How Can You Write About Writing When You Know Nothing, Jen Snow?

It’s been a long, long time since I thought I could write about writing fiction. It’s a stage of hubris in my young writing life that I wish I could forget, hence why I suppressed the writing category for so long.

I decided to stop writing and get serious about my day job. The problem was that I got a little too serious. Loving where you work is great and all, but identification can only go so far, and if there was ever really an age where corporate was family, it’s a long bygone era.

So I needed to balance myself. I needed to find something other than work that I really loved, and for some reason that ended up not being boardgames. ((I love Eurogames, I love Ameritrash games, I love the monstrous offspring they sometimes breed. Mostly.))

The reason I chose writing probably has a lot to do with the narrative in Blade off the Feather, a true story. It’s the same reason I <3 the immersion of the adventure game genre: writing allows me to enter another world. Often that world is as abstract as a mathematician’s, where words take on almost dream-like meanings—and the “zone” of programming and that of writing are surprisingly similar.

But when I started to write fiction again, things were different. For the first time, I ended up constructing a world that I liked to walk around in. I wrote characters that I actually liked and weren’t simply interesting constructs to pose and play.

Neither of these existed for most of NaNoWriMo 2011, despite all that I built up a heavy word count, but I learned the meaning of Draft Zero and used the time to, basically, romp and play like a kitten surrounded by glitter balls. What would happen when gods went to college? It’s a bit skimpy, like a subject that would be picked up by a stereotypical shoujo manga or anime. And that was November.

In December, I started to read about Plot & Structure, and things began to click. And I wanted to keep on with my writing habits that I’d picked up from NaNoWriMo, so I decided to write 500 words a day. They had to be fiction words, not blog words. They had to be story words, not outline words (or at least, if they were outline words, they needed to be something more than X crosses the street to Y). 500 per day was achievable after the holy-shit-I-need-15,000-words days of NaNoWriMo.

They say that you shouldn’t write about your world again after you’ve set aside Draft Zero, but I often don’t follow instructions and so decided to write a short story, covering the back story for one of the more shallow characters. Easy, because the character needed just a little deepening. How deep could his back story get?

Yeah, that short story? Currently at over 11,000 words and not stopping any time soon. (I did end up writing over 7000 additional words of uselessness that I threw away, but kept towards the monthly word count.) And at a pace of 500 words a day (and often more if I could manage it), I discovered many things. They are too many to count, and some of them are rather abstract.

Here’s a couple of things.

I’m currently revising my apparent novelette/novella, and it’s not even halfway finished. They say to never do this before you finish the thing because it’s all too easy to not finish. And hey, I haven’t finished yet, so this may yet hold true that I’ve committed a fatal error.

But when I went back and revised the opening scene, I discovered a lot of hidden story between the existing lines. This is because when I wrote the scene, I didn’t think through all the details of the narrative. I originally had one trajectory: the villain had to be killed by the hero because he was evil. ((Yes, that’s my first scene. Gods, fortunately, or unfortunately, don’t often stay dead for long. It’s just a way to piss them off.)) I didn’t think about how the hero would feel about this—the giddiness of sudden freedom, the uncertainty of the next step to take, the desire to return to a home that never existed—none of that was in the original scene, even though those feelings were ones I could identify with.

From a practical standpoint, I didn’t think about how the hero got from point A to point B, or why the hero would even be where he was when the trick turned. I didn’t think about how the hero actually gotten originally to point A and left it as an unimportant detail, when it actually had narrative weight in terms of callbacks and echoes that could be inserted in later parts of the story.

Basically what I learned was this: milk a scene for all it’s worth. I don’t mean that you pad out the scene with description (unless that’s really your thing). When you write that character X does Y, think about the following:

  • Why is X doing Y, beyond the plot demanding it?
  • How does X feel about doing Y?
  • How does X react to having done Y?
  • How did Y come about, cause-and-effect-wise?

Also I learned that it’s easier to think about this stuff during the revision of a scene, not during the scene’s creation. When you first write the scene, you need to pour yourself onto the page, with the understanding that future-you will need to come and mop up later. To do otherwise risks what they call analysis paralysis.

Call it iterative writing. You can only refactor/rewrite when you have an actual prototype.

My intimation is that as you get more experienced, it becomes easier and easier to think of these things automatically as you write. Somewhat like learning to walk, a complicated process when you think about it, full of on-the-fly judgements and complex calculations and such. Revision probably doesn’t get any easier, though.

You might think that another lesson I learned was that villains shouldn’t be all-around evil. Wrong! I mean, that might be a lesson I learn later as I figure out how to handle villains. It’s not the lesson I learned right now.

And that’s really the only way I can write about writing when I know nothing: I write about what I’m learning now. Attempting to go beyond that tends to be, well, embarrassingly full of hubris.

Arachne Jericho
which only rhymes with Jen Snow ((I’m waiting for The Wolves of Winter with baited breath.))

2 thoughts on “How Can You Write About Writing When You Know Nothing, Jen Snow?

  1. “But when I started to write fiction again, things were different…that short story? Currently at over 11,000 words and not stopping any time soon…My intimation is that as you get more experienced, it becomes easier and easier to think of these things automatically as you write.”

    Well, you’re sounding quite like an experienced writer. Specifically, Jennifer Crusie, who wrote today about one of her current projects:

    the plan was that I was going to write a four-book mystery series, and they’d be short and fast-paced like my first romances were. 60000 words maybe. Except I’m past sixty thousand words already and the first book is only about half done, and it’s not snappy, so I can’t do short and fast any more. I’m not sure what sparked the change, I think it was just an evolution to more detailed work, larger communities, more complex plot-and-subplot structures. But evidently, I can’t go back to simple.

    Besides, some people have a natural length they write at. There are specialist short-story writers and specialist three-volume-novel writers.

    Incidentally, if you can find a copy of Wishing Season, by Esther Friesner, the first section (maybe ~30-50 pages? it’s been a while since I’ve held a copy) are worth studying for the technique she used of presenting short scenes, each of which formed a stand-alone story, which together formed a more over-arching narrative. It’s a neat piece of story-craft.

    • Well, you’re sounding quite like an experienced writer.

      I think I just pick up knowledge easily. Application is another matter entirely.

      I so need to subscribe to Cruise’s new blog.

      Thank you for the recommend of Wishing Season!

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