The writing process: attack from all sides!

I’ve been helping a friend with his writing process.

And though I’ve only published one book, that’s still enough to take it from “the blind leading the blind” to “in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”.  My advice has some merit.

By coincidence, today we were both stuck at different stages of our drafts. So I gave him the advice that was as much for me as it was for him:

Getting stuck, losing motivation – these difficulties aren’t obstacles to the writing process, they are the writing process. And there’s no single secret or technique to getting past these obstacles, other than to keep attacking them from every possible angle, to keep pushing towards your goal.

The beauty of writing fantasy is that your own goal of publishing one, two or ten books can be viewed as a “hero’s journey” in its own right, parallel to whatever journey you’re exploring within the story. The challenges you face are largely emotional, motivational, and sometimes intellectual. You can’t see the way forward, you don’t know what should happen next, the story suddenly feels very dull, you realise you have to go back and rewrite major scenes, or even cut out scenes or sub-plots that you really enjoyed.

(Looking at it this way, I sometimes wonder if fantasy stories are a kind of code created by storytellers to describe their own frustrations and victories in creating stories, but that’s a little too meta.)

But like any hero’s journey, you have to take stock of where you’re really at. Maybe you’ve finished your first book and it feels like a triumph, or maybe you’re struggling to decide your setting and it feels like a major battle.

At times like these it’s good to stand back and consider the big picture: you might feel like Sam and Frodo on the verge of their ascent to Mount Doom, but maybe you’re actually Sam and Frodo wringing their hands over how soon they should leave for Crickhollow?

I’m using a similar thought to help keep me on track as I write the sequel to my first novel To Create a World. I figure that in order to make any kind of reasonable living from self/indie published ebooks I need between five and ten of them up for sale, preferably by yesterday. So in my mind, I’m not hesitantly agonising over the plot of my second novel, I’m desperately playing catch-up to my fourth or fifth book in the series.

I’m not the hero defeating his first big baddie, I’m the hero stalking his second, thinking about how far I have to go before i can face the final enemy.

At the same time, I have to admit that even this mindset is a little contrived or naive. Real veterans might scoff, or just shrug their shoulders and continue with the work. But that’s just the way the journey unfolds.

My aforementioned first novel is selling slowly. I’m not too worried, since I’m not investing in marketing at this stage. It’s more about doing what I can to have it available, and keep myself on track to finish the sequel(s).

One thing I’ve noticed so far is that the sequel feels much more consistent with the genre. To Create a World draws on some very big ideas that (as far as I can tell) don’t usually show up in fantasy quite so explicitly. I’m excited to see how the sequel turns out, but so far I’d have to say there’s a much higher ratio of fantasy content to mind-blowing philosophy than in the first book. Check it out on Amazon, or click on the pic for all other online stores.


Show and Tell

Some people say “show don’t tell” but most fiction contains both showing and telling.

It’s really a question of how you impart information to the reader at any given time. Is it better to be descriptive and show the reader what is happening? Or is it better to be direct and tell the reader what is happening?

Depending on the circumstances, your story will call for different techniques at different times.

For example, sometimes it’s important to tell the reader directly:

War was coming.

But to keep it immersive, you would surround it with details:

War was coming. He could see it in the grim frowns of the soldiers at the gate, their weary eyes scanning the horizon for tell-tale signs of the encroaching violence.

If the coming war is an important point, you would go on to add further immersive details that build evidence for the reader.

Children skulked indoors, peering out through windows and doors as the city streets filled with soldiers, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms, boys and old men drafted to man the walls while the real warriors fought hand-to-hand in the open field.

Even though that is somewhat immersive, it’s still a lot of information packed into one sentence. It’s still telling a lot more than it’s showing.

If we want to show more, we’d need to expand it more, and at this point you’d be thinking of the best way to convey the information immersively from whatever perspective you’re using, eg. I’d have to place my point-of-view character somewhere near these events in order to ‘show’ them more effectively through his eyes.

Tom frowned. From a distance they looked sound enough, the city’s defenders in their proud blue uniforms as they stood at ease in the courtyard awaiting orders. But as he approached them Tom spotted the grey hair of old Mr Jones poking out from under his shiny black helm, and the pimply face of a boy scarcely older than Tom, his wide eyes glancing this way and that as if expecting the enemy to jump out at any moment.

Tom’s heart sank.

There were too many of them, faces old and young scattered throughout the garrison. Grandfathers and mere boys called to man the defences against an enemy they barely knew, let alone knew how to defeat.  Where were the soldiers? The real defenders?

As you can see, it’s possible to turn a few words into a few paragraphs if you so choose. The real question is whether you need to for the sake of the story. How much detail is too much? How much is too little? You want the story to be immersive without dragging into pointless details.

Even though that last excerpt shows more than the one before it, it also adds more telling. It tells additional details that didn’t exist before. This is why “show don’t tell” can be confusing, because they will almost always coexist and depending on the style of the text it simply won’t be possible or desirable to eradicate all telling.

Ultimately, what matters is how well the text reads, and how immersive it is. In my experience, excessive telling or insufficient showing suggests that the story has not been plotted or drafted enough. The plot is, in a sense, the ultimate tell. My suspicion is that when people tell too much in a draft, it’s because they haven’t first laid out those very direct details in a plot and instead they intersperse the narrative with character, setting or plot points.

While it’s still early days for me, so far my plot and my drafts have all moved in the direction of greater elaboration and showing. In plot form, the excerpt above might be as brief as “Tom realises that the defenders aren’t professional soldiers, and so he….”

This is enough to further the plot, but obviously not enough to interest or immerse the reader. Hence the first draft is an attempt to convert these plot points into immersive scenes, like story-boarding a screenplay.

That’s how it’s turned out for me, anyway. But you could argue that all these ideas are subordinate to the simple imperative of writing a readable story, using whatever works for you.

Fiction update – so, so tired.

One week ago I gave a brief update of my fiction efforts that showed my progress over the past forever, culminating in a few months of promising work and the first draft of a novel.

The second draft has passed much more quickly. In keeping with the format:

February 22nd 2016 – finished second draft.

30 hours of writing and 44,800 words.

That’s about 8,000 more than the previous draft. Apparently comparing two word documents and showing the percentage changed is just beyond Microsoft Office, but I can say that I made more than 2200 changes between first and second drafts, though that includes both minor corrections like deleting a misplaced comma, and major ones like inserting a whole new chapter.

Still, that’s 30 hours in one week as opposed to 85 hours in one month for the first draft. That’s 4.28 hours per day up from 2.83, a more than 1.5 times increase in productivity.

I think it comes down to having the main character’s story arc fully formed in the first draft. The second draft was largely a matter of filling in details that were too extraneous to include in the first draft, and slowing down the pacing of the text.

I think for the first draft I was just in a hurry to complete the main character’s story, and the feedback I’ve had so far suggests that my next draft will need to include even more non-essential elements to give the story greater breadth and breathing space.

But that will have to wait. I’m going to take the ubiquitous advice to now put it aside for a while and return to it with fresh eyes a little down the track.


Metaphysics, creativity, and the tyranny of conventions

Does metaphysics undermine creativity?

I’ve noticed that I can easily get engrossed in a novel which, if I had to write it, would bore me to tears. Even LotR, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about hobbits, elves, magic rings etc., with the degree of interest required to motivate actual writing.

Nonetheless I gave fiction another go last night, and decided to focus on a positive motive – a kind of “write something that interests or excites you”. Translating this into: what is something that I would find truly awe-some?

What came to mind was the idea of contingency/emptiness, the ontological shallowness of creation. Ok cool, I’ll just write a story about that…

In principle, it’s hard or perhaps impossible to write about things we don’t care about or think important. On the level of metaphysics, the significance of the ontological gap between necessity and contingency kinda dampens down the significance of everything on the ‘contingent’ side. It’s just hard to get excited about imaginary objects when you know we are all already, in a sense, imaginary objects.

So what I tried instead was to put contingency into a story, by having a character who finds an object that allows him to pass “backstage” so to speak, and enters a kind of happy void he can sit in for as long as he likes.  This is appealing in a “ring of invisibility” kind of way because it feeds my melancholic desire to be able to just disappear and relax whenever I want to. It offers a sense of ideal freedom, but it also combines it with the ontological significance of contingency/emptiness.  I don’t know where it’s going to go, but at face value I can say “yeah that would be pretty cool”.

Forget about conventions, for now.

Last night I also spent some time thinking about the stylistic obstacles to writing fiction. Basically, whenever I try to write down an idea in narrative form, my brain kicks into “narrative fiction 101” mode and tries to force me to follow what I assume is a fairly basic and cliche stylistic model. Yet I know from writing non-fiction that the supposed conventions of the genre fill me with unspeakable dismay and that the quickest way to kill my motivation is to approach it with a formulaic mindset.

The vague and semi-conscious conventions of fiction turn writing into a clumsy, awkward chore.  So why bother with them? In my non-fiction I have no trouble side-stepping these “rules”. I’ve learned to follow the winding path of my inspiration wherever it leads. Why not do the same with fiction, and just write the parts I’m inspired to write, even if it seems incomplete along the way?

Besides, I’ve often found in non-fiction that after producing fifteen hundred words of inspired ideas and enthused analysis, it’s easy to tack on a brief introduction or explanatory notes to help the unfamiliar reader find his or her bearings. But if I had to start with the introduction or explanation, I would never start at all.

If you’re the kind of writer who feels his way along, then you have to start with the parts that feel interesting, exciting, or awe-some, and leave the drudgery to later – often much later when you know what is really going on.

I’m hoping this approach will also work for fiction if I combine it with the awe-some element described above – homing in on truly motivating ideas while side-stepping the major sources of friction and drudgery.