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The Editor’s Clinic: Brave New World

One reason writers fail when setting their stories in a different world –  in the past, in the present with a different metaphysics, in another galaxy — is by not digging deeply enough into what makes their world distinct.  Any writer knows to change the technology their characters use, and the better ones manage to create a language with a different flavor to it.  But to really put your readers into the heads of someone who lives in an alternate world, you need to change attitudes so deep that most people aren’t aware they’re there.

This morning’s author does well.  The surface details are there, of course – the naming conventions of the narrator’s culture, the clay tablets, the reed boats.  But notice too how comfortable WatchesEverything is with submitting to authority.  He’s less abused by his teacher than other students, and he considers that a sign of favor.  He hates and fears LovedOfGod, but he accepts that he has no choice about working for his family.  While he’s not happy about any of this, he doesn’t have the sense of unfairness that someone modern would have in that situation.  Since his decision involves possible danger to his village, he also has no hesitation in letting the village elders decide for him.  Authority is a normal, accepted part of his life.

The piece includes some very nice period images as well – the sorts of metaphors that would naturally come to mind from someone in that culture.  Seeing water buffalo as dreamy and distracted, for instance, or the terms of an agreement described as otters sliding on mud.  The author also pays attention to all the senses.  Clay tablets aren’t simply an awkward substitute for paper.  They have a smell of their own, which a scribe might appreciate.

I found a few problems, as well.  Like a lot of historical fiction writers, the author is apparently going for a language with a different feel and winding up at something that is simply stiff [1].  Whatever language the characters are speaking, I’m sure it has contractions, so there’s no reason not to use standard, English contractions.  The author relies a little too much on direct address, and sometimes gives into telling rather than showing – I’ve flagged these problems in my notes.  And there were one or two places where the syntax got turned around for no reason apparent.  You can give the impression of a language foreign by introducing a syntax alternate, but you need to be consistent about it.

But these problems – and a few other more routine ones – are easily fixed.  And beneath them, the piece lets readers into the head of someone who lives a very different life from us.

And in case you believe this principle only applies to historical or science fiction, remember that to some extent, all characters live in their own world, with their own preconceptions and goals and understanding of life.  The deeper you can dig into these individual worlds, the more your characters will come to life.



WatchesEverything pushed wider [1] the heavy door to the records room open with his shoulder.

Greeted by He inhaled the familiar,rather musty  earthy odor of the room full of not-quite-dry clay of tablets and the tang of beeswax of the covers intended to seal pots holding counting stones,.  The rains thickened the scents this day.  Usually WatchesEverything scarcely noticed them after all these years. 

 [Paragraph added]  hHe put the torch in the wall bracket and before pulleding the door closed behind him. It would soon be full dark. Even though this was the seventh day of the week and no one should be in the School, even though it would make the room full dark, still he pulled the door closed. He needed the torch anyway to see anything at all. in the room on a The day was so heavy with rain and clouds that there was very little light from the slit windows near the ceiling. The musty scent hung heavier this day; usually WatchesEverything scarcely noticed it after all these years.

He started to seat himself on the floor when a sudden push on the door sent him sprawling.

The intruder [2] struck the door again, then stepped through the opening.  [Paragraph removed]  “Well, Watcher, now that your patron is dead and his bones have been buried, are you going to stay here and rot? Or are you going to decide to scribe for my family?”

LovedOfGod. was tThe last person WatchesEverything had wanted to see just nowthen.

And his patron? Senior Father had indeed sometimes shown a fondness for WatchesEverything. Watching the flicker of the torchlight on LovedOfGod’s face, he wondered h [3] How had LovedOfGod had noticed that, when it had taken himself years to see that the sSenior sSchool Ffather liked anyone at all.? And Senior Father’s fondness mostly just meant All WatchesEverything had noticed was that he was ignored more often than the other students. That was a desirable welcome state of affairs, even after he had grown to Elder Brother with more responsibilities.

Rising, WatchesEverything rose to face stood looking at LovedOfGod. He wished that he could have had time alone here in the familiar quietness of the records room. He wished he could just stalk out, push his boat into the marshes, then sit and watch the many birds that visited at this time.  The season was turning, and . Soon it would be getting hotter. TThe colder weather birds would all be flying north as it warmed.

LovedOfGod obviously noticed that WatchesEverything was taking a mental holiday, because he suddenly swore.  “Dreamer!  Why did they name you WatchesEverything?” LovedOfGod said.  “They should have called you Dreamer.! Or WaterBuffalo. You spend more time dreaming than they do chewing their cud.!” [4]

Again, WatchesEverything did not answer. He pushed back the desire to trip his long time tormentor. He wanted to barricade the door with LovedOfGod inside the room until it was time for school the next day, but he knew – he Kknew [Italics added] – that he was going to accept the position of scribe for his tormentor’s family. He couldn’t delay tThe decision could not be evaded much longer since he was years yet from being old enough to be a School Father.

It had been comparatively peaceful at the school in the two years since LovedOfGod had been dismissed. It was a shame that LovedOfGod blamed WatchesEverything for his dismissal. Each time they met, whether by accident or by LovedOfGod’s contrivance, LovedOfGod made sure that WatchesEverything felt hisLovedOfGod’s displeasure, if not his contempt. WatchesEverything knew to the bottom of his being that LovedOfGod would never change. There was little to gain by aggravating him purposely.

“I will speak with your father in a few days, LovedOfGod. I have responsibilities to put upon me by my Village Father that I must see to first.”

“Your Village Father!? Another old man that you bow to!. GuidedByGod wants you at our house within four days. The sickness that has come upon our scribe leaves our business in a muddle. He says you are to be there next week or he will find another scribe.”

“I will speak with my Village Father about this, LovedOfGod. Perhaps this can be arrangedworked out.”

Worked outArranged, nothing! Father says be there on next week’s secondfourth day!.”  [5]

LovedOfGod slammed the heavy door with a crash that surely threatened its leathern hinges.


HeronFlying was waiting by WatchesEverything’s reed boat when he reached the river’s edge.

“I saw him coming going into the school, so I decided to wait for you here.”

“Wise move, HeronFlying,” [6] WatchesEverything told his younger friend., ”He has no respect, even for the dead.”

“You have known that longer than you have known me., was the quiet reply.

Since that This was so, but he didn’t want to think of such things now.  WatchesEverything sought to change the subject. [7] “How is your sister doing?”

“Mother says that the babe will come any day now. WhiteHyacinth is in constant discomfort and is lettings everyone know that she wants this over. She has told LovedOfGod that she wants a wet-nurse for the child, but LovedOfGod appears to be ignoring her. He seems to think she‘s just exaggerates and whinesing to get his attention. Mother is nearly at her wits end.”

WatchesEverything felt a twinge of the old hurt that WhiteHyacinth had never paid any attention to him, but it was more easily put aside these days. Since her she had thrown hysterics at seeing his dog in the school, he had realized that she would never have accepted him as husband, much less would she have been willing to live in the Marshes.

“Let us go now, then, HeronFlying. I am anxious to be gone from here.”  And he had his future to arrange.

HeronFlying jumped at the sudden splash of the blue bird that speared a fish just beside their boat. The bird was in and out of the dark water so fast that HeronFlying was not sure of anything but a streak of blue. He shifted his pole to the other side. “Those birds startle me every time, WatchesEverything! Do you think we might see one of the great herons today?”

“There should be herons, and even the heavy beaked white storks. They are still here. It should be a few weeks before they fly north from the marshes.”

It was a relief for both of them to chat and observe the birds and turtles as they poled their way to to the Great Hall.[8]


Built on one of the larger, more solid islands that made upstood among the village of individual homes, the Great Hall was much larger than the ordinary dwellings built of woven reeds that e. Each small house was built of and on a construction of reeds which shared its own floating island with a small garden. Often water buffalo shared the island, as well.

After tTying up, WatchesEverything and HeronFlying entered the Great Hall. The openwork reed window over the door to the long hall let in very little light this heavily overcast day. The nearness of sunset made the darkness nearly impenetrable — t. The small fire near the end of the hall only drew the eye, deepeninged that darkness within. The forms of the men in their dark robes seemed nothing more than lumps leaning along the sides of the building.

At the center, between the fires, WatchesEverything stopped, in front of the fire, facing his Village Father.  [Paragraph removed.] “My Fathers, my Brothers, I come seeking advice.”

“We will listen.”

“I have told you before about my school brother who was dismissed from our school for disrespect of the Senior School Father. LoveOfGod blames me for being ejected.  Now he works as his father’s scribe.  He has been telling GuidedByGod that I would be a better choice because the school fathers taught me more than they taught him.   This school brother was never a friend to me. Now he tells me that his father, a wealthy and important man, wants me to come to scribe for him and his family. I have been given until next week’s fourth second day to accept his offer. I believe that LovedOfGod plans harm to me, because he has never liked me. You know how I was chafed but held my peace. I did not only my own duties, but many of his – most, if the School Fathers were not in the room. [Paragraph Removed] I have heard many times heard [9] from this friend beside me, HeronFlying, how LovedOfGod has made threats against me. HeronFlying has this knowledge because LovedOfGod is married to his sister, WhiteHyacinth.

“LovedOfGod blames me for being ejected from our school. Now he works as his father’s scribe. He has been telling GuidedByGod that I would be a better choice because the school fathers taught me more than they taught him.”

“Why does he threatenis that, WatchesEverything?”

“He claims that they the School Fathers favored me. While there may be some small truth to that, I did not know it. I only knew that he only wished to do as He wanted.  [Paragraph Removed]

“You all know that I went today to attend the burial of the Senior School Father’s bones within the school yard wall. LovedOfGod came to me in the library storeroom after the burial and told me that I have only two more days to accept their offer. He has hinted before at trouble for me and for our village if I do not appear on the fourth second day. That is why I seek advice.”

“Again you show judgement, WatchesEverything. I believe you are right. I need to be with you to discuss your employment with GuidedByGod. He is known as one who will keep his word, but the agreement must be clearly understood. Otherwise the terms could slide around like an otter on mud.  Leave us, and 

“Llet us discuss this matter among ourselves.”



  1. Is the door already open?  If so, why?  This seemed like a distraction.
  2. The second door strike is also distracting.
  3. Show him doing the wondering.
  4. Very nice, period-appropriate metaphor.
  5. It’s the seventh day.  Unless they have a nine-day week, the second day would not be four days away.  And if they do have a nine-day week, you should mention it.
  6. A little too much direct address.
  7. Show him changing the subject.
  8. Two things.  You slip into HeronFlying’s point of view here.  And WatchesEverything’s love of the marshes is a key part of his character.  If you are going to showcase this part of his character on the trip to the Great Hall, you need to do it in more detail.
  9. This is the only place where you put the adverb before the verb.  If this were a grammatical quirk of the langauge, it would happen more often.



So what’s your favorite example of deep worldbuilding?

Also, are you finding what you want to know from these clinics?  What would you like to see me cover?

Remember, you can submit a passage from your own work for review.  You can find the guidelines here. [2]  

About Dave King [3]

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website [4].