Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guest Post - Martina Boone on World Building

I'd like to introduce you to our fabulous guest blogger today... but Martina Boone needs no introduction.  If you're a writer and online enough to be reading my blog, then I'm betting there's very few of you who are not already fans of Martina's.  Martina, (along with the awesome Lisa Gail Green, one of this blog's followers), runs Adventures in YA & Children's Publishing, a blog that serves the writing community brilliantly.

But beyond Martina's resourceful blog and her supportive Twitter feed, I'd like to introduce you to Martina the incredibly talented writer and my insightful and caring critique partner (yes, I'm so lucky!).  Having been a fan of Martina's online world, I got to know the real person when I read one of her manuscripts -- and was blown away.  I will tell you, honestly, a comment I gave her after reading her story -- "I cannot wait until this gets published so I can create a fan blog for it!"

Seriously.  It's that good.  And I do not say this lightly when I say that Martina reminds me of JK Rowling.  She knows how to work with mythology, complex themes, and subtext (oh-my-god SUBTEXT!) to tell a fun and compelling story.

I was thrilled when Martina's lovely short story, "Bringing Lula Home," was chosen along with mine to be included in BelleBooks' newest collection of Southern-style short stories, Sweeter Than Tea, that released this week.  You'll absolutely love Martina's story of reconciliation, long-hidden family secrets, and a woman's triumph in reclaiming the art buried in her own heart.

So, please, join with me today in welcoming Martina as she shares her wisdom on creating an intriguing, full world for your characters to inhabit.  (And believe me, can Martina world-build).

Also, one lucky commenter will receive a copy of Sweeter Than Tea.  So, make your voices heard!

World-building: The Hooks of Magic in Your Book
By Martina Boone

One of the things that J.K. Rowling does best with her Harry Potter books is the way that she twists and incorporates classic mythology to create something new. Myths have undoubted power. Tapping into them is a great way to add heart and depth to a modern story because, over time, the power of myth has burned into the human dna. 

As Joseph Campbell, perhaps the best known writer on the subject of mythology, put it:
"Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths."

When we write at our best and most enduring, I am convinced, we are writing our own personal spin on a myth. The deeper the myth and the more we embellish it, the truer it becomes. And at its core, fiction is truth. Unless we make a story true, we cannot make it readable.

So what is truth in fiction? Emotion. That is the real power of myth: honest emotion shown in a way that others can understand and relate to their own experiences.

We all know there are only a handful of stories in the world. What sets them apart are:
  • the craft and the artistry with which they are told
  • the timing in which they are delivered, and
  • the characters that bring them to life.
To paraphrase what Susan said in her wonderful guest post this week on the Adventures in YA Publishing blog, the truth is in the details. That is why we have to spend time on world-building. Whether we are writing fantasy or southern literature, paranormal or mystery, our characters must inhabit complete worlds populated by other round characters. They must all interact in interesting locations brought to life by unique and identifiable music, food, weather, clothing—all the trappings of actual life. In order to create a living, breathing book, we have to also create community, a place where readers want to move in and stay a while.

Here is another quote from Joseph Campbell:
"I don't believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” 

What does that really mean? What is the experience of being alive in a book? It is the experience of what it means to be the characters in that book. It means that we aren't simply showing the action. We are making the reader experience it along with the characters. To do so, we invoke what the character's see, smell, hear, taste, touch, feel.  And we make that unique. That's what Jo Rowling does best. She makes her world and her stories unique but universal at the same time. She taps into the power of myth to reach the deepest truth and build the truest fictional world.

Think about some of her most powerful images:
  • The boy with the thunderbolt on his forehead. Thanks to mythology, we all equate the thunderbolt with the strongest gods.
  • The boy in the closet under the stairs. As a symbol, this has great power. Not only is he metaphorically "in the closet" – with his true self hidden, but he is at the basest part of the house, at the very bottom with nowhere to go but up. He lives in the dark, he lives as a servant. She's told us all of that in one sentence: "Harry was used to spiders, because the cupboard under the stairs was full of them, and that was where he slept."
In her HARRY POTTER FOR WRITERS book, Susan Sipal does a brilliant job likening Harry Potter to the Hero's Journey story structure, and that is, of course, the classic mythic structure. As Susan put it, "To put it simply--the Hero’s Journey is the story plot which has lasted the longest because it strikes a basic, universal human chord of truth. Thus the Hero’s Journey is the archetypal outline for a blockbuster plot."
I couldn't agree more. I've based my own plot complications worksheet on the turning points in the Hero's Journey, and I love using that as a basis for getting my thoughts in order. But the Hero's Journey structure is only the beginning. It gives us the framework within which to weave our stories, and we do that by creating the most meaningful, interesting details we can possibly come up with and melding them together to make a new and vivid pattern.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that a kick-ass plot and some bits of mythology or symbolism are going to turn your opus into the next HARRY POTTER. What makes J.K. Rowling (and every other bestselling author) so successful is the specificity of the world-building. Tap into this in your own work by using hooks.

Susan identified "the hook" as another aspect of Rowling's success. She applied it to character:
"One technique JKR utilizes to make each individual stand out unique from the others is to give each character a hook; a description, personality trait, or association which defines him or her and distinguishes them from everyone else. A hook is one of the earliest and simplest tools to help familiarize your reader with your character. Simply put, a hook is something the reader can hang their memory on, that helps them, especially in the early stages of your story, remember who that character is and what their place is in your world."
In my own writing, I have recently discovered that I can apply hooks to every aspect of my work. I am becoming convinced that each world, each fictional community, each character, each location, each chapter, each page in the book should have a hook. 

  • World: What sets your world apart from every other world? What makes it different than our world? What makes is more wonderful? More horrible? More terrifying? More beautiful?
  • Community: What sets this group of friends or co-conspirators apart from the norm? What brings them together into a cohesive unit? What makes this "group" something that your readers will want to belong to? What is the hook on which this community is based?
  • Character: What is the most memorable thing about your character? What distinguishes him or her from every other character? Physically? Personality-wise? In background? Include a hook for each.
  • Location: What is the most memorable thing about your setting? Your overall setting? Your scene settings? Include a hook for every place, and include things that your characters can interact with to "set" the mood and location in the reader's mind.
  • Chapter: What happens in each chapter that is unique? What is the one-sentence take-away and how did you make it memorable?
  • Page: Is there a detail of character, setting, scene, or community that is memorable and alive?
World-building is easier said than done. I think it is probably the most difficult thing to do. The artistry in it comes not from including overwhelming details, but from selecting the most telling details. In choosing the details that will best convey the hook to the reader, and then by artistically showing different facets of the hook to set it in the reader's mind.

Think of tapping into the power of myth as the structure of the story you are weaving, and use the hooks of your characters, settings, community, and so on as the threads that create a vivid and detailed tapestry. When you put the warp and weft all together, you will have something unique and enduring.

Every story is different, even when they are the same at heart. As Susan and I both have short stories in the SWEETER THAN TEA anthology that just came out this week, I will use that as an example. The prompt for that was to write stories in southern settings that make you want to prop your feet up, sip a cold glass of sweet iced tea, and lose yourself in a way of life that exists between the pages of How It Was and How It Might Have Been—just a little bit south of the long path home. The thirteen stories in the collection couldn't be more different though. And each has its own cast of memorable characters and a setting that's unique and vivid.

So you see, there is world-building even in the world of southern fiction. There is world-building in memorable fiction everywhere. Just find your hooks and use them to weave your story.


Susan here - I can't tell you what a thrill I get from seeing myself quoted in the same post as the great Joseph Campbell! :-)

Thanks so much for sharing with us, Martina.  And everybody, the few of you who haven't already, be sure to visit Martina's blog, follow her on Twitter, and definitely check out Sweeter Than Tea!

Martina's Bio - Martina Boone writes fantasy and magical realism for adults and young adults when she isn’t writing web site copy, and resides in Virginia with her family, a therapy dog, two black cats, and as much wildlife as she can coax into taking up residence in the yard. 

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!)  


  1. Very enjoyable article. I like the point you make about individual hooks- it sounds obvious, even cliched, but it works for Rowling and plenty of other writers too

    1. Thanks -- Susan is a very astute editor and her HP for Writers book is full of observations that helped may Rowling successful. I will admit that the hook thing seems obvious to me now, but I wish I had latched on to it much sooner :D.


      P.S. - Susan, I was coming to comment on Kim Brock's comment and it has disappeared. I don't think your comments are working yet!

  2. I'm sorry about the missing comments. Looks like the "fix" I did this morning decided to take effect mid-day through. I still have track of the prior comments, but in another system.

    And on that note - does anyone know anything about making IntenseDebate work better with Blogger? I think all the problems I've had lately is because of those two squabbling. I love the CommentLuv feature, but just can't have several people not able to see my comments.

  3. Such an awesome post Martina. You always amaze me with your grasp of the craft of writing.

    1. Martina always amazes me too, Natalie. Thanks for visiting!

  4. I'm so glad that I stumbled across this blog :-) I'm hooked! Thanks for the great blog post.


    1. I'm so glad you stumbled here too, Brandie. Please keep coming back!

  5. Can't wait to read "Sweeter Than Tea" I love reading and I love sweet tea! A southern girl by heart, since I was raised by southerners, but was dragged all over the place, being an army brat. Settled in MO, but my heart still belongs to the south!

    1. It's hard to get the South out, isn't it? I lived in Turkey for years, but had my husband taking me to every pazaar to search for celery so I could make my grandma's chicken salad.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, everyone! Isn't this an awesome blog? I'm so honored to be a guest here.



  7. My already high esteem of you, Martina, just broke through another ceiling. Awesome post. Congrats on the anthology. Off to snag it. Thanks Susan, for the gift of Martina.

  8. Thanks for a great post, full of useful tips. I shall be incorporating these into my world-building efforts.

  9. Good blog, and I completely agree: world-building is exactly what makes Rowling's work click so well. I liked the point about each character having a hook, because I suppose I realized that subliminally but haven't tried to apply it consciously in a story. Hopefully that'll help with the book I'm writing. :)

    For what it's worth, I also have a blog of my own at where I reread and analyze books chapter by chapter. I'm currently doing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and will be doing the rest of the series over time. I'd love to know what other people think of it!

  10. I'm ashamed that it took me so long to visit! And two of my favorite people too!

  11. Nice Post!I enjoyed a lots.You have written a nice article.Thanks for sharing

  12. Wow. I absolutely love your dissection of Rowlings work. As an aspiring YA fantasy novelist, this is fantastic stuff to chew on! Thank you so much for sharing :)

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