Writing advice: keep it personal

So, I just happened across this post at Black Gate, by M Harold Page, about how you shouldn’t polish the beginning of your novel up too shiny, because it’s probably going to totally need to be re-written at the end.

This is nonsense.

By which I mean, of course, it’s nonsense for me. I polish the bejeezus out of the beginning of my novels and they definitely do not need to be significantly re-written at the end. This is because for me, the beginning drives the rest of the novel, including the worldbuilding and the character development. I have never, not once, changed the beginning of one of my books in any substantial way — though one time I moved the opening down, made it chapter two, and written a new opening. Oh, and I’ve gone through and cut prologues as hard as possible twice, because prologues, you know. Generally they should not be too long.

So when Page says:

Just imagine you spent three days honing the perfect opening paragraph leading into the perfect scene, kicking off the perfect first chapter?

Then, three months later you come back and have to make the following changes…

…the tall male NCO called Geoff is now a buxom female NCO called Janice. The barracks are now a ruined farmhouse. The unit’s rail guns are now laser carbines. Their power armour is now light weight skin suits. The red second sun is now a blue dwarf. The tank is now a grav skimmer. The comedy alien in the unit has been deleted. The hero no longer has a girlfriend back home. He does, however, have a recently slain boyfriend…

I am baffled at how this could possibly happen. I mean, I recently sent the first 100 pages of a manuscript to my RH editor. It is a polished 100 pp and that’s all there is. There isn’t another rough 100 pages. There isn’t a detailed outline. Well, okay, there is a very rough and probably highly misleading synopsis that sort of suggests where the story might be going. But that’s it: 100 polished pages and a very (very) rough synopsis. Because that’s how I do things.

But that’s just me. No doubt someone out there read that bit about never bothering to polish the beginning and thought, Yeah! Right on! It’s just like that!

So that made me go poke around a bit until I found this:

World building is an important component of fantasy writing because your fantasy world must be grounded in a history and abide by certain rules in order to persuade your readers to suspend their disbelief when you bring in magic, fantastical beasts and other implausible elements. Below are some of the important questions to ask yourself as you begin your world building.

1.Where is the story located? Is it a past, future or alternate Earth, or is it another planet or another dimension?

2.Who are the main intelligent inhabitants of this fantasy world? Are humans the only intelligent species, or will there be creatures like dwarves, fairies, elves and more? Alternately, will there be species you’ve made up?

3.What is the government system in the part of the world you’re focusing on? Is it a monarchy, a republic, a democracy, a dictatorship or something else?

4.What is the rest of the world like? What types of government and inhabitants are there? What is the relationship of the people you’re writing about to the rest of the world? Are they the dominant culture, or are they dominated?

5.What important historical events have led to the present situation? What wars, alliances and other situations are relevant?

6.Technologically, how does the fantasy world compare to our world? Is it more or less advanced, or does it have a mix of technologies?

7.What is the standard of living for average people? How educated do they tend to be? What does “educated” mean in this world?

8.Does magic exist in the world, and if so, how is it regarded, and who practises it?

9.What are the most important values of the society that you are writing about? What type of religion do people practise?

10.What is the class situation in the society you are focusing on? Does one gender or race tend to be favoured over another?

I knew I could find a list of questions like this, because you do see them around. They baffle me. I can’t even imagine. How can anybody have time to write the actual novel if they pour all their time into thinking about stuff like this? Why not simply build the world by writing the novel? The history and political situation, the maps and cultural details, the art and architecture and attitudes, will sort itself out for you if you just let it.

At least, that’s how it is for me.

All this stuff — about how to build worlds, develop characters, get through the slog that comes in the middle of the book; everything about when to polish to a high gloss and when to stick in a filler with a note to come back and finish that bit later — it’s all personal. All of it.

That link to the slog through the middle? That’s a post by Timothy Hallinan about The Dread Middle. I agree with every word. But that’s just me. Well, and Hallinan, obviously. I can’t imagine anybody disagreeing. But I know people do, because I’ve met actual live writers who think the middle is the easy part.

I KNOW, right?

Also, it’s quite true some posts that offer writing advice are more nuanced, thoughtful, and broadly applicable than others. This link goes to Kate Elliot’s recent (excellent) column at tor.com on writing female characters.

Incidentally, my casual search for things like How to Write Believable Characters and so on also turned up a good many posts dispensing advice on how to write male characters, how to write believable teenage characters, and so on. This is a popular type of advice, and always something to think about, though I can’t quite imagine approaching character development so analytically. I do remember my brother commenting that although he likes Sarah Addison Allen’s stories, he doesn’t always find her male characters believable. But basically I think that Kate Elliot is dead right that first you think about writing believable human characters and then you go from there. Unless, of course, your characters are not human.

As far as that goes, I guess I’ve written both male and female characters, both adult and teenage characters, and in fact both human and decidedly nonhuman characters. To me they are all people first and I generally like and sympathize with them all, even when they’re opposed to one another. I even sort of liked Lilianne, in a way.

Anyway, the point is, an awful lot of links to posts about writing advice drift through my Twitter feed (during an average day that is not consumed by llamas or The Dress). I follow some of those links because it’s sorta interesting to see how other people write. But in general? In general, I do think it is best to phrase your advice like so:

Many writers find that . . .

In attempting to build a believable world, you may discover that . . .

When beginning a novel, I personally . . .

And so forth. Really, most writing advice would benefit from the author remembering that it honestly is all different for someone else.

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6 thoughts on “Writing advice: keep it personal”

  1. Keep it personal reminds me of my all time favorite childhood series: Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome. I don’t know how many times I’ve read them over the years. I do know that some of them are on their second copies after falling to pieces.

    My father read them to me when I was small. I read them to myself many times over the years, and to my nieces when they were small. He was writing in the 1930s when nobody else was even on the landscape for immersive children’s literature. For adults, it reminds you just what childhood should be.

    If you haven’t read them, I recommend Swallows and Amazons for a straight childhood adventure story, Picts and Martyrs for a comedy of manners, and Big Six for mystery. Picts and Martyrs I probably most accessible to all. But his writing is just luminous. And it was very personal, informed both by his own childhood memories, and the experiences of his children.

  2. He’s been popular in my family for 3 generations. Actually 4, given that my grandfather enjoyed reading to my father.

  3. Why not simply build the world by writing the novel? The history and political situation, the maps and cultural details, the art and architecture and attitudes, will sort itself out for you if you just let it.

    I think that for some authors, this just isn’t true: if they make it up as they go it comes out incoherent.

    I wouldn’t care to guess the balance between that problem, which would make world-building ahead of time a necessity, and the non-problem of just liking the world-building element for its own sake. Which I can certainly appreciate, but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t make some authors less productive than they otherwise would be.

    A writer might also design-ahead because they know the world is supposed to contain certain things or reflect certain themes, and it’s better to get them straight in their head. Especially if you’re the sort of author who revises things a lot as you go, you might need to get some important things fixed.

  4. Of course, that’s the point. Whether you want to create an actual “world bible” and find that useful rather than an annoying way to slow yourself down depends strictly on your personal skill set and inclinations.

  5. Thanks for weighing in on this and sharing your useful perspective, Rachel. Came across this post now and have to say you’re right that an analytical approach isn’t for everyone. If you look at the effort someone like Tolkien, for example, put into the background world-building elements, it can have amazing results. It depends how thought-out and intricate you want your novel to be.

    Excellent post.


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