Saturday, 25 June 2016

Thinking About Writing

Writing is hard.

Ordering your thoughts into coherent and effective wording, with well-paced and enjoyable clarity is not an easy thing. There are those for whom it comes to more naturally, of course, but I'm not sure if I'm one of those people. I edit a lot, and do it as I go. It can take me hours to write a few hundred words. I wish I could write profusely and at length without so much time spent agonizing over each sentence. You will never know how many times these sentences that you are now reading have been reworded, how many times the backspace, delete, cut and paste keys have been used. You will never know how much time I've spent staring at the screen, re-reading what I have written. The amount of time I put into this is much longer than the time it will take someone to read it, and the amount of effort I put in is likely exponentially larger than any possible payoff for the reader or myself. I don't know how true this is for other writers.

Many believe that you should just write, that you must give yourself permission to get the first draft wrong, and then come back to do revisions. This is an almost alien concept to me, as I can't quite comprehend how
you can continue writing if you are not building off of something which is already somewhat coherent. One sentence follows another, and each takes meaning, importance and significance from what has come before. I don't see how the process of writing can be linear. Everything is connected and often moving forward means going back and having to reshape what is already there. Free writing just doesn't make sense to me. I understand and accept that some people do it this way, but I can't. I know that my prose will never be perfect and that I should not get hung up on trying to make it so, but I can't work in a straight line.

Writing is hard.

Mostly, I spend a lot of time thinking about writing rather than actually doing it. I spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas, discarding the bad ones (there are a lot), combining and refining good ones (so few), and filing many away for another time (it's quite possible that I make bad decisions in this process and use bad ideas and throw out good ones.) The amount of thought, the number of ideas bounced around is astronomical in comparison to the final result.

It often strikes me that I am wasting my time, and that I need to be focused on getting the words down instead of thinking about them. I should be doing, not dreaming. But there is value in daydreaming and my own creativity requires that I work in short bursts in between long periods of thinking. The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says that writer's block is his default position and I certainly understand that. Perhaps all this thinking, however, is like taking the time to sharpen your axe before you use it. I wonder, however, if I spend too much time sharpening my axe?

Writing is hard.

It requires a lot of self-discipline to get from that dreaming stage into a productive writing mode and then to maintain that. So much of the advice out there for writers is just about finding the time and the will to actually do it.

If it is this hard to write one little blog post, then how hard is it to write a novel? On top of just being able to get words out you have to worry about the craft: characterization, plotting, consistency, pacing, voice, style, not to mention grammar and punctuation. I think a lot of people, those who have never tried, don't quite appreciate what an undertaking it is. The tortured author is almost a comedic stereotype, and to tell people that you are writing a novel can evoke a lot of different responses, but it's usually along the lines of " Oh, that's interesting, what's it about?" rather than, "Wow! That is a big task." We don't really see thinking and writing as actual work. It does take a lot of time and effort, however, especially when you have real life obligations to attend to, including family and a full-time day job.

I'm about two-thirds to three-quarters through the first draft on my novel and that has taken just over three years (I have written other things in that time, a lot of short stories, I'm not that slow!) and I know that I will, despite all my frantic editing on the fly, still have to come back and revise.

The challenge of writing is what makes it enjoyable, but it is hard work and I have a lot of respect for those who do it and do it well.

*Full disclosure - this post took me two to three hours to write. Am I hopeless?

Worldbuilder's Disease

Mitch Hedberg once said, "Alcoholism is a disease, but it's the only one you can get yelled at for having." Well, there's also Worldbuilder's Disease and I'm going to yell at you right now for having it - the simple truth is NO ONE CARES!

Worldbuilder's disease is what beginning writers get when they feel that they must flesh out their setting in extreme detail before they can start to write a story. I'm telling you that you don't need to do this.

What people care about is an interesting story with interesting characters in an interesting setting. Plot, character, setting. Not necessarily in that order, but if you don't have the first two, the last one is definitely not going to cut it on its own. A story can survive on engaging characters, who perhaps don't do very much in a fairly humdrum or nondescript place (think Waiting for Godot,) or it could survive as an exciting plot populated only with stock characters (think James Bond,). However, if it is just a setting, you don't have a story and if you don't have a story, NO ONE CARES!

Now, don't get me wrong, I think setting is very important. Getting a sense of depth, of complexity, a sense that world exists beyond the story is essential, especially in secondary world fantasy stories. Readers of fantasy want not only to be transported to strange new worlds but also to feel that the world is plausible. Tastes vary on the degree of strangeness vs realism, what level of suspension of disbelief one is willing to maintain. Nevertheless, a certain amount of consistency and structure in the setting are required to keep most readers engaged.

And so, most beginning fantasy writers feel they need to create their world in depth: the history, the religion, the myths, the races, the languages, the economics, the politics, the geography, the climate, the flora and fauna, the cycle of seasons, the astrological bodies, the pseudo-scientific nature of magic. So this is what they do instead of writing a story. They create a store of information, an intricate web of made-up facts. These facts may be very creative but lacking an engaging narrative they are static like a stage devoid of action and  actors. No one is going to pay to go to the theatre just to look at the set. Worldbuilding is a procrastination tool, a disease that keeps writers from actually writing.

Tolkien's annotated map of Middle Earth
Worldbuilder's Disease is an affliction that makes fantasy writers think they are the next JRR Tolkien. Tolkien wrote the Silmarillion, which many liken to a kind of bible, filled with stories of the creation, the mythology and history of Middle Earth. He created his own languages and had those beautiful maps. His world is intricate and immersive. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are for many what first sparked our love of fantasy. His stories were rich with detail, and they would not be the same without the amount of work he put into creating his world. But at the same time, no one would care about Middle Earth if it were not for a couple of plucky hobbits and their adventures. Tolkien did something monumental, but it's not necessary to follow his example in order to be a fantasy writer. The story is ultimately what readers care about.

If you aspire to be the next Tolkien, fine, but just realize that until you give us a good story, NO ONE CARES about your creation myths, your gods, your lineages of kings and queens. If you think the history of your world is so exciting then maybe that's where your story lies.

This is not to say that worldbuilding is completely unnecessary. Of course it is needed, but the important thing to remember is that it does not all have to be done up front. A world can be built as you tell stories about it. You don't need to have explanations for everything, especially if those explanations have no bearing on the story. Is there an explanation behind the weird cycle of seasons in GRR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire? Whether it has to do with planetary tilt or orbit or magic or whatever doesn't really matter. Even if there is no structure, no actual explanation, there is implied structure. Readers are told that winter is coming, assume there is a logical reason behind the seasons being so long and carry on with their suspension of disbelief intact.

As a writer you do want to allow your reader glimpses into the world beyond the story as though through a window. You want to remain consistent, so that when they look out another window they don't see something that confuses them or contradicts what they saw out another window. But as long as you do this, you as the writer control where the reader looks.

I admit that I had a touch of Worldbuilder's Disease before I started writing. The thought crossed my mind that I would write a collection of histories and essays about my world. I did a lot of thinking about my world, and I'm, glad I did, but I'm also glad I never committed myself to actually doing all that work. Once I had a good idea of my setting, I decided I could leave a lot of it blank, or as undecided grey areas, which would allow me room to manoeuvre as I wrote, freedom to build my world as I wrote my story.

Building worlds is a lot of fun. It is also a time sink. It is a heck of a lot easier than writing memorable characters and exciting narratives in prose that is engaging. This is the difficult part of the craft. This is what beginning writers should be focused on, not supplemental material. Fantasy fiction does not require supporting documentation. Stop wasting your time.