Ruminations

Following on from last week’s post, I’ve been thinking lately about what to do with my writing, and how to spruce up my blog. As always, I decided to sit down and ask ‘why’ until I got an answer (I love this technique – it always works). I began with “why am I not writing lately?” and went from there. In due time, I ran out of ‘why’ questions and got to the root cause.

I’ve been trying to force myself to finish something I don’t like.

I know that’s a common thing adults have to do – and that we all hate doing it – but it gets a bit weird when it involves something creative. See, I’m writing books of my own free will, to pursue topics and themes I personally find interesting. That’s my fuel. No fuel, no progress.

At the same time, I’m keenly aware that creators often don’t like their own work, for any number of reasons. Heck, my favourite musician even made a song about this on her latest album.

That has put me in a weird space, for months now, where I’ve been wondering whether or not to finish the book. I can sum it up with a forcefield diagram.

In the end, there is no right or wrong answer to a dilemma like this. I decided it might be best if I remove the wayward third act from Violin by Moonlight, finish editing it, then publish it for free as a novella on here. It’ll be 175-200 pages, giving curious visitors something to read.

I made this decision because it’s in line with my mission statement:

I want to write stories that encourage people to connect – with themselves and others.

Violin by Moonlight was hard to write because it’s a story about disconnection. I had planned to have the two protagonists choose very different solutions to their similar problems and then explore the outcomes. By design, this meant the protagonists would have to stay disconnected, else how could I illustrate the consequences of their different actions?

By contrast, The Network is about the protagonist finding himself, connecting with two significant people along the way. Animators is about an entire family searching for connection and meaning.

I hadn’t realised until recently just how much this theme means to me. It makes sense, though, since I can’t help but find myself through writing. That’s the power of constructing a story, and I aim to share this with others.

Up until now, I had thought I could write about anything – any subject, topic or theme. Certainly, my writing takes me places I’d rather not go as well as to places that surprise and delight me. Anything can happen once you start to write. That said, it seems I’m very much against the idea of writing a book that focuses on disconnection to the point it devolved into emotional monotony, even if it was almost ‘complete’.

There’s a book I’d like to write about rituals and mythology in the context of societal bonding. As a perk, I can blend it into my Animators world that I’ve already created, since it fits perfectly into the setting for book two of the main series. I reckon I’ll start on this project next.

On writing guides

style_guide_lol

How many writing/style guides should a person read before writing their first novel?

As part of my efforts to overcome the recent slowdown in my journey to become a recognised author, I activated my online membership included in the Writer’s Market book that I recommended back in May.

I was immediately spammed with offers of discounted writing guides and this got me thinking, “Who actually buys these things?”

Breadth, not depth

I’ve scanned through numerous writing guides and found a common theme in that they contain a lot of sensible ideas yet lack specific advice. For example, a writing guide might urge its readers to develop their characters but then, instead of giving concrete examples as to how and why, instead go on to provide a dozen different ways that an author might do so.

Having more options makes writing harder, not easier.

Personally, I don’t find this helpful – it’s too much information. I’ve already mentioned that infinite possibilities exist in fiction and that, in order to cope with this, it’s important to define what not to write about. This is advice I also apply to finding one’s writing style, no matter what topic the author is writing about. The task at hand is to figure out a style that works for you and you alone.

Own your style

It’s your writing: Own it! No-one else can tell you what writing style you “should” use and even if they do (and you listen to them) then you won’t understand why the style is important because it isn’t yours. You didn’t find it, you didn’t earn it and you don’t believe in it. In your hands, another person’s style will sound like exactly what it is: An empty vessel mimicking someone else.

Your unique style is the whole reason you exist as an author.

Your writing style is your voice. A singer wouldn’t get on stage every performance only to ask somebody else to sing in their stead, would they? Finding your writing style is an evolution that flows naturally from whatever it is that you like to read. Read widely, read often and reflect on what it is that you like the most about these books, even if it’s just a passage or two.

“Should” kills creativity

I’ve mentioned that the writing guides I’ve viewed have been wide, shallow pools with similar content. The difference between each guide is that their authors have some pet topics that they want to impress on their readers. This is where the words “should” and “shouldn’t” appear a lot.

As soon as you see the word “should”, skip to the next section.

“Should” and “shouldn’t” are pointless because exceptions exist and these are memorable. One guide went on at great length about how an author shouldn’t write laborious fight scenes with blow-by-blow commentary because such scenes bore readers to tears. And I agree: This is absolutely true. But how do I know it’s true? Because plenty of popular authors have done it anyway!

So is a thing true or not? Should I do something or should I not?

The answer is and always will be: It depends. Figure out your own writing style and then believe in it, regardless of what people say.

Brandon Sanderson believed magic in fiction shouldn’t be mysterious, that it should be a well-defined system of cause and effect. He went on to create the incredibly popular Mistborn series, based in this belief. Oh, and he also wrote long, blow-by-blow fight scenes. This fellow went against two firmly upheld “shoulds” and became wildly successful.

Exceptions to the “rules” are memorable.

In closing, I’ll say that as I’m writing this blog, I’m looking at a beefy 300-page style guide on how to write poetry. I used to love writing poetry, you see. Then, at one point, I got the notion that I should do it “properly.” So I bought a guide and it showed me so many ways I could do this that I felt overwhelmed. I started thinking about poetry so much that I stopped writing poetry. I’ve yet to recover from it, too.

Don’t let this happen to you and your writing ambitions.

Evolving a world: Society

geography progression

World-building is a lot of fun but it can also be complex and detailed. So far, I’ve covered obstacles to writing, central concepts and geography. What was my next step after I had created a geographical setting?

The thing about writing fiction is that anything is possible, therefore it’s important to come up with boundaries. Boundaries put things out of reach, which in a situation of infinite possibilities is just as important as deciding what will go into your creation.

It’s important to decide what not to write about.

Looking back through the notes for my first book, Animators, I can see I quickly made a bunch of arbitrary decisions to limit the scope of my fledgling world. These were refined over time and then formed the base material from which I shaped characters.

To create these borders, I focused on my central concepts, the main one being that this new world had uncommon people who could animate giant helpers (Servants) out of wood/stone/etc. I imagined what it would look like to see a giant creature and know that someone was controlling it, and then I wondered how that would make me feel if I were to witness this spectacle as a bystander. Threatened, amazed, jealous, wary: These were some of the emotions that came to mind.

I figured these “animators” would have a distinct social class of their own and that others would envy or fear them (or both). From this point, other questions sprung up. Were animators common everywhere in this world, or only in certain locales? Are they treated differently in different countries? Does animator activity conflict with certain classes, or even races? What are Servants used for, anyway?

I had unleashed a creative idea ‘explosion.’

There is where it became important to write down whatever came to me, as it arrived. I didn’t judge – I just wrote. Judgement can come later, I reasoned. I ended up rapidly covering the following topics, in no particular order.

  • Population
  • Politics
  • Architecture
  • Social structure/classes
  • Transport
  • Technology
  • Food

All of these were important to the part of the story I was trying to write: The beginning, in which I knew I wanted to write about a rural family. On each of these topics, my notes are concise. Population? Human. Coastal capitals. Towns with supporting villages. Urbanisation in progress. Politics? Monarchies. Architecture? Servant-centric. Big, heavy stone slabs placed by Servants.

It was vital to write down ideas as they occurred to me.

Each new boundary I set enabled me to refine the world of Farrest and the characters within. There was no such thing as a ‘bad idea’ because I could – and did – revisit these guidelines later on as I decided to take the story in a different direction. The story will always evolve as it’s written.

I think this post is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up here. In the next entry for this series, I’ll cover how (and why) I created settlements.

Using reframing to create characters

framing

I wrote recently on the value of listening, and one of the many things that good listening will improve is a writer’s ability to imagine a wide variety of interesting characters. After all, we can only imagine something when we have a base to work from.

If you use a realistic base for your characters, the audience will find something to relate to.

At the Emerging Writer’s Festival conference, writers, poets and playwrights alike noted how they like to observe and write on public transport. They do this because it’s a place where they’re surrounded by all sorts of interesting people, some of whom work their way into the writing as it’s occurring.

I don’t work this way but I have similar experiences in the privacy of my own workspace. I plan my major characters before starting a book yet as I write, new characters appear out of nowhere! This is always in response to how my story is evolving as I’m writing it – that is, there is a need for a new major character and in response, one comes to life, quite spontaneously. Without this, there would be no Mistress Siella in Animators or Azure in The Network (she’s my favourite character in the book).

We can only imagine something when we have a base to work from.

My characters can come to life so readily because I observe people around me all the time. Whether I’m at a workplace, family gathering, party or some other public space, I naturally listen to and observe the antics of people around me. This is simply because I find people fascinating – they do incredible stuff.

This isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone but anyone can take steps to become more curious about others. A universal technique is reframing, in which you examine your own views on a topic and ask if they couldn’t be changed. Here’s an example:

  • Everyone is nasty, becomes…
  • Some people are nasty.

That’s reframing an all-or-nothing view into a more realistic one, which can provide a starting point for curiosity since it lets you recognise that every person is different. If only some people are a certain way, then it might trigger curiosity as to why they behave the way they do. So the second statement above would begin to evolve, perhaps like this:

  • Some people are nasty and I wonder why they behave the way they do.
  • Isn’t it fascinating that nasty people seem to have X, Y and Z in common?

Later on, when you want to write a ‘nasty’ character, you might include some of those common traits that you’ve observed in their behviour, speech or motives. Your imagination can substitute the rest.

This technique works for any type of behaviour you can name – happy, boastful, timid, exuberant, etc. You can supplement it by reading books about personality types, particularly if it’s a type of person that society at large is fascinated by i.e. psychopathic behaviour, which has for some reason attracted a lot of attention in recent years.