Playing at Deities, part 2: Maps

When I was taking Creative Writing classes in high school, one of the toughest parts for me at the time was separating my own work from others’.

I read a lot, and I actually read much more when I was growing up in the ’90s, since my dad had a strong antipathy towards video games and VCRs (he’s mellowed considerably since then, particularly as the games my younger brother and I play haven’t turned out to be the mind-rotting brain-sugar dad feared they were; the both of us being in the industry certainly had a strong influence, as well). And I read EVERYTHING, including some of the more atrocious fantasy and sci-fi pulp novels. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started getting picky about literature.

One of the down-sides of reading so much while you’re trying to write creatively is that your brain can trip over someone else’s prose, and the risk of getting lost in another writer’s forest is fairly high when you’re only just finding your own footing. A lot of what I wrote for that CW class was heavily influenced by the books I was reading at the time: while the names were changed and the plots were different, the world structure was very similar. You could have called it fan-fiction and not been too far off the mark.

Some might suggest this indicates a lack of creativity; personally I feel it indicates a lack of personal experience, and certainly an undeveloped understanding of the world. It was easier to use a pre-established structure created by someone else; the few times I attempted to build my own world, it resembled a stage setting: flat scenery pieces painted on plywood. If you looked at it from the wrong angle, you’d see the props on the back of everything and the stage-hands tilting the lights around.

It took me a long time to work out building depth in the world; and after that, it took me a long time to figure out how to express it properly. As one of my teachers was fond of saying, “Show, don’t tell.” It may make the OCD beast happy to run off on a tangent for a few pages explaining social structures, but the majority of readers don’t like that; it’s better to express society and culture though character interactions.

A key part of developing depth is to make the world feel lived-in; the reader needs to have the impression that the characters had lives before the story started, and that their lives will continue after it ends. The story itself is an eight-hour workday, with events occurring after-hours which are relayed the next morning in anecdotes during a coffee break. Made-up location and character names are great, but unless there’s thought put into those names’ history, they’re only a collection of random syllables mashed together; some writers seem to specialise in the unpronounceable as a way of indicating that the local language isn’t actually English. I used to do that, and while I’ll readily admit it’s still a temptation, I’m more apt to go back and reconsider things later after more of the world has been explored in the development process.

It feels… I won’t say “lazy”, but more like I’m not really working when I take a step back and build spreadsheets and reference lists for a few days. My WIP draft starts with a list of every character and a brief description of them so I don’t have to swap to the actual character development document in the middle of flow. I often work on my tablet instead of a computer — in fact, I get more done that way at the table or on the sofa with a cup of tea or coffee to hand than I do sitting at a desk — and changing Google Drive documents mid-stream can shred The Zone in a way tabbing to the top and back won’t.

The character design document itself is pages long; there are thirteen different specifications for each of them, from physical appearance to personality, which of the other characters they’re likely to cooperate with, and a brief summary of their background. Then there’s the world design which is actually six separate documents detailing social structures, technological developments, language and linguistic notes, world timeline, story timeline, and the world itself.

All of this took — collectively — months to build. And I felt like I wasn’t really writing while I was doing it, but it was also seriously important if I wanted to continue with the writing itself.

As tempting as it is to play in someone else’s sandbox — to let another writer do all the hard work before you start enacting your own tales — it can be painfully obvious from the outside that the foundations were created by someone else. It’s different when one is in a media industry where the creator gives you the blueprints to work within, but when writing for oneself it isn’t an ideal approach.

I got discouraged a while ago, when I realised this. I must have been in my early twenties, I know it was after I moved to Edinburgh for university. I complained to a professional writer I often met in the pub that it seemed like everything had already been done, and done to death at that, and how was I supposed to create anything uniquely mine? There’s only so many ways you can recombine 26 letters, after all. Charlie, by the way, is one of the more inspiring friends an aspiring writer can have, and while I don’t remember what his precise words were, it definitely ran along the lines of telling me I wasn’t thinking outside the box enough.

At first I was a bit offended, but he was totally right. Nobody ever had a memorable adventure by sticking to safe territory. I’d been inspired by D&D and Shadowrun, Star Trek and Star Wars (shush, you can like both and retain some sanity), McCaffrey and Gibson, Brust and Bull and Shetterly. You can find hints of them all over my early work, and — amusingly — it wasn’t until I started blogging about EVE Online from in-character and creative perspectives that I really began to take steps out on my own.

It’s that vague ruleset I described earlier which made me bolder, perhaps: as much of a bad rap as fan-fiction has, it shouldn’t be sold short as a medium through which writers learn to improve themselves. Baby steps, baby steps. It’s a very rare case where a person simply sits down, touches pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, and produces a world of their own without having first followed someone else’s maps and learned from the experience.