The Writers’ Think Tank

I’ve been writing stories since I was able to pick up a pencil and form letters on paper correctly, a skill I acquired at the age of three. Spelling came later, but I was already reading on my own, and I distinctly remember when I was five folding and stapling together several pieces of paper and writing a story. It was ridiculously cartoonish, violent in the manner of 1980s Saturday morning serials, with a hefty dose of Mr. Rogers’ optimism, fully illustrated with stick figures, and took me two weeks to fill all sixteen pages.

It was terrible, of course, but everyone starts somewhere. It’s been a hard slog through the intervening 26 years, with high points including a heavily clichéd attempt at a sci-fi novel in 8th grade, equally clichéd attempt at a fantasy novel in 10th grade Creative Writing, an inspired further adventure of Beowulf fighting a demonic goat for a 12th grade English course on anti-heroes, aborted attempts at urban fantasy and eventually a couple pieces of EVE Online fanfic which got published in the EVE-related magazine E-ON (they’re reprinted in the Fiction section here).

Those early starts and stops are embarrassing to look back on, but they were formative. I know this because my memory hasn’t lost them (my memory is tenacious about holding onto personally relevant information but only releasing trivia when it’s time to sit exams). That clichéd urban fantasy novel has been fixed, is no longer clichéd, and is waiting patiently in outline form to be written. Bits of the old urban fantasy build and parts of that crappy high fantasy attempt have been reincarnated in my current project. My work is a patchwork of personal history and absorbed lessons. As one of my incredibly enlightened teachers said, you have to learn what NOT to do first before you can break the rules and expect to get away with it.

I had starry-eyed optimism about my work when I was a teenager; there was never a hope for the utter dreck I wrote back then — I’m not being negative, it really was that bad, and I had no discipline towards writing. It’s the discipline that’s changed things for me: on the one hand, I’m impatient and want to get my ideas on paper NOW, but I’ve learnt that if I just start writing, the pacing will stagger, the plot will suffer, the characters will be two-dimensional, and you could probably attribute something on every single line to a page on TV Tropes (click at your own risk — that site is worse than Wikipedia for keeping people up til 4am).

So I challenge myself continuously while I’m writing. The first challenge, obviously, is to have the bloody outline. It’s dangerous to go wandering into the woods without a map and compass, after all, and every unwritten novel is entirely uncharted territory. I also have a few exercises that I do in relation to writing fiction; they’re intended to help me be a better writer, or at least a more conscious one.

The first exercise occurs frequently during the writing process: read it like it was written by someone else. It’s not easy to spot holes and inconsistencies when you’re looking through a microscope: you don’t see the surface in its entirety, so taking a step back and forcing myself to temporarily forget something was made by myself is a useful tactic. Editing usually happens as a result, sometimes involving reshuffling of events or the inclusion or removal of characters. In my opinion, this is an exercise every writer should be doing.

The second exercise is less vital, but one of personal importance. As a feminist, I like to keep characters balanced, and I abhore the “strong female character” (Sophia McDougall expresses the sentiment well here). I stumbled across this TED Talk video a bit ago, and it made me seriously re-think my approach when it came to character treatment. So now I will on occasion meditate on the story and swap the characters’ genders. All of them. The way I see it, if a character absolutely HAS to be male or female, there’s something wrong with the story. This has actually led me to some enlightening moments regarding societal double-standards for behaviour (I’ll save that for another time when I feel like prodding the hornet’s nest). It’s also caused dramatic changes in some characters’ personalities, and caused me to drop several plot devices entirely.

I read a writer’s blog post recently — I really wish I could remember whose it was, it was quite good — which expressed the importance of perspective. In a story which gets into only one character’s head, this option may not be available. But if you’re building an omni perspective, where any character’s thoughts and feelings are focused on at any time, perspective is something which can make or break an important event. The blog I read suggested that the best perspective was that of the character most affected by the event. Emotional involvement is much more immersive than an eyewitness point of view, and I will often consider which other characters could be used in the same scene. I have one event in particular which has changed perspectives three times; it may change again in the future.

Which leads me to a big one: abandoning precepts.

Every writer has a set of rules they follow, whether consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes it’s an actual style list that’s decided upon at the time the outline is made. Things like whether to use first-person or third (or even second, if you’re utterly mad), whether the story will be told in a linear fashion or if flashback scenes will be used. I cannot stress this enough: if a personal style rule is interfering with the story, the rule needs to be dropped. Rules, as they say, were made to be broken if they are no longer applicable or relevant. It may be an easy change; it might be painful and as world-shattering as a change in religious beliefs. I recently had to suck it up and adapt my aversion to dream sequences — I passionately despise dream sequences, but it was necessary to set that aside for the good of the story.

For the good of the story, every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Books are not action flicks — flashy combat and explosions are to be used only as necessary, since the job of filling seats was over and done with when the book was brought home. Logic is what keeps a setting and characters grounded in their reality. Every fictional setting has a set of rules for physics, biology, society and technology. If the world is metal-poor, the entire army will not be kitted out in plate-steel. If your wizard is casting a fireball in space, there needs to be something keeping the fire burning which is explained by more than “because magic”. Logic makes the world and characters three-dimensional; even the most nameless of background characters needs to have a reason for being there and a reason for their reaction. A friend recommended this book to me a while ago, and it is packed with tips for developing characters and situations (and where to limit things). Whilst the book is specifically geared towards game characters and development, the advice is applicable to any creative writing.

So my final exercise is to apply logic. Meditating on a given situation and thinking of different ways it could be resolved often leads to surprising — and far more satisfying — results. I wrote a story ages ago which was splashy and had a high body count. People liked the concept, but said the story was uninteresting. Well, that’s no good! I re-considered the entire thing; the final result had a very low body count and a more sympathetic main character, and was much better received by the people who read it.

Hmm, I’ve gone on a bit longer than I’d intended to. The process of writing is a massive learning experience for me. I’ve reached the stage where I feel I’m a strong enough writer to be competitive (not “good enough”. There’s never any such thing as “good enough”, only “almost, but“). That doesn’t mean that I won’t keep challenging myself; if anything, it means I’ll likely create more exercises for myself, to make sure I don’t slack off.

3 thoughts on “The Writers’ Think Tank

  1. I find the gender swap tool a very interesting concept, one which when looking back on many of my favorite novels and associated characters, the thoughts, emotions and perception found in those characters were relevent to either sex. A person could jump into the shoes of those characters and not skip a beat, as the author didn’t hang on the sexual qualities, limitations or associated sexual preconception that are so often reinforced in media.

  2. I’m not a writer by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like reading novels on occasion. I particularly like Brandon Sanderson’s work and I think part of that is because I’ve read some of his commentary or blog posts about his writing and process, which make me have a greater appreciation for the effort involved. It also makes the process seem less like magic.

    Which reminds me, you mention fire balls in space, which is much like hearing sound in space in Eve. I always get a laugh out of that, though I do like the ability to use audio cues in games to react to situations. In the end, it’s about understanding what your goals are and optimizing for them.

    1. I love reading writers’ blogs; I’ve read some of the letters and journal entries Tolkien wrote whilst he was working on Lord of the Rings, and there are lots of similarities everyone seems to share (most notably, the feeling that the work is writing itself and the writer is only holding the pen/hitting the keys in the right order).

      A fictional world doesn’t have to be rooted in real-world physics (submarines-in-space, am I right? 😉 ), as long as it obeys its own-world physics. Even the most absurdist fictional environment has rules everything within it must follow; the best example of this may be Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

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