Get Your Manuscript Past the Gatekeeper #1: World Building

 Woo-hoo! As promised, here is the first of a running series of posts to help you “get past the gatekeeper” and have your submission read by the actual agent/editor you sent your baby to, and not just the intern. I’ll be popping in with my own comments. I’ll be in pink, because I feel totally pink today.

Are ya ready? Well, here we goooooo…

Get past the gatekeeper

Think GirlBased on personal experience as a first-reader intern for a literary agency, I’m sharing what can get your manuscript past the gatekeeper (the intern!) and into the hands of the agent.


Mistake number one:


Note from Jennifer: World building!  We’ve talked about this!  We need to ground our readers in the setting, right? Well, that’s not just me yapping. Here it is coming from a lady who REJECTED MANUSCRIPTS for this very reason!  Read on, fine folks, read on!

This was Donna’s feedback to the agent on the very first manuscript she read:

My First Reader Notes To The Agent: “The writer began with wonderful descriptive details drawing on all senses and then she just stopped – and I stopped reading. She stopped grounding us in the world of her story.”

Okay, stop here guys.  Think this over a minute. And I mean be serious with yourself…

Could there be a richness missing in your manuscript? Answer questions like these: Where are we? Another town? A different world? Are these places what we know, but different? What are the differences?

We also need to ground the reader in the story, otherwise they are lost. Where are your characters in the scene?


Are they outside? “The earth was all gravel beneath my feet.”

Are they in a tunnel? “The stale air threatened to choke me.”

Through dialogue you can show time and distance.

EXAMPLE:  “Tom’s house was two miles away…takes a day’s walk to get there…I hadn’t been back since last fall.”

All stories happen somewhere. Whether you write fantasy, science fiction, or even about the “real world,” world building is key to creating a meaningful story. World building is so that your characters have a backdrop to live, work, and engage! Your favorite books, movies, and TV shows all involve world building. Putting the time into it will improve your writing and enrich your story. No need to give all the details…readers love to fill in the blanks with their imagination. One detailed street in a town can give us the entire town’s flavor.

Alien EweWorld building is just as important for a contemporary teen story set in Wisconsin as it in an alien universe. Why? Because life in a Wisconsin small town is foreign to someone who grew up in the big city of L.A. or NYC. If your character puts cheese on his pie, we may understand that’s part of the world of his Wisconsin town, not L.A.

World building is more than “setting,” it covers everything in that world. Money, clothing, land boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, transportation, sex, food and more.

Remember, you’re not writing an encyclopedia but a story with flesh and blood characters put through challenges. Story comes first. World building supports the story.

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  1. Create a story bible of the elements and details in your story.
  2. Build as you go.
  3. Inspiration? Use photos/cut-out collages.
  4. Make sure your details are relevant and have meaning.
  5. Not sure what to cut? Ask yourself when adding in world building elements to your story: does it move the plot along? Does it connect to the theme? Does it support the growth of the characters?
  6. Draw a map to ground yourself and your readers, even if your story occurs in one place.
  7. Build worlds that interest you.
  8. World building supports mood, theme, conflict, character, culture, and setting.

Now go. Build your world! It may help you get past the gatekeeper.

Great stuff, huh? Donna will be popping in to answer questions. This is a rare opportunity to ask someone that’s been inside the trenches, so please take advantage while I have her all tied up graciously offering her assistance for the good of all.

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About Donna: Donna Galanti is the author of A Human Element and A Hidden Element (Imajin Books), the first two award-winning, bestselling books in the paranormal suspense Element Trilogy, and the middle grade fantasy adventure series Joshua and The Lightning Road (Month9Books). Donna is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers the Big Thrill magazine and blogs at Project Mayhem. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family in an old farmhouse. Visit her at

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About Joshua and the Lightning Road:

Twelve-year-old Joshua Cooper learns the hard way that lightning never strikes by chance when a bolt strikes his house and whisks away his best friend—possibly forever. To get him back, Joshua must travel the Lightning Road to a dark world where stolen human kids are work slaves ruled by the frustrated heirs of the Greek Olympians who come to see Joshua as the hero prophesied to restore their lost powers. New friends come to Joshua’s aid and while battling beasts and bandits and fending off the Child Collector, Joshua’s mission quickly becomes more than a search for his friend—it becomes the battle of his life.



13 responses to “Get Your Manuscript Past the Gatekeeper #1: World Building

  1. I once highlighted a Ken Follet novel just to learn how he did setting so well.I don’t like to say this out loud, but I sometimes skim descriptions, and I didn’t in his novel. Hence the highlighting. What I realized is every piece of setting description he included was related to the story. Now I ask myself if what I’m describing is relevant or not.
    Donna thanks for the advice today. I’ll add you list to my list of things to check before submitting.

    • Kristina, thanks! And you bring up an excellent exercise – deconstructing other books to see what works (to apply to your own) and what doesn’t. I do this with books I like and couldn’t finish so I learn from them. And you also touch on “build as you go” meaning build on the details don’t just repeat. And I like your simple but great question to ask yourself to keep on the focused path: Is what I am adding relevant? If not – cut it!

  2. This series is off to a great start, Jennifer and Donna! With my current WIP set in a locale I know well, I remind myself to gives those clues for exactly the reasons you state. There’s a lot more to the DC Metro area than the National Mall, Capitol Hill, and the White House—which is about all most tourists ever see. 😉

    • Hi JM, and what a great path you are on – to show readers a different perspective of the DC metro area beyond the norm. And even if in your own imagination! What fun to fictionalize a locale in a different way than most folks see it. Have fun world building!

  3. What do you feel is more important, Donna — the ideas or the execution?

    • Hi Deby, great question! For me, it’s all about execution. I mean I can forgive much in a plot if the characters move me – and that includes the world they are in that affects who they are and supports their development and the plot. The greatest story idea can fall flat if it’s not built on a solid foundation. And I truly believe there are NO bad story ideas because it’s all in the way we shape it and craft it and inspire our readers to enter our world and never want to leave – no matter how bizarre. The most strange ideas (take Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith for example) if written smartly and with character depth and rich worlds can be the stories that stay with us – like this story did for me days later still. ( I mean, who would think a story about a deadly genetically engineered plague capable of unleashing unstoppable soldiers—six-foot-tall praying mantises with insatiable appetites for food and sex—coupled with horny confused teens would be a good idea?!)

  4. Jennifer, thanks for having me on today! World building is something that can be layered into the story as you go. We don’t need all details at once and we don’t need to know it all! Readers like to use their imagination so offer them scraps and meet them in the middle. If you look at Harry Potter, in the first book we are introduced to Hogwart’s and in only 1-2 paragraphs -that is it! We can fill in the rest. 🙂

  5. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing your information. Can’t wait for the next installment.

  6. When does the world building begin? How far into the story? Will brush strokes do to start?