Like I alluded to last week, I’m always striking a kind of balance when I communicate with you guys online.
On the one hand, if I don’t post every week or so, some people forget about me or start getting antsy and sending me messages asking what I’m doing.
But the reality is that the less you hear from me, the more productive I’m being. When I have free time, THAT’S when I check Facebook and screw around online.
However! These last few days, I’ve been blazing through OKAK far faster than expected, so I get to reward myself with some Internet time and the chance to press my forehead against the bars of my cell and wonder what the sun used to look like.
A while ago I did a post on coming up with names, and in October I wrote about one technique I use for developing magic systems.
This week, I said I’d talk some more about my writing process, and I wasn’t sure how to narrow that down. Most of the general writing advice has been covered to death by far better writers than me, so I wanted something that I had at least somewhat of a unique perspective on (and something that I could address in just a few paragraphs).
Ultimately, I decided to address the number one problem I see new writers (especially fantasy writers) facing: they don’t know how to start writing their book.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: you have a fantasy novel you’ve been working on in your head for years. It’s going to be brilliant. You just have to make sure that all the character arcs are fully defined and in place, and you’re good to go.
But you want to make sure that these arcs are in line with your themes. And how could you possibly start writing in a world when you haven’t finished building it yet? You know there’s an elf kingdom, but you don’t even know who its founding king was!
On and on it goes, and you draw and re-draw the map, and you come up with backstories of your main characters. Maybe you write the first twenty thousand words and it doesn’t come out like you imagine it, so you start over, but this time you have a clear vision for it.
This is what I wanted to address today, because it’s a problem I see people make at least as much as anything else.
They think they’re writing a fantasy novel, but they’re not.
People get stuck in planning, especially world-building, for years. It goes around and around and around in their heads, shifting and evolving but never taking shape.
There are a number of reasons for it. Coming up with ideas is fun, but hammering them into an effective story is hard. And it can be hard to know when you’re ready to stop planning and start writing, because planning is important.
Fortunately, if this is you, I have a solution. I was going to say something snappy like “Just write the book,” but that’s more glib than helpful. So here’s the question to ask yourself:
What is the minimum I need to know before I can start writing?
In my personal experience from struggling out of this mental trap over and over again, you have to stop thinking about the first draft of a story taking place after you’re done planning it. The first draft is part of the planning process, and anything that happens in the first draft can be fixed later.
I will say, there are some things you do need to know before you start writing. What’s your plot? I mean, is this “A lonely beautician starts robbing banks in the hopes that one of the cops coming to arrest her will be the man of her dreams,” or is this “A humble kobold’s attempts to pretend to be a real dragon go too far when his fake persona is elected the Dragon King”?
Once you have your one- or two-sentence plot to guide you, then you do need a sense of how it falls out. There are far better story structure gurus than I, but the point is that you don’t need a detailed beat-by-beat understanding of every scene in your book to start writing. You just need to know the general shape of what’s going to fall out.
Then you need to answer the necessary questions that will help you start writing. If you think the scene should open on a couple arguing in a cafe, for instance, you need the names of the two people in the couple and the name of the café.
Don’t get bogged down in details. Remember, what is the minimum you need to know before you can start writing?
Then write until the end.
There are some things you’ll run into that you won’t know, so make them up. Or put a note and go back to them later. I wrote an entire draft of Ghostwater in which Ziel, the tired old man in a young man’s body, was basically an energetic Ash Ketchum.
But that was okay, because anything in the first draft can be changed. You’re just trying to lock down the shape of the story and figure out which of your ideas are good enough to carry the book and which don’t matter.
I’ve heard it said this way: if writing is like making pottery, then writing the first draft is creating your lump of clay.
Asking this question might be the key to stopping your procrastination-disguised-as-planning and starting you writing.
Caveat: People write in different ways. If you plan and plan and then when you’re finished, you stop planning and diligently move on to writing, good for you! Ignore me. But if that describes you, know that I have found people like you to be extraordinarily rare.
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