I’ve had a couple of invitations recently to write guest articles on different aspects of creative writing. You can find the first of them here at the SciFi Fantasy Network where I outline how I learned vital lessons about getting feedback, thanks to NOT getting published twenty years ago.
So that’s the first thing. Head on over and read that and feel free to pop back and let me know what you think. Meantime, on to the second thing here.
Looking for inspiration for these posts, I asked folks what would interest them and got a fine range of responses. Though in some cases, I thought, ‘hang on, haven’t I already written about that topic?’
A little research soon indicated that well, yes, I might well have written such an article but those pieces are not necessarily straightforward to find, especially when I wrote them over a decade ago!
It struck me pretty forcefully that a round-up was in order. I soon discovered that I’ve had good many and varied things to say over the years, but rather than bludgeon you with an endlessly scrolling blog post, a separate list would be more wieldy.
There’s a good range of reading for you to browse and dip into at your leisure, in roughly reverse chronological order, which is to say, the most recent at the top, oldest at the bottom, and including guest pieces by me elsewhere.
Below that you’ll find links to guest posts from other writers that have appeared on this blog.
Tricia Sullivan has a new book out this week, Occupy Me, and I think it’s fair to say her award-winning, idea-driven SF is worlds away from my own style of epic fantasy fiction. And yet, as is the case with a good many writers whose work is nothing like mine, we have a good few things in common; the foundation for our friendship and mutual respect. One of those things is a background in tabletop and computer gaming and Tricia’s written a fascinating article examining the relationships between that style of world building and truly creative writing.
Once you’ve read it, I’ll be very surprised indeed if you’re not prompted to find out more about Tricia and her work – if you’re not already familiar with her books!
Whenever somebody says ‘worldbuilding’ I think of Gary Gygax straight away. I think of polyhedral dice, graph paper maps for dungeons, hex paper maps for outdoors. I think of the languages I tried to invent and all that other good, ooky stuff.
I was a first-generation D&D player. My brother bought it in a box in 1979. I was in fifth grade, same year I read Dragonsinger, and I remember being genuinely scared by the giant spiders and ghouls in the sample dungeon. There were hardly any modules back then, so if you gamed you really had no choice but to make it all up yourself. D&D was a great enabler of storytellers. Its codification, numeration and classification of every damn thing both encouraged worldbuilding—by providing scaffolding—and also inhibited it—because D&D turned reality into a Lego set.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m very fond of Lego, but you have to admit the results are always pretty…well…square. D&D was square like that, too. I hated how designing anything in it was the equivalent of filling out 40,000 pages of requisition forms, ticking boxes all the way.
When you are building worlds, sometimes you want Lego, but other times you want Play-doh. Sometimes you want to be able to bend it and squish it. In the pre-digital era it used to be possible to express things without having to first establish the rules and the codes. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that D&D was coming in at the same time as Apple and Atari—it was more flexible than writing code, but at heart the game was all about the rules. And taken to the limit, the rules of the world can become more important than the thing you are trying to do.
Fictional worldbuilding is like that, too. You want the story to take flight in the reader’s imagination, but you never want the reader to see the billions of robots running around behind the scenes pulling leavers and heaving things into position. You’ve got to convince the reader they are immersed. How do you do that? I reckon you have to play with what people already know about the world—but of course, most of us don’t know very much! It’s interesting to me that one of the least conventional writers I can think of, Diana Wynne Jones, nevertheless authored ‘The Rough Guide to Fantasyland’ as a plea for at least a little rigour. To work well, fantasy has to stand on the shoulders of reality.
But what does rigour even mean, these days? Culturally, we have a certain D&D-based shorthand when it comes to kingdoms, quests, character classes and expectations—all mainstreamed thanks to video games. These archetypes are pretty distorted and some of them are tired as hell, but whether the shorthand is played straight or torqued in some way, it’s pretty much embedded in the DNA of SFF across all the platforms that now deliver SFF content.
The shorthand can be a great facilitator. As a writer, it’s not hard to use a prefab world and tweak it a little for your own purposes. It doesn’t take a big deviation in initial conditions from the world as we know it to a world that seems strange and new. Once you open up the toolbox (of environment, economic systems, biological structure, culture, history, yadda yadda yadda) you have endless permutations at your disposal to experiment with ‘what if’ and to run simulations—alternative worlds to our own, if you will. This is the primary function of imaginative play. It is also very hard work.
But causal extrapolation isn’t the end game, at least not for me. In fact, it’s often a trap, a dead end, an unwinnable situation. No, the end game is imagination. The end game is magic.
Real magic—if I can indulge in the oxymoron—isn’t systemized. It’s outside our understanding, by definition. It comes out of flashes of insight, surprise, transformation. To make those kind of fireworks go off in someone’s mind is a very tricky business, and I’d argue that to make it happen as a writer, you need total control and this includes knowing when to lose control. When to let go of the wheel. A world you’ve built becomes its own organism, has its own mind, and to give it lift-off there’s a point where you throw out the rules, throw out what you think you know, and let the thing take you where it needs to go.
Gaming doesn’t teach this, and as far as I know it’s not in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I’ll bet artists know what I’m talking about because they build worlds, too—that’s what art is. Even as it’s using rules, art is a protest against the rules.
If you really want to fly, then just for a moment, get meta. Don’t accept the limitations you’re given. Reprogram the fucking computer that your world is running on. Beat the Kobiyashi Maru.
The dice and the graph paper will still be there when you come down.”
As an aside from flagging up my own books, it’s great to see so many authors making their backlists available as ebooks now, and by a variety of routes.
Just this week, Kristine Smith’s Code of Conduct comes out again, courtesy of Book View Cafe – an authors’ co-operative which you really should check out for new and backlist work from any number of excellent writers.
Glenda Larke’s Isles of Glory trilogy and a standalone Havenstar are now available from the usual ebook outlets and similarly well worth checking out. To learn more about Glenda, visit her blog and her website.
Likewise Martha Wells has made her four out of print books available via Kindle, Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc. That’s The Element of Fire, City of Bones, The Death of the Necromancer, and Wheel of the Infinite. Incidentally her Raksura novels are very well worth reading, as is her blog where she regularly posts quick updates/reviews of recent fantasy fiction.
So if there’s an author whose early work you’d really like to get hold of, it really is well worth keeping your eyes open, checking in with their websites from time to time, maybe running a few web searches, to see what you turn up.
Feel free to add details of other authors’ backlist availability in comments.
As well as getting out and about talking about things elsewhere on the Net, I’m inviting other authors to share their thoughts here to entertain you. This week, Sean Williams has obliged with a particularly interesting piece taking the long view of the writer’s life.
A funny thing happened on the way to finishing my first novel.
I realized that writing is hard.
Every writer has that epiphany. It’s important because without it we’re doomed never to improve. If writing a first novel seemed easy to you, then you’re either a flat-out genius or you weren’t paying attention. Hint: there are precious few people in the former category.
Saying that writing is hard is not to say that it can’t also be fun. It can also be all-consuming, therapeutic, any number of other things. But it’s tricky getting the words in the right order. Imagine lining up 80,000 dominoes so they’ll fall exactly the right way. (If you’d done that in the 70s, that would’ve earned you a world record.) Why should it be any different with words? Not to mention the fact that words come in all different shapes and sizes, and fall in so many different ways . . .
The good news is that, as with everything, you get better with practice. I learned this by writing a second novel, and a third. I sold my fifth, and I kept writing. By book ten or so I began to suspect that I had grasped the basic premise of the novel as a thing one spins out of nothing, as opposed to something one buys in a bookstore, fully formed. My books were being picked up by publishers, and they were even occasionally winning awards and appearing on bestseller lists. Practice was demonstrably making better.
And then, around book twenty, another funny thing happened.
It came upon me suddenly that, when writing, I wasn’t really thinking about stuff that had caused me great concern back when I was new. Sentence structure, dialogue, metaphors . . . all that stuff seemed to have vanished from my conscious process, leaving me feeling as though I was mechanically stringing words in a line. It didn’t feel hard anymore.
Fearing self-delusion (and the collapse of my career) I immediately stopped to read the ms over from the beginning, braced for the terrible news that I would have to find something else to do with the rest of my life. Interpretive dance, perhaps.
What I saw on the page amazed me.
Sentences were shaped, dialogue was natural, metaphors were not just present but effective . . . Where had all this come from? If I hadn’t written it, who had?
The answer is obvious in retrospect. My subconscious, honed by more than a decade of producing publishable material, was beavering away even when it felt as though the words were pouring forth without effort. Writerly chores had become instincts that I barely needed to think about anymore.
I had grown a writer-brain inside my ordinary brain. To get it working all I needed to do was give it a nudge like a clockwork toy and let it wobble across the page.
Having a writer-brain felt like a levelling-up gift from my former self. It was as though I’d finished an apprenticeship. Or built a supercharged motor. Now I could get into the driver’s seat and peel out.
And while this is absolutely true, I don’t think it’s true in the way I thought it was back then. Because another funny thing happened just recently, this time around my forty-third novel . . . something I’m still coming to terms with.
Aside: Let me just say that writing careers are like the words they’re made of, in that each is unique. There are lots of different trajectories across the creative landscape. I like to write lots of different kinds of things and I like to write quickly. It’s possible I would’ve written better if I’d written more slowly, but it’s equally possible I would’ve gotten bored and pursued that dance career. You’re not going to tell me that I’m a failure for churning out so many books just like I’m not going to tell you that you’re a failure for having fewer. Or more. Or whatever. You measure your successes and failures your way. You’re on your own journey. We’re waving as we go by, checking out each other’s scars.
I say this because, whether you’re a career writer who’s written forty books or four, you might one day go through a year like the one I’ve just had, where I sincerely felt as though I’d forgotten how to write novels. Not short stories, film scripts, or poems (I was never particularly good at the last). Just novels. And it wasn’t that I had suddenly lost the ability to string a sentence together or any of those basic skills. The writing-brain was still there. I had simply forgotten how to maintain it.
To go back to the car metaphor, it was as though I’d built a Lamborghini from scratch, but then done nothing but drive it around. I hadn’t tuned it. I hadn’t changed the oil or the tyres. I had relied on my subconscious to do the work without realizing that it was getting tired and I was getting lazy.
And eventually, after one lap too many, the engine light came on, a puff of black smoke coughed out the exhaust pipe, and everything juddered to a halt.
There’s nothing as startling as running headlong into a glass wall. It took me months to work up the courage to try again. In the meantime, I read a bunch of wonderful books and experimented with new forms, which might be the equivalent of getting back under the hood and replacing the spark plugs (I don’t know that much about cars, to be honest). I began to pay closer attention to what I was doing, and noting where mental shortcuts were causing problems I wasn’t seeing, because if the process of creation is subconscious, then sometimes our critical engagement with those creations is out of our conscious control. Which is bad. We can’t fix what we don’t understand.
Me and my writer-brain, I realized, we’re like an old married couple. We grew apart. That’s what happens when you take each other for granted. Every relationship requires nurturing, even your relationship with your art, and I forgot that, to my detriment.
When my writing-brain started up again, I found it to be just as capable as before . . . but different, which I guess is inevitable after a year of fallow time and introspection. In that frustrating time, I learned a lot about myself, about the kind of stories I like and the stories I want to tell.
Writing is hard. It takes effort and concentration. There’s no right way to do anything, only the way that works right now–which may never have worked before and might not ever work again.
But that’s not a disincentive. Not at all. Because if funny things didn’t keep happening to me along the way, my writing career might start looking a lot like work . . .
Sean’s new book, Hollow Girl is the conclusion to the Twinmaker trilogy, hailed as “mind-boggling” (Locus), “a philosophical marathon” (Kirkus), and “a gripping sci-fi story of friendship, identity + accidentally destroying the universe” (Amie Kaufman).
And just look at that cover art! (Click to see it full size)
As you will see on clicking through, an array of writers and publishers are offering rewards by way of thanks to those offering their support. The number of us doing this (as well as putting our hands in our own pockets) is testament to the very high regard Rochita is held in, within our community.
For my part, if you can offer some donation, however modest, you’ll be in with a chance of winning an ebook bundle of all five Tales on Einarinn, or a hardcopy set of the Chronicle of the Lescari Revolution trade paperbacks. I’ll cover the cost of posting those, not the fundraising campaign, to wherever in the world.
Well, my plans for the week were comprehensively revised when a Treasury meeting came up at short notice. So that was Monday afternoon and Tuesday claimed by VATMOSS and EU digital VAT issues. Story of my life at the moment…
Thankfully the Internet is full of fascinating things courtesy of my fellow writers.
“Y’know, if Mars were a province of the British Empire, the Chalet School would so have a sister foundation there…”
It’s already established in the canon that boys are sent home to the great boarding-shools of England; but aethership journeys are expensive, and space is at a premium. Of course they’d want to educate their girls locally, oh yes…
(And if the notion of Mars as part of the British Empire, and’Chalet School’ means nothing to you, that’s explained as well).
So that’s enough to be going on with, until later this week when I will finally make good on all those long-held promises of new material about the Aldabreshin Archipelago! Honest!