it. So what? How does that affect you? Are you under the impression that every writer deserves an equal share of the fame?

Be inspired by others, of course. That's part of how you learn. But don't focus on them. Work to improve your own writing instead of tearing down that of others.


For writers, greed can be related to envy. Greedy writers hop from one trend to the next, writing whatever they think will sell. They see a successful movement, and they drop what they're doing and try to write something that will fit in.

Greedy writing is devoid of theme. It lacks identity. Even if it's well written and edited, the writing is missing the spirit that makes true originals worth learning from.

In writing, greed is another perversion of inspiration. Greedy writers are posers. They're fickle. The moment something drops below a certain rank on Amazon, they're off to find the next trend. They have no ideas of their own, nothing original to say, and while they might occasionally entertain, their work is quickly forgotten. Readers, whether they're aware of it or not, can sense fluff. That's what greed produces: fluff.


Speaking of fluff, gluttony is when a writer is so obsessed with words and clever ideas that they crowd out the story. Purple prose is a well-known pitfall, especially for beginning writers who have not yet learned the wisdom of restraint. Beyond the words themselves, though, there is a sort of violet-tinged aura that some stories take on when an author tries too hard to stuff them with whiz-bang, neato ideas.

Gluttonous writing is filled with unnecessary detours, either to flex the writer's poetic muscle, or describe some pet object, idea, or character in exhaustive detail. These are the writers who spend whole chapters describing the social machinery of a futuristic society, but somehow don't derive a plot from all that information. These are the info-dumpers. These are the people who include a list of the name of every crater on Mercury, even though the reader has no need to know them.

The fruits of gluttonous writing are ultimately distractions from the story. Everything in a story must matter; every object, idea, or character must advance the plot and draw the reader more fully into the author's world. You can't make a story "cool" by hanging a bunch of neat stuff on it. You can't make a novel poetic by tacking a bunch of florid descriptions onto every scene. Every addition must serve the whole, or else be cut out.


Similar to gluttony, lust is when a writer fills his or her book with lurid tales of sex and violence as a way of shocking the reader into paying attention. Don't get me wrong, readers love a sexy, violent story, and I'm no exception. But when those scenes are shoehorned in at moments where they don't matter, or when they go on so long it becomes obvious that the story is just an excuse to exorcise the writer's lust (for flesh or blood), that's a problem.

People love sex, drugs, violence, and swearing. But that doesn't mean that including those things will make people like a story more. Cheap thrills are just that: cheap. It takes no skill to toss in some debauchery just for the hell of it. Making the debauchery matter, however, can make for gripping writing. Don't shy from red-faced vitriol or red light district pleasure, just make sure they're in the story for a reason. And for God's sake, don't make us sit through page after page of that stuff. It gets embarrassing after a while.


Wrath is when a writer creates a story only as a means of expressing some fiery political, religious, or philosophical view. Granted, narrative can be an effective means of elucidating a philosophy, but ultimately it does a disservice to the fiction itself.

The issue here is similar to gluttony and lust. A writer should not write a story as an excuse to do something else (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!). If you want to be a poet, be a poet. If you want to write steamy love scenes, erotica is your game. If you want to spread your ideology, you should be writing essays. Why hide your true objective under a shroud of fiction? To me, it's a sign that the writer lacks confidence, especially when it comes to philosophy. If your ideas aren't strong enough to stand on their own, or if you don't feel capable of defending them, maybe you shouldn't be trying to sneak them into reader's minds by disguising them as a story.

Furthermore, when you write a book to espouse an ideology, you're spreading yourself too thin. You're doing two jobs; crafting a story and defending an argument.  I'm all for political and philosophical themes in fiction; my work is full of them. But a good story must be its own objective. If you're guiding inspiration is a message, and not the story itself, you will choose the message over the story whenever the two come into conflict. The result is a weak story, which in turn makes your message harder to digest. Ultimately, it's counter productive.

At the risk of sounding heretical, this is why I'm not a fan of so-called "literary" fiction. This is why I, an avid reader, was always the vocal dissident in any English class. Many of the books I was forced to read just didn't hold my attention. I read them, and I enjoyed more than a few, but I could always tell when a writer was just using a boring, barely-there story to bludgeon me over the head with some pet idea. I wish I could have put my finger on it at the time.


Writing is a stationary pursuit, so perhaps it is fitting that the most common and most deadly of the seven sins is sloth. We all know our own capacity for laziness in writing, and it infects us at both the micro and macro levels.

On the micro level, we have lazy writing; common missteps like too many adverbs and adjectives, or empty words like "very" and "beautiful". Many of the articles on this website are dedicated to fighting lazy writing.

On the macro level, writers are often lazy in their approach to the task. We're all guilty of this sometimes; we don't always feel like writing, or we simply can't muster the energy to do another round of edits on our latest work. Even if we do find the energy, we half-ass the job sometimes. And who among us is immune to the dreaded writer's block?

Sloth is arguably the most deadly sin of fiction writing because no matter how it attacks, it prevents you from building your story world. Readers cannot read what we do not write (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!), and they cannot visualize what we frame in lazy writing. Either way, readers are left wanting, and we are left wallowing in obscurity and self-pity.

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to sloth. Writing is a habit like any other, and it must be undertaken deliberately and repeatedly until not writing is more vexing than writing badly. We may die before we accomplish everything we want to, but if we write anyway, at least we will have done something.

I've always believed in lofty, even immodest goals. Set your sights on the mountain's peak. You may not reach it, but you'll get off the ground.


Next week, I'll take a look at the virtues that oppose these sins. If any of the above sound like you, hopefully my thoughts will be helpful!


The Long-Term Approach to World-Building

Writers who use contemporary settings often set their stories in places they've lived, because they know the little back-alley details that make those places come to life. They populate their stories with people they know, or alternate versions of themselves; look at how many Stephen King books are centered on novelists from Maine.

Historical fiction writers have the treasure trove of human history to delve into. They can cherry-pick people, places and happenings to fill their stories. Today, writers can even take virtual tours of places they've never been using Google Maps, or learn a foreign land's history on Wikipedia. Wherever and whenever a story is set, there's a ton of information on it at a writer's fingertips.

...unless you set your stories in the future, or in mythical lands that never existed. We always hear that you should write what you know, but that old adage takes on a very different meaning for fantasy and sci-fi writers.

Spec-fic authors must engage in thorough world-building. For every fact a contemporary fiction author can look up, spec-fic writers must invent one. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!)

It's a tall order even for the most imaginative person. I'm often asked how to go about world-building, and unfortunately there's no simple answer. I like to think I'm pretty imaginative, but the truth is world-building is a long, slow process of compiling tidbits of information, most of which will never see the light of day. But there are a few general strategic tips I can give that have made my world-building experience a little more fruitful.

Take it slow.

Don't sit down to your NaNoWriMo project on November first and start trying to build a fictional universe. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Narnia or Ringworld. These things take time, and it's best to start long before you ever try to set a story in the worlds you create.

You won't be able to flesh out a setting all in one go. As James Scott Bell would say, you have to send it to "the boys in the basement". Even when your conscious mind is preoccupied, your subconscious never stops working. Let your world-building goals stew in your head, and allow tasty morsels to bubble to the surface a few at a time. One way to do this is to...

Keep a world-building journal.

I use Google Keep, but Evernote or a good old-fashioned Moleskine notebook might be the solution for you. Use whatever you're comfortable with, just make sure it's something you have handy all the time. You can't expect to keep a day's worth of ideas in your short term memory while your idea journal waits on your desk at home. You're going to forget something.

I have a terrible memory. I always have ever since I can--or can't--remember. For most of my life it was just a cross I had to bear; people were always getting hurt because I forgot something they wanted me to remember. Understandably, they thought I didn't care about their lives.

Now, I've outsourced most of my memory to Google Calendar, Keep, Mindly, and Any.Do. And every time some setting tidbit comes to my attention, I write it down. Sometimes these are ideas that come to me unbidden and without method--something the boys in the basement send up as a surprise. Other times, it's something I've been trying to think of for days. Still other times, I'll experience some piece of sensory information--a smell or an odd sound--that piques my interest. I keep a "Sensory Info" log where I dump all this stuff, and over time I gradually digest it into my setting notes.

Just today, for example, I noticed how the crawfish chimneys in my yard have become so thickly clustered that the dirt looks like brown cauliflower. Now that the ground is dry, they crunch underfoot like gravel. You can expect to see a description of that phenomenon in one of my stories some day. Only they won't be crawfish, they'll be some strange alien bugs.

Which leads me to my next strategy:

Tweak real-world details.

Just because you're a spec-fic author doesn't mean the wealth of information available to the modern human is useless to you. If you read or hear something interesting in the news, think about how a similar event might play out in the future, or the mythic past. How would the latest mass shooting have been different in the middle ages? In a police-state future, what additional hoops would shooters have to jump through to wreak their sad revenge on society?

If you see an object or place that catches your interest, think how it might be different in a spec-fic setting. Does the neighborhood coffee shop have a reason to exist in Middle Earth? If so, what would be on the menu?

Read history, and think how certain leaders would have acted differently in different time periods. How would World War II have been fought if Hitler was an evil wizard, or a genocidal AI?

Everything in today's world can be useful to you, if you get in the habit of asking yourself the right questions.

Set all your stories in a single fictional universe

This might be considered cheating, but it works for me. All my stories are set in the same universe, even if that fact is never advertized to the reader. Ideally, the reader isn't required to know that.

The main reason I do this is because I really admire writers--like Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert--who developed a consistent story universe that spans multiple books or series. But as I've fleshed the setting out more and more, I've realized that it also makes it easier to build settings for individual stories. With an ever-growing story world, I never have to start from scratch, and every story adds its own cache of details to the whole. Keeping stories in a single universe might sound hard, but I've actually found it's easier than going back to the drawing board every time.

Another fringe benefit of this strategy is that when I flesh out one little corner of my story universe, it will occasionally throw light on some other corner that I never intended to discover. Developing the setting for a story often means coming up with imaginary histories, and sometimes those histories can inspire other stories, unexpectedly link up with other works in progress, or become new stories in their own right.

The one downside to this strategy is that I actually have too many ideas. I will surely die before I see all of them put to good use. But...so what? Even if some of this stuff never sees the light of day, its existence still makes my job easier. My own awareness of the story universe deepens and informs the little tidbits I show to readers. So long as I don't make my imaginary history a prerequisite for enjoying my stories, there's no harm.


Whether or not the above strategies are helpful to you, one thing is for sure; world-building is not a quick or easy job. It's going to take a lot of time and effort, so it's best to adopt a long-term strategy and not expect fast results. But if you're patient, and you pay attention, you can create a world as real--or more so--than anything in contemporary fiction.