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.

 

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How I Got My Literary Agent (A Tale of Heartbreak and Stubbornness)

I just have to lead into this by saying: I NOW HAVE A LITERARY AGENT! And wow, that feels great to say. The path that led to this was not easy. It is one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but I am so glad I pushed myself to get to this point.

I’ve known that this is what I wanted ever since I wrote my first book at 15. The book that got me this agent is my 10th. Some of these books are unfit to see the light of day, and I only tried querying a couple of times before I got too intimidated and just focused on writing new things instead. This eventually led me to my latest project, a YA trilogy. And I knew this would be the one.

I wrote the first book late 2013, taking a grand total of two weeks. Yeah. The first draft wasn’t great. I didn’t touch it again until 2014, when I went to the San Francisco Writer’s Conference in February. THAT was an eye-opener. I was one of the youngest writers there (“You’re how old?!” was something I heard a lot) and I certainly felt like it. YA is a new category for me writing-wise, so I spent all my time at the conference learning, taking notes, talking to writers experienced in the category. I was once again intimidated, but energized.

I slunk back into the writing cave and took a grindstone to the book. I felt curiously confident and not-confident at the same time. After a while, I decided to finally send out the dreaded queries.

“It’ll be fine,” I thought. “I’ve gotten rejections before.”

It was not fine.

When I first started writing at 14/15, I had an ego. The first short story I ever submitted got accepted, people praised me all the time in high school, etc. Over the years, however, this ego steadily deflated, until I started to quake behind my manuscripts. As the agent rejections kept rolling in, the more and more my book, my shield, kept shredding in my hands.

I changed my query multiple times. I kept tinkering with the book. I didn’t know what else to do. But then I heard about this awesome thing called Pitch Wars. I entered and was chosen by an amazing mentor, Liz Briggs, who helped me patch the book up. It was that book that I sent to my now-agent, who had initially read the partial and told me, “This isn’t enough. I need more.”

Then followed one of the most stressful months of my life.

stress

I felt like everything around me was being sucked into a vacuum. I suffered panic attacks and days where I didn’t want to do anything but stay in bed. I even wondered what would happen if I just deleted the book completely. It was extreme thinking, but I was in an extreme place, and while I got used to agent rejection, every single one of them still hurt like a dagger between my ribs.

One night, I noticed an agent who had my book had followed me on Twitter.

“That can’t be right,” I said. I tried not to get my hopes up. But in the weeks that followed I noticed a steady interest in my social media presence, and I couldn’t help but get my hopes up.

It got to the point where I actually had a dream about this agent accepting me (on the condition I brought a pot roast to the office. I don’t know, it was a dream, okay?) Little did I know that same day, my literal and figurative dream was about to come true, sans pot roast.

I had always fantasized about getting “The Call,” but when it actually happened, I just couldn’t process it. I was at my day job, stepped away from my phone to get lunch, and came back to the voicemail I had been pining for. I couldn’t eat. I just sat there staring at food that was getting cold.

I mean, I eventually called her back and everything, but those few minutes were totally surreal. I thought, “This can’t be happening to me, the book is horrible, I’m horrible, did she even read it?!”

Yeah, it was happening. To me.

No pot roast required.

You bet your ass I celebrated.

I contacted all the other agents to get their verdict, waited some more, and finally made my decision—which I’d known all along from the gut feeling I had since that first phone call. I am happy to say that I am now represented by Laura Crockett and Uwe Stender at TriadaUS Literary Agency, who have shown me nothing but excitement and kindness so far in this crazy turn of events.

While it’s not the last step in the journey, it’s still a big one, and I’m thrilled to have advocates at my side to help me the rest of the way.

Somewhere in the mess of time, 15-year-old me is throwing 25-year-old me a smirk and saying, “See? I told you.”

 

Stats:

Querying time: 11 months

Total queries sent: 44

# of partials requested: 7

# of fulls requested: 12

Offers: 2

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