The Importance of Worldbuilding in Contemporary Novels

If you’re an avid reader and writer of fantasy books (like yours truly), you know how important worldbuilding is. Worldbuilding is the backbone of any good fantasy story; without a unique world, you have very little to run with.

Just look at Tolkien. He wrote hundreds of pages of worldbuilding, and as a result, readers know exactly how his world functions. People made video games based on his world. They made role playing games set in his world. They made movies about his world. People get into fights all the time about small nuances in his world!

But what I think some people forget (and I’m not excluded from that generality) is the fact that all stories need worldbuilding. Whether you’re writing a fantasy or literary novel, it needs to be there, in some capacity. The only difference will be how much you need, depending on genre.

Recently I decided to embark on a journey that I never thought I’d take: writing a contemporary YA book.

I read a lot of contemporary, and what I’ve found is that you can’t just rely on quirky, fun, or meaningful characters; you also need a world to put them in. I imagine several people think, “Well, it’s the real world. That’s the world.” Trust me, I thought the same thing, once. It’s why I write so much fantasy.

BUT.

Even if it is set in our world, we need to be specific. Which country? Which state? Which town? Where do they like to eat? Are there any monuments? Are there any weird laws? What’s the society like? Are there dog parks, or are people petitioning for one? Is there a creepy guy with a rifle who sits out on his porch at night? Are there any unique festivals or customs?

The best stories, no matter the genre, draw you not only into the characters’ minds—they draw you into their world.

Example: In SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, we see unique details through Simon’s eyes, such as the sheet cakes his friend brings in whenever someone has a birthday (and the fact that no one can get a piece unless they’re wearing a party hat). We also see the preparation for homecoming and how their location in the south influences Simon’s class to choose “country music” as their theme.

These might feel like small things, but when you put them together in a book, they develop a world for your characters to explore. And through those characters, the reader can enjoy the world too.

 

My Favorite Reads of 2014

I read a lot of really great books this year, so I thought I’d write up a list of my favorites. (There are some I loved that didn’t end up on this “favorites” list, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good! Just take a look at my Goodreads to see what all I’ve read). Also, I cheated and listed a few books that were published last year but I only got around to this year.

In no particular order:

Grasshopper Jungle

Grasshopper Jungle

This book. Guys, THIS BOOK. It is one of the strangest books I have ever read, and that’s one of the many reasons why I love it. On the surface it’s about an apocalyptic infestation of killer grasshoppers, but underlying that is a beautiful story about a Polish boy who tells the reader his family history throughout the book and relates it to his current struggle with bisexuality. There’s a lot going on, but it’s told in such an insightful, funny, and thought-provoking way that the end result is just beautiful.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012)

The writing is simple and philosophical in this book, and creates a very smooth, engaging read. The two Mexican-American boys in this novel stole my heart; they are both so believable and adorable that I wanted to hug them on every page. Their struggle to understand their love for one another, and to understand themselves, caught me up in the novel’s world and wouldn’t let me go even long after I put it down.

Fangirl

Fangirl (2013)

For a long time (until roughly five minutes ago) I thought this book was published this year. Well, no matter the pub date, this book is AMAZING. I found the main character, Cath, incredibly relatable. She’s so wrapped up in her writing and the fictional world of Simon Snow (aka Harry Potter) that she can’t seem to function in college the way she wants to, but still has to find a balance between the real world and her own world. Also, Levi is great.

Eleanor & Park

Eleanor and Park (2013)

Basically I just love anything out of Rainbow Rowell. I was amazed by how hard this book hit me in the feels. I mean, seriously, the feels. It starts when an unconventional girl and an unconventional boy start sitting together on the bus, which blows into a startling romance that has them risking social rejection, abuse, and separation. Both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Written in My Own Heart's Blood (Outlander, #8)

Written in my Own Heart’s Blood

This is the eighth book of the Outlander series, which got super popular this year thanks to the Starz show adaptation. I’ve been waiting for this book for a very. Long. Time. And it didn’t disappoint! It’s always great coming back to Claire and Jamie (and of course, Lord John) and their adventures riddled with inappropriate jokes and sexy times. Also, the ending. ❤

Noggin

Noggin

Okay, this book hit me hard. Really hard. It’s brilliant and inventive in its premise, which is that a teenage boy is brought back to life when his head is attached to a donor body. The main character made my heart bleed. Seriously, he made me tear up more than once, mostly because he was supposed to be a symbol of hope who kept getting hit by all these unfortunate scenarios. It really made me sit back and think about what we should be thankful for in life.

Love Letters to the Dead

Love Letters to the Dead

I liked this book a lot more than I thought I would, especially considering it’s an epistolary novel. The prose is elegantly crafted, and every single sentence is gorgeous. It deals with loss, shame, and family in a way that’s both old fashioned and original.

All Our Yesterdays

All Our Yesterdays (2013)

I wanted this back when it was in hardcover, but this year it came out in paperback so I snagged it. So very glad I did. It’s really hard to pull off time traveling these days, but this one nailed it. The novel is split into two POVs: the main character from the past and the main character from the future, who goes back to her past to set up a series of events to prevent her future from happening. It’s really clever and actually made my heart pound with how well it sets up tension.

Hollow City (Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, #2)

Hollow City

This is the second of the Miss Peregrine’s books by Ransom Riggs, and it’s even better than the first. It’s really fun to get to know the supporting characters better, and of course, the old-time photographs are an awesome touch. But WHY did it have to end in a cliffhanger?! *impatiently waits for book three*

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

Neil Patrick Harris’ Autobiography

Yes, I actually read a non-fiction book this year. Because, c’mon—it’s NEIL PATRICK HARRIS. And more than that, the way he wrote the book is fantastic. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure style of autobiography! Who else has done that?! (Answer: no one. Now go read it).

Ruin and Rising (The Grisha, #3)

Ruin and Rising

This proved to be the best of the Grisha Trilogy. The writing was lovely, the characters were more realized than before, and intense, dark things were happening all over the place. Oh, and of course the magic and worldbuilding were spectacular. There needs to be more of this type of fantasy in the YA section.

THE END

On Saturday evening I finally typed out the last sentence of my latest book, the third and final installation of my YA Timekeeper trilogy. This sentence—actually, the last two sentences—have been haunting me for months. To be finally able to write them was a cocktail of relief, happiness, and grief.

Relief because this book was hard. Emotionally, physically, mentally, it drained me of everything I had. Which is what I suppose a third book of a trilogy is supposed to do, but man, I haven’t written a book this difficult in some time. It was well worth it, though. The fighting only made the winning sweeter.

Happiness because the trilogy is COMPLETE. *cue “At Last” in the background* I never thought I would write YA books, but embarking on this strange, lovely story was a huge development in my life, and now I want to write more YA. Because it’s fun. And meaningful.

Grief because it’s over. I’m tired and happy to be done for now, but in a few weeks I’m going to be sad that I’ll never get to write another book with these characters, in this world, in this way. And also because of the nature of the ending, how my characters evolved, and what’s become of them. I’m tearing up just writing this because they came to mean so much to me.

So for a while, before I start my next project, I’m just going to remember this one and be glad I finished. And maybe drink a few glasses of wine.

 

Courtesy of Gwen C. Katz

Courtesy of Gwen C. Katz

Doesn’t Show Signs of Stopping

“Sing me a song,” the woman across the table demanded. “Any song.”

I looked up from rearranging my BLT the way I like it: lettuce, then bacon, then tomato. LBT. It had to be like that. But my concentration was skewed now, my structural plans rudely interrupted.

“Excuse me?”

“A song,” she repeated in an irritated tone, as if I was the one interfering with her time. “Sing it. Anything. Just anything.”

I narrowed my eyes, a thick piece of tomato dangling from my cold fingertips. “Why?”

“I’ve got this terrible song stuck in my head, and it’s driving me crazy. I need something different.”

Setting down the tomato–it had to be touching the mayonnaise, but the bacon absolutely could not, that was not allowed–I exhaled through my nose. “I can’t sing.”

“Doesn’t matter, no one on the radio can either.”

I had a thing or two to say about that, but smartly chose to let that opinion rest. “What song?

The line of her mouth twisted into a curvy, downward bend. “Just said it doesn’t matter. Anything but this one.”

I thought about it. What should I sing? The obvious choice was to sing something that would flatter my voice, something that would best suit its range and ability. That wasn’t much to work with. Another choice would be to sing the first song that came to my head, yet this seemed equally impossible, for like most things, a great list of them projected across my mind like a film reel on fast forward. Desperate, I looked around for inspiration.

Well, here was a table–did any songs exist about tables? There was my lettuce, which was becoming disappointingly soggy. Moon Over Miami, maybe? I asked myself where that had come from. Right, that joke about “eggs over my hammy.” Ham, bacon. Bacon which was now congealing in its own luscious fat.

“You really can’t think of anything?” the woman huffed. “What do you do here, anyway?”

“I run diagnostics.”

“Hm. You’re obviously one of those left-brained people. You could use a bit more creativity in your life, you know. Left-brained people suffer from that.”

Who was she to say it like I had some sort of disease? I poked a tomato slice back into place and finally closed the sandwich back together, being extra precise. Half a piece of bacon stuck out, so I had to reopen it and start the process over.

“Really? Nothing?” she prompted again, checking her watch. It was probably past her lunch hour, and she had taken up a quarter of mine.

I didn’t feel like she should walk away with confirmed beliefs about left-brained diseases, so I resolutely lifted my chin and started to sing one of my favorites.

“A Christmas song?” she barked, more offended by the minute. “Who sings Christmas songs in April?”

Apparently I did. The weather wasn’t frightful, but her expression was. With much snorting and grumbling she gathered her things and left me to my soggy sandwich, though I knew she would be humming the song to herself for the rest of the day. It was impossible not to. And now that I had it on repeat in my mind, I conquered the sandwich with much more enthusiasm. Perhaps her interference had been useful after all.

“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow . . .”

 

What Makes Us Girls

Maddie couldn’t complain about the world spinning; she had relinquished that right after her third fireball. The cinnamon still burned in her throat, hot and sweet. Clumsily she applied a liberal dose of lip gloss and ended up making her chin smell like strawberries.

 

Cassidy was in another world altogether. That one must have been spinning too, because she was swaying on her bare feet, holding her high heels by their straps in one hand. The other hand drifted through the air, tracing invisible words.

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How Characters Think (and How to Think Like Them)

Sometimes, we react in ways that seem unlikely, but actually prove who we are as characters. Take, for example, the ballad of “My Father and the Infomercial King.”

For those who don’t know, Billy Mays was an infomercial Olympian who repeatedly appeared on television to shout at you. You would be calmly watching a rerun of your favorite sitcom when all of a sudden, bam, his bearded face was there to scream about the latest cleaning product.

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Elephant

I can’t remember the last time I was on a carousel. But walking through Pier 39, you can’t help but notice the monolithic thing: two stories of twirling, colorful animals from zebras to sea lions. There are benches, too, for the less-whimsical riders.

I was staring at the nearby wine shop when the trio of children demanded to ride the carousel. Oh god.

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