I’ve been rereading ‘Writing into the Dark: How to Write a Novel Without an Outline’ by Dean Wesley Smith lately. In one spot he tells what to do to start a ‘written into the dark’ story— put a character into a richly detailed setting and let that character react to it. (Chapter 5 is where the book gets into detail about it.)
I also have writing books that tell me how to write outlines and I have written outlines for a number of failed writing projects in my past. (Why did they fail? Probably because writing the outline turned the whole project into a dull, predictable mess I couldn’t work on once the outline got done.) But I do believe that ‘writing into the dark’ is a bit of a different proposition for the sci-fi or fantasy writer.
Imagine a contemporary detective story where the main character is a private detective. There are a lot of things you know about the story without thinking, because you live in the contemporary world. You know your main character may have dark or light skin color— but not purple or green skin, not tiger-striped skin (unless tattoos are involved) and isn’t a seven-foot-tall brown-furred creature with six arms.
In science fiction and fantasy stories, we don’t know those things. Our main characters can be humans or space aliens or elves or orcs. They can live in holes in the ground, fairyland, or someone’s expandable pocket. All bets are off in a fantasy or SF setting— so ‘writing into the dark’ may involve a bit of pre-creation of the setting, or perhaps redrafting 5 different versions of chapter one before you figure out that your main character is a dog.
We contemporary writers often have a problem with setting. We are warned against doing much description lest we bore readers with a block of description. And so many writers produce stories with characters conversing in a white space. If we are lucky, the writer may drop a hint so you can imagine the scene on a standard-issue space station, or a standard-issue fantasy-world forest. Or perhaps mention a specific enchanted box elder tree when the hero rams someone’s head into it.
The way to make a setting interesting enough to describe is to perceive it through the senses and opinions of your character. Often it is a character new-come to that particular setting. Even if your character was born and raised on a space station, most likely if he is on a space station right now, it’s a different one, where they do everything different and wrong.
Individual details matter. Your fantasy world character shouldn’t stroll past a generic ‘tree.’ Let it be an animated apple tree that throws its apples at people it doesn’t like. Or a maple tree inhabited by a psychotic wood nymph.
The best way to learn how to do this is to examine how popular writers make you see places that have never existed. In the Harry Potter books, look up the exact words and phrases that helped you visualize Diagon Alley or Hogwarts school. (Ideally, you will write them down.) Find other favorite books of yours and look at the first scene in a new setting. How does the author make you see it? And what else is going on in the scene? What do the characters present see or hear in the setting, or smell in the setting? What are their opinions of the setting? Are they the same as the ones the author may expect the reader to have? (A fantasy knight may enter what he sees as a shabby castle that strikes the reader as a paradise of luxury— or enter a state-of-the-art castle that the readers will clearly feel would be improved by some running water and indoor plumbing.)
Once you have a relate-able character and a setting that contains details and points-of-interest, you can start exploring this setting in the course of finding out what the characters goal or problem is and seeing how he solves it. Writers who ‘write into the dark’ may use this method, rather than a detailed outline, to explore their ideas and create a good story.
Nissa Annakindt & her cats
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Rewriting, rather than fixing or redrafting, is a philosophy of poverty. Every one of the words of your not-quite-good chapter 12 is to be considered a rare gem of which your mind only has so many. So you rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, keeping some words and sentences and ideas from the first draft intact while you suffer through five or ten or twenty rewrites.
Real writers like Robert Heinlein, Harlan Ellison and Dean Wesley Smith didn’t believe in that kind of writerly poverty. They wrote and finished stories and put them on the market. There was always a fresh story progressing down the pipeline. If story #27 didn’t sell, by the time these authors finished sending it around to all the markets they had written half-a-dozen more to market and some of those most assuredly would sell.
When I first started writing and submitting poetry many years ago, I did believe in the whole infinite-rewrites myth. But I found that when a poem ‘worked,’ going back to it days or weeks later to do a rewrite didn’t help. It was either as great as I could make it already and changing any word made it weaker, or it was a flub that didn’t get good no matter what I did to it.
I sent out those one-draft poems and some got published. And kept writing more and more and more. No word poverty there! There was always another idea coming along into my fertile brain. I didn’t have to waste hours, days or weeks trying to spin my flubs into gold.
Think of the very first story you wrote— perhaps as a grade-school assignment. Do you really think if you had been rewriting that story time and again it would now be so polished that it would win you a literary prize? Or did you learn more by writing other stories or essays or poems?
A writer writes— puts down new words on paper or screen. Writing is not outlining or talking about writing or gossiping about your writing plans in critique group or promoting your published books on Twitter or filling a world-building notebook. It’s putting down new fresh words to a new fresh story. Again and again and again. Because your mind will never run out of ideas. You don’t have to infinitely rewrite the old ones until they turn into gold. You write, you finish, you put it on the market (or self-publish.) It’s that simple. Or that impossibly hard.
What is redrafting? Redrafting happens when a chapter or a whole story is Just Not Working. You junk what you have written down and write a new draft from your memory of the idea. I did redrafting myself before I even knew that was the name for it.
Dean Wesley Smith describes it as being all from memory, but I use name and place-name lists in order to keep from having to reinvent the wheel because I don’t always have a good memory for things like that. Before I read about redrafting, I did redrafting when a chapter I had written got bogged down and felt unfixable. I just started over. I might make it a different scene with different characters but serving the same purpose as my original scene did.
What is the big difference? When you do many rewrites, you end up with a pastiche which has sentences from the first draft, third draft, tenth draft, and so on. They may not match each other well— which may trigger yet another rewrite in the endless process of Not Finishing your writing project.
Every word in your redraft will be far more consistent in tone than something that has been rewritten and rewritten. Your first draft in rewriting mode may have been humorous, your third deadly serious, your fifth melodramatic, and your tenth an odd mishmash. While your redraft will be fresh and more consistent.
Redrafting when you need to gives a project fresh life. Your bogged-down chapter 7 does not need to be rewritten ten more times in a vain effort to make it good enough. You don’t ever need to look at it again, because your redraft has taken its place.
Now, you may need to keep various notes and outlines that date from the writing of your original draft. But if you ‘outline as you go’ you may need to not keep some of that original draft’s outline lest it turn your redraft into a mere rewrite.
Imagine in the middle of the night you wake up and think that in your day’s writing work you called a character by the wrong name. Or you really need to look up the date of death of Ludwig II of Bavaria before you make him a vampire character in your novel. Or you let your cat help with the typing but now that you think of it you are fairly sure that the word ‘trebuchet’ is not spelled with that many sevens.
You do not need to leave these issues unresolved in order to follow Rule #3. Because fixing is not rewriting. You may fix mistakes, typos, misspellings, errors of fact, and other such things.
You might also, upon thinking of the matter, decide to develop a rule or system for naming your space alien, elf or dragon characters, even though this will involve changing the names of characters already mentioned in the story. But this is not rewriting. It’s just fixing.
One bit of fixing I had to do was in my starship fiction. I needed to create a system of ranks in the Terran space fleet that was consistent and not borrowed from Star Trek. I wrote down the perfect system for this once— and then lost the paper it was written on. So I had to laboriously create a new, not so perfect system and then go about fixing my story and my notes to reflect the new system.
You may feel the need to write your initial draft of your story with the spell-check OFF, and go through later with it on to fix any spelling boo-boos. This is also fixing rather than rewriting. In fact, Dean Wesley Smith recommends hiring a copyeditor who will find mistakes and wrong words spelled correctly (like using ‘effect’ when you mean ‘affect.’) The story-fixing draft that results from the copyeditor’s work is fixing, not rewriting.
‘Editorial order’ means an order given by an actual editor. You know, the guy who works for a book publisher or a story magazine who has the power to buy your story. If an editor of this variety says he’ll buy your story if you lose the hero’s girlfriend and replace her with a talking dog, change the unicorn to a dragon, and throw in a time machine, consider it. But as for suggestions given by people who are NOT that kind of editor, feel free to ignore them.
- Critique Group Members are Not Editors. They may concoct a criticism only to have something to say. Or to please you since you WANT a critique. Or they may be so wrong that any rewrite you do to their suggestion just weakens or kills your story.
- Beta Readers are Not Editors. Beta readers are people you pay— with an Amazon gift certificate or with a promise to beta-read for them— and do not have the power to buy your story. Unless they have a very similar writing mind to yours, they are likely to say nothing that will help. And like critique group members they can lead you astray.
- Literature/English/Writing Teachers are Not Editors. Many teachers have never written or sold anything. Even the creative writing teachers who are actual writers and have sold may be putting out the false ‘keep on rewriting’ line so popular among English teachers. A teacher’s suggestion does not trump your instinct of what your story is and is not about.
- Book Fixers You Hire are Not Editors. No, not even if they call themselves ’editors’ or ‘content editors.’ Real editors in the sense of the Rule pay YOU— at least if they accept your story. Book fixers are people you have to pay. They are going to come up with a lot of suggestions so you feel you got your money’s worth. These suggestions might be good, bad, or story-killers.
- Agents or Would-be Agents are Not Editors. The kind of agents that YOU as a new or not-famous writer can get are of varying quality, but they are NOT the dudes that handle James Patterson or Naomi Novik. They may THINK that if you turn your cowboy hero into a transgender saloon ‘girl’ they can sell it to a real editor but they may be wrong.
- Real Editors who have Turned You Down are No Longer Rule #3 Editors. Sometimes you get a rejection letter which says, not for us, but before you resubmit elsewhere turn your main character into an owl, lose the spaceship, and put more metal into your time machine. But once this editor has turned down your story, the suggestions this person makes just stand in the way of you having FINISHED that story and marketing it.
A major reason for obeying Rule #3 is that it helps you keep Rule #2, ‘You must finish what you write.’ If you declare a finished story unfinished and do another rewrite every time you get a suggestion from a critique group or a rejection letter from a publisher, your story gets farther and farther from being finished.
The worst part about the endless-rewrite culture is for most of us the more we rewrite the more our story becomes conventional, less risky, more boring, more the same as what every other writer puts out. We don’t want or need that!
The thing is, advice-giving writers have different would-be writers in mind when they give their words of wisdom. A writer who has just read some dreadful manuscripts full of misspellings and bizarre bad grammar may insist that every writer, everywhere, must hire a proofreader to correct a manuscript before sending it out anywhere. And so some ambitious young wannabe writer who has won spelling bees and teaches English grammar in Catholic school as her day job pays a few hundred per manuscript and is puzzled by the fact the the proofreaders she hires seem to be less good at spelling and grammar than she herself is. But she keeps plunking down the money anyway.
You, as a writer, are unique. You may be falling into the trap of creating stereotypical characters, or maybe your characters are so bizarre that no readers can relate to them. A bit of generic writing advice will not be able to solve both problems for the writers that have them.
Lawrence Block in one of his books on writing led me astray by saying that a writer should start out by writing a novel instead of short stories. He himself started with short stories, but by the time he wrote that book, the short story market had shrunk to just a few magazines— and they paid the same few cents a word they had paid years ago. So, he said, write a novel first.
But a novel is a big project, and I’m sure Lawrence Block’s own first novel benefitted by his own history of writing, finishing and selling short stories. I had a lot of trouble trying to tackle a novel before I’d finished my first short story. That particular bit of writing advice was not meant for me.
The best way to know what writing advice is right for you is to develop some discernment about your own strengths and weaknesses. If writing advice is addressing a problem you don’t even have, ignore it. Don’t worry about it. It’s not intended for you.
You might also try to become more aware that different working multi-published writers use different methods. Some outline, some don’t. Some intentionally put in foreshadowing and symbols and other things that charm English teachers, others put these things in unintentionally, through the power of their subconscious mind. And some writers need to know ‘plot points,’ while others can complete dozens of popular novels without so much as knowing what a plot point is.
I believe in reading good how-to-write books, at least the ones by writers you have heard of as fiction writers. There is good advice to be found there. Just beware of the advice that is Not For You.
Holy Week greetings from,
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