Tag Archives: writing is hard

Worldbuilding

Today I have mostly been making a world.

In writing fantasy, as I do (kind of, my current novel is more post-fantasy than fantasy), that’s the most important part.  If you can’t write a believable world, then all the rest of your work, however imaginative and inspiring, will be dancing around in front of one of those green-screen sets that used to be prevalent in old movies, and as easy to see through.

As my hero Ursula Le Guin (who I shall continue to quote for a while yet) says of fantasy which utilises unbelievable fakery in its worldbuilding and a noncommittal writing style, in her essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie:

“It is a fake plainness.  It is not really simple, but flat.  It is not really clear, but inexact.  Its directness is specious.  Its sensory clues – extremely important in imaginative writing – are vague and generalised; the rocks, the wind, the trees are not there, are not felt; the scenery is cardboard, or plastic.”

Real directness, and simplicity, however, I think is vital to a believable world of one’s own making.  As in my previous post, this is a world that you know full well isn’t real.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be believable.  It also doesn’t mean that it can’t be a true story.

In Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?, Ursula Le Guin writes:

“For fantasy is true, of course.  It isn’t factual, but it is true.  Children know that.  Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy.  They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living.  They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.”

So I’ve been spending all my spare time today working on this world, because this world needs to be true, and believable, an engaging backdrop to a story which I’ve been working on for half a decade and fighting with for just as long.  I’m hoping this will be the final editing phase required of it so I can make it at least somewhat close to the shining thing I made up in my head.  It’s incredibly hard to express these things and tell the truth of what I’ve seen and felt, because it never comes out quite the same as it is when you’re thinking it.

Again, because she can express this far better than I’ve been able to, from yet another essay, Talking About Writing:

“The writer’s job, as I see it, is to tell the truth.  The writers truth – nobody else’s.  It is not an easy job.  One of the biggest implied lies going around at present is the one that hides in phrases like ‘self-expression’ or ‘telling it like it is’ – as if it were that easy, anybody could do it if they just let the words pour out and didn’t get fancy.  The ‘I am a camera’ business again.  Well it just doesn’t work that way.  You know how are it is to say to somebody, just somebody you know, how you really feel, what you really think – with complete honesty?  You have to trust them, and you have to know yourself, before you can say anything anywhere near the truth.  And it’s hard.  It takes a lot out of you.

You multiply that by thousands; you replace the listener, the live flesh-and-blood friend you trust, with a faceless unknown audience of people who may possibly not even exist; and you try to write the truth to them, you try to draw them a map of your innermost mind and feelings, hiding nothing and trying to keep all the distances straight and the altitudes right and the emotions honest. . . And you never succeed.  The map is never complete, or even accurate.  You read it over and it may be beautiful but you realize that you have fudged here, and smeared there, and left this out, and put in  some stuff that isn’t really there at all, and so on – and there is nothing to do then but say OK; that’s done; now I come back and start a new map, and try to do it better, more truthfully.  And all of this, every time, you do alone – absolutely alone.  The only questions that matter are the ones you ask yourself.”

She paints a rather dismal picture of the writing process, but an honest one.

Writing is hard.

But in how many other careers/callings can you say: “I spent today mostly making a world, completely out of nothing but my mind and a feeling I had once”?

Decisions, Recklessness, and Keeping It All Straight

As I sat down to write (look at me go, keeping my promises!) and began to outline possible plot trajectories, it occurred to me why I’m having so much trouble now.  As explained in a previous post, I’m currently at the messy middle bit between introducing the story, characters and setting, and the end bit where things tie together neatly.  In other words, I’m writing the actual damned story.

Stories happen for one reason, and one reason only: the characters make choices.  As in real life, these choices aren’t always the right ones, but they’re made and irreversable.  But also, as in real life, the choices are hard to make but in reality you have to choose quickly because time will never stand still.  However, in the aether of my mind I can make time stand still while I try and puzzle out my character’s choices.  That’s been my problem.

Part of me wants to try to write recklessly, not thinking through the consequences and have my characters make their decisions quickly, soldiering through what may happen as a result.  But I’ve become more cautious than that in this draft, since that was how I wrote NaNoWriMo and its results were disappointing in some respects.  I shudder at the thought of having to do another rewrite as thoroughly as this one, having to remove huge chunks of the story where I “lost the plot” as it were.

It makes me think how my favourite books must have been written, if their authors just wrote from A to B, or if they wrote out a rough plan ahead of time and left the rest to chance, of if there were reams and reams of notations, maps, plans and a detailed narrative plan.  I’d love to have a rifle through the notes for George R R Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire, for example, just to see how he kept it all straight!

It’s frustrating, the creative writing class I took at university focused on how to draw out ones creativity and be able to express oneself.  But it didn’t teach you the mechanics of how a story comes together, how to organise a whole novel, or what tricks you can use to ensure your plotlines twist and turn but never to the point of confusion.  Maybe it’s assumed that those are the easy bits, or that it should come naturally.  I never used to worry about it, I just wrote until it either splurged out or it didn’t.  But now I’m thinking I need to be more deliberate.

One thing I’ve had to start doing out of necessity is have a single document merely for naming all my characters, places and other important things of interest.  I often have to include their description and personalities as well, so that I don’t forget and end up making them schizophrenic!  It’s necessary because in Cobault alone I have roughly 35 characters all dancing around at once so far.  And since I have Euphemia and Algernon in a school environment, I’ve had to detail out their daily class schedules as well, the class titles, and make note of which classes are held where, the individual room numbers of various people, and the layout of each dormitory.  And that’s only just the beginning of the story!  So if I didn’t have this document listing these things, I’d get very confused, forget who does what and where, and generally it would all go to hell.

So this all brings me to a point, surely.  Mainly that I’d rather complain about how hard it is to write on my blog, rather than actually duke it out with my damned novel.

Bad Poetry and A Balanced Dinner

I wrote a really really bad poem today, in keeping with my resolution to write something, no matter how crap, every day.  It was about crisps.  No, I am not sharing it.

I have also just eaten an entire triangle of brie, and a Tunnock’s caramel wafer (never had one before – Jason always hoardes them!), as well as a bowl of soup – what a balanced dinner!  And I’m counting cider as a vegetable for the purpose of this argument.

It’s only been a couple days, but I’m having a hard time with this “writing everyday” task.  Or rather, I can write everyday, but I can’t write well; my discipline can get me through the motions, but my heart isn’t in it yet.  I think that’ll just take time, though.  I’ve spent the whole summer letting my creative juices run dry!

I’ll get there.  Anyways, this was just a quick post to let you know that I’m still sticking to my resolution!  I’ll try to write something more sensible tomorrow.