Becoming a Stalwart Writer

At some relatively quick point the problem with running more than one blog becomes content. Even I, erudite and fleet of mind as I am, can only be clever so much.

Also, there are only so many posts I can wrangle up about marketing, or more or less anything else business related.

So in an effort to keep my sanity and your attention, we’re going to do a set of themed posts. We’ll call it a free web-workshop. Over the next two weeks there will be four posts where Kate and I (shhhh, it’s a surprise and I totally just volunteered her for this) will endeavor to share with you something about how to make your writing stronger. Then, because workshops are all about participation, down there in the thing-a-ma-jig you share with us a bit of your writing that fits, and we’ll give you a critique, or ask a question, or whatever–within reason–the spirit moves you to do.

We’ll call it Becoming a Stalwart Writer.

So. Are you ready?

Part 1: Which came first, the forest or the tree?

I’m relatively sure I’ve mentioned on here before that in my other life, as a crazed writer with more ideas than time, I have a problem with world-building. I could gloss over that, and give you a workshop post about how overbuilding is bad and should be avoided at all costs, but there’s this karmic(religious, pick your poison of choice) principle that says throwing rocks from a glass house is bad.

I also don’t actually think world-building is bad. Even, to some extent, overbuilding. So what’s the line, when are you fleshing out your universe and when are you counting the spots on a space-whale? Well, settle in and lets get started.

First, I want you to stare blankly at your screen for a second and come up with the book you recall reading (or trying to read) that had the most egregious world-building you can think off. Don’t just settle on one that had it, most of us hated the genetic coding in Jurassic Park but I bet you can come up with a better option than that. Got it in your head? Good. Now, on a piece of paper, or a computer note, or a spare bit of flesh–yours, preferably–write down the 5 things said book did you just couldn’t stand. Really reach for it, because we’re going to go back and use these later.

We all world-build. It’s a thing we do as authors literally every moment we’re putting pen to page/fingers to keyboard. Or I hope it is. I’m not sure I’d want to read anything someone wrote without creating a world. That being said, there’s a point where world-building becomes quicksand. And that’s what we’re going to talk about right now. How to identify when you’ve strayed from the path and are steadily sinking into the swamp.

“Let me explain you a thing.”

“Explaining the thing” is the world-building that happens most in Science Fiction and Fantasy. This is where the writing takes you down a twelve page diatribe on the purpose of a ‘thing’ that is comprised of sheets of ‘thing’ that bear writing that the people of ‘planet’ use for the purpose of reporting their stories so they may be passed on to future generations.

Now, most of us are capable of getting ‘book’ out of ‘the thing’ absolutely. Even when ‘the thing’ is something more complex, like a space-ship or a marriage ceremony, or the exact genetic coding to splice out of a frog for your new baby velociraptor. Our ability to understand isn’t the point. Any more than an author’s skill at telling us is. The point is you’ve just used up a giant chunk of the reader’s mental energy on ‘book.’ How much more are they likely to give you before they walk away? And how much time do you want to spend balancing that?

There’s a fair amount of danger of this in historical fiction too. Court customs in high-society Scotland may be endlessly fascinating, heck your reader even agrees probably. But it’s a little unrealistic to expect your reader to take in all that information, and hang on to the plot too. It’s like watching a movie with too many lens flares. We all love lens flares, and they are fascinating. They look really pretty. But when they’re done I always feel like I’m trying to figure what people were doing while they were happening.

But but but…I love the thing.

I wrote a book once about sheep. I like sheep. They’re fuzzy, and they’re interesting, and I have a serious obsession with yarn so there’s that too.

Tie a rope around your waist here, the quicksand gets a little deep.

See the book wasn’t about sheep.  The book was about a man in 2124 who owned a sheep farm he refused to modernize, and walked out one day to check the pasture to find a mysterious woman unconscious in the middle of it. That sounds more interesting than sheep, doesn’t it?

But I like sheep, and he liked sheep too and somehow every time we started a scene we needed to talk about the sheep. I spent hours researching exactly how he was likely to run his sheep farm, and how long his ewes would be lambing for, and acceptable livestock loss numbers due to illness or predator. I wrote whole scenes on how he counted his sheep, and how he got ready for the spring.

Here be quicksand. The caveat to “write what you love” should be “but remember maybe the rest of us don’t care so much.”

The best test for this is to imagine you’re telling whatever you’ve written, or the plot of a movie you love, to a friend over dinner. Would you start skipping ahead because their eyes just glazed over? Yeah, maybe leave that bit out.

But the thing means (insert vague hipster ramblings about the state of the human race).

I know, I know. You’re gasping and grabbing your chest, because theme. I get it, I do. To many people theme is the soul of a book. Theme is that mote of perfection that ties everything together and…but…incoherent flailing commences.

But from my perspective Theme always feels like world-building. And not happy, fleshing out the universe so it feels real world-building. Egregious ‘here have six pages of genetic coding, and a star map, and a couple of mineral deposit reports, oh and an entire new language complete with historically accurate vowel relationships’ world-building.

Still with me? Just checking.

Theme, theme that you’ve worked in from the word go and agonized over and agonized over and built into THE POINT, is the essence of trying to hard. And it’ll make me put down a book faster than literally anything else you could do. Your main character is a jerk? Well, those happen. You misuse commas and have an unhealthy relationship with the elipsis? Welcome to the club.

If you smack me over the head with Theme we’re through.

So what does all this mean?

It’s a good question. That list we did, back up there at the top, look at what you wrote on it. I bet the things you listed back there were the big things. Were ridiculous character names and made up languages. How did those books do in other places? Did they hold their narrative energy in reserve until it was most useful?

Now look at your work. How are you balancing the amount of energy you ask out of the reader? Yeah, we could all probably do better at that.

Come back on Thursday for…

Part 2: The Many Lives of Marty and Mary Sue