Well #?^% XXVIII: A writing rule I can’t stand

At a world-building workshop for fiction writers I attended last Friday, a familiar writing “rule” came up. It’s not one I like and following it has never worked for me. For whatever reason, hearing it taught as an absolute part of the process made me angry—at least angry enough to doodle some angry faces around that part in my notes. The rule:

“Figure out as much about the world you’re creating before you start writing the story. Don’t build as you go, or else you’ll end up painting yourself into a corner.”

I’ll break down the three elements of this so-called rule that bother me.

Bianca's weird face
The doodles weren’t worth uploading, so here’s Bianca making the sort of face I made internally at hearing that “rule.”

Rule: Figure it out before you start writing

Some people have to plan out every little element before they can write a single word. Others like to run with an idea as soon as it hits them and see where it goes. I’m in the middle camp. Once I have a character, a conflict, and what makes the situation unique, I start writing.

There is a lot that goes into a made-up world. Depending on how far the story will go, you may need to only develop the culture and people in one city. Or maybe you’ll need to work out a few cities, or even different countries. If it’s all going to be plot-relevant, of course you’re going to need to fit all that information in. But you’re not going to write about it until the relevant moment. That moment might be as simple as someone using a deity’s name as a swear word. You don’t need to know every step in the traditional dance used every third Tuesday to honor that deity before a character can say the name.

Rule: Don’t build as you go

It’s silly to think you will not deviate from your carefully constructed plan even a little. What if you’re writing, and it suddenly occurs to you that a minor conflict between two characters should be a little deeper than mere dislike? To add depth, you decide that it’s really about the fact that their grandparents were on opposite sides of a war. Now you need to figure out all the details of that war.

In the next draft—remember, there will always be another draft—you can sprinkle in more allusions to that war to further flesh out your world. You didn’t have to have that figured out before you started the first draft. You built it when you found a need for it.

You will build as you go. You will rebuild as you go. You will demolish things you built in the first draft. Don’t worry about it.

Rule: You’ll paint yourself into a corner

I’m not sure if you knew, but you can edit and revise what you write. A first draft is not a final draft. You are not limited to only moving forward; you can go back and fix whatever mess you made at any point. You could chug along and go all the way to the end of the draft before you start fixing. Or you could figure out a solution the moment you find the problem, fix it in what you already wrote, and carry on.

I do that all the time. You aren’t limited to one try to get everything in the story right. The writing adage I agree with the most is, “You learn to write by writing.” And if you’re going to create a fully immersive fantasy world, you’re going to learn everything you need to know as you write about it.

I don’t agree with every piece of writing advice, but I understand the value in it. Not everything works for everyone. Maybe building your world first is what you need to do to make what you want.

The Thieves of Traska needs beta readers!

Hello, friends! I’m very pleased to announce that I have finally finished the fourth draft of The Thieves of Traska! And that means we’re ready for the next step: beta readers!

When I first announced the project a couple years ago, I said it would be a novella. Now — at a whopping 52,580 words — it stands to be the first installment in a trilogy. It is also the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever written and the only one I’m prepared to show to a test audience.

Honestly, it’s scary. It’s like critique day in class all over again, but the stakes feel much higher. I’m not asking for feedback on a 10-page short story that I can edit in an hour or so. I’m asking for feedback on a 186-page novel that is supposed to launch my dream career as an author. So no pressure, right?

Even so, I come to you, my friends, to recruit some beta readers. I need volunteers willing to read the whole novel and give me your feedback. Whatever format you need — Word doc, PDF, Google doc, printed copy, etc. — I will gladly send it. And then I will forget about it for six weeks while you read and come back to it with fresh eyes.

If you’re interested in reading this fantasy adventure about a runaway and a fugitive getting swept into a dangerous game of intrigue between the shady criminal leagues who control the city of Traska, let me know! Comment here, email me at amanda (at) ajswitz (dot) com, or reach out on social media.

If you already volunteered before I finished writing, then keep an eye out for a message from me. Thank you all in advance and I greatly look forward to hearing from you.

By the way, what is Traska?

For this week’s Writing Wednesday, I’ve decided to give you all a look into the city of Traska, the fictional setting of The Thieves of Traska. The name is actually derived from a couple of real places I’ve visited many times in Michigan: Traverse City and Kalkaska.

I remember being in the car about two years ago, traveling between Michigan and Virginia with my family. All I had was an idea to expand a short story about a thief breaking out of jail — I still needed a new name for that thief, a location, a plot, and just about everything else. Every so often, I wrote down the names of cities and towns we passed through, picking apart the sounds I liked in each. After testing a few options on my family, I decided on Traska.

Even the Toskey River, which cuts through the city, got its name from the petoskey stones my family collects in Michigan. Though the landscape and the names are inspired by my time up north, the city is nothing like what I’ve seen there.

This is a partial image of an unfinished painting of Traska from the earlier drafts. The city was smaller, but still occupied the north and south banks of the Toskey River.

And now, for your reading pleasure, an excerpt from The Thieves of Traska about the city itself. As the book is yet unpublished, the following text is subject to change before being finalized.

Excerpt

Late in the morning, the forest ended abruptly, cut back for farming. The ground sloped upward, a number of farmhouses and villages dotting the countryside. Further ahead, Claire could make out the serene blue of a bay, rounded mountains spanning the horizon, and a river that popped in and out of sight among clumps of forest. If she had to guess, that was the Toskey River, and it fed right into the bay.

And the dark shape next to it could only be Traska.

Before reaching the city proper, they passed through a town that spread along the edge of the bay all the way to the massive stone wall surrounding Traska. According to locals, the area was called Skeggs, though they couldn’t agree on whether it was a town on its own or one of Traska’s districts.

As they neared the gate separating Skeggs from Traska, they entered a swelling stream of people bustling in and out of the gate. Once Claire and Garrison passed under the shadow of the gate, the air had a different charge to it. She could feel the life of the city pulsing around her and in the bluish stones beneath her feet. The sounds of peddlers hawking goods and horse-drawn carts rattling by carried over the crowd from an open marketplace further up the road and echoed off stone and mortar walls. There wasn’t a single building in sight with fewer than two floors; some towered more than twice that further in. The buildings were the same blue-grey as the roads, many of them displaying glittering tiled mosaics on one wall or another.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into The Thieves of Traska! Be sure to check back on the blog for details on my upcoming giveaway to celebrate the fourth draft.

Review: The Wolf Wilder

While checking out some new releases at B&N, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell caught my eye in the young adult section. It promised the adventure of a young Russian girl named Feo who, along with her mother, teaches the domesticated wolves forsaken by wealthy owners how to be wild again. Had the story not gotten distracted by a minor revolution in St. Petersburg, it would have been absolutely wonderful.

My Goodreads rating: 3/5 stars. Image source

Feo’s world is thrown into chaos when a cruel general in the Russian Army sets her home on fire and unjustly arrests her mother. With the help of Ilya — a reluctant, barely-teenaged soldier in the Russian Army who would rather be a dancer — and a handful of loyal wolves, Feo sets out to free her mother from prison. Despite Feo’s ignorance of normal social skills, the two quickly become friends. In fact, Feo’s blunt and whimsical statements make her incredibly endearing and entertaining. Seeing men whose beards seem to take up whole rooms and might house an entire family of mice lets us laugh at the little absurdities and forget, for just a moment, that a darker force is at work.

Sadly, that darker force isn’t all that impressive in person. The general is hardly more than a shallow evil-doing maniac with a scary name and madness as the only reason behind his actions. However, his off-stage presence — the way villagers shiver at the mention of his name, the charred skeletons of homes, and the potent mixture of fear and hatred he leaves behind — makes him frightening. It’s too bad the shadow outshines the man who casts it.

Perhaps that’s what made the final confrontation between Feo and the general disappointing. Young readers are saved from what might have been the most graphically violent yet satisfying scene in the whole book, but it didn’t get the focus it deserved. All along, we’ve been cheering Feo on as she goes after her mother and collects a long list of reasons to seek revenge. But her sudden transformation into a child revolutionary — and the leader of a small gang of other children who wish to fight the Russian Army — took us down the wrong path. Maybe if we’d spent more time on Feo’s growing interest in the revolution it would have worked.

Despite it’s unfortunate shortcomings, The Wolf Wilder remains a charming and enjoyable read. It’s hard to not get caught up in the wonder of riding on the back of a wolf across the snowy Russian countryside.

The Thieves of Traska . . . Two Years Later

Facebook has an On This Day feature that lets you see your posts from however many years back. I don’t share any of mine, but I take a look every once in a while just to see where I was a year or two ago. As it turns out, today marks the two-year anniversary of my work on The Thieves of Traska. It’s incredible to think that it’s only been two years and I’m already on the third (or fourth; I’m weird about numbering my drafts) draft. For other novel projects, it’s taken me up to five years to get to this point.

To celebrate, I wanted to share with you all one of my favorite scenes. There are several reasons why I love this part, most of which have to do with Claire’s development. Up until this point, Claire has only had one person on her side. She’s been working hard to prove her usefulness so she can belong to something bigger than herself. By officially joining the Coterie (a network of spies and thieves led by Countess Mackinley Magorian), Claire is starting to loosen her grip on her past.

On a personal note, it’s times like this — when I start a new job or join a team — that I look inward and compare the person I am with the person I want to be. That’s the time when I try to let go of what’s holding me back from the ideal me. So without further ado, I present this excerpt:


 

20150608_162910 (1)
© Amanda Surowitz and Switzy Thoughts, 2010-15.

The Countess waited in the middle of the stairs leading down from the terrace. Miles led the procession forward and stopped them at the edge. One by one, he nudged the initiates down the stairs where the Countess took their newly marked hands and passed them down to the mass of black figures. Claire gasped in surprise and pain when the Countess pressed her thumb lightly into the raw skin bearing the mark.

When they’d all been engulfed by the crowd, the Countess ascended the stairs and surveyed her audience with cool assessment.

“Welcome to the Coterie,” Dusty whispered in Claire’s ear. “Ghost.

“Watch over your new brothers and sisters as they will watch over you,” the Countess said. “As always, we face a greater challenge than those who would see us relinquish our hold on the city; it’s far easier to seize power than it is to keep hold of it. It is through your hard work that this power remains and shall remain with us, despite the efforts of our enemies.

“Even now, they move against us, tempting some of our unmarked friends to turn against us. You are the ones who must keep them on the right path. Without you, there is no us, and without us, there is chaos.”

All around, people bowed their heads and fisted their marked hands over their hearts. Claire followed suit, though her hand throbbed. She peeked up at the terrace, but the Countess was already gone. As if some quiet signal had been given, the crowd suddenly dispersed. Claire lingered, shivering in the autumn night air as the comforting warmth of so many bodies deserted the garden.

She was one of them now. That meant she could depend on every one of those robed figures to stand between her and Reed, didn’t it? The chill creeping down her spine had nothing to do with the cold.


The above excerpt is from a draft and is subject to change. No part of it may be copied or reproduced without written permission. © Amanda Surowitz and Switzy Thoughts, 2010-15.

Studio Session: “Revenant” by Alex Surowitz

Thanks to the support of some fellow writers who responded to one of my Facebook posts a while back, I can try something new for Writing Wednesdays. Several wonderful and courageous people volunteered to send me the opening paragraph of a piece of their writing and post them on my blog for a public workshop. I’ll be commenting on the writer’s voice, authority, intention, the expectations they create, and the level of intrigue. If you’d like to become a part of this experimental new series, head over to my contact page and let me know! Now, on to our first volunteer. We salute you, sir!

The Writer: Alex Surowitz (website)

The Piece: “Revenant,” a dark fantasy steampunk novel with elements of noir and super hero fiction. Word count: 79


One: Victoria

Victoria. October, 1924. This is not the city the founders had envisioned. This is a city that made the transition from gas to steam power two years ago. This is a city where crime runs rampant across the cracked and broken streets, now slick and foggy from the evening’s rain an hour ago. This is a city whose people cower under the watchful gaze of the zeppelins above or the robot sentries wandering the streets at night, always vigilant.


Right away, we’re given the name of the city and year. As readers, we’re already thinking about what was going on in 1924 and wondering how much of it we’re going to see. Will we read about the aftermath of World War I, various countries recognizing the USSR, Gandhi’s release from jail, or Benito Mussolini’s policies in Italy? How much will any of that affect the story? My inclination is to believe we are either within the United Kingdom (likely England, but I could also believe we’re in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland), Canada, or the United States. Giving the name of a country will help focus the historical baggage I bring as a reader.

Our first full sentence does a great job of giving us some tension; nothing’s more interesting than a plan gone awry and I’d like to know where it went wrong. Just after that, we’re given one of the rules of this world: the primary source of electricity is steam, not gas. Whether or not we’re familiar with the tropes of steampunk, this is a smooth way to introduce us to one of the facts of reality within the story. It also sets up the expectation that we will see familiar devices constructed in unusual ways; to make good on this promise, the writer will have to use subtle flicks throughout the story to reference this fact. We need to feel the heat and humidity when standing near machines and hear the steam being released from vents or valves, but all with the same subtlety that we would know it’s a cool evening and it’s raining.

With the phrase “crime runs rampant,” I do think it will be everywhere–both in shadows and in light. I will assume every politician is corrupt, the entire policing force is suspect until I see the one or two people who still believe in doing good, and everyone’s got their hand in something dirty no matter how clean they look. The cracked and broken streets emphasize this, as does the slick and foggy weather.

The following sentence makes a more solid promise on the expectations I just developed; it’s a great demonstration of the writer’s authority because he knows what I’m thinking and he’s telling me, “You’re on the right track.” And after giving me the soft implications of what I’ll see in Victoria, he comes in with “people cower under the watchful gaze of the zeppelins above or the robot sentries wandering the streets at night, always vigilant.” He’s given me a concrete detail I can hold on to, and he opens me up to more surprises. Just like with the steam-powered technology, the zeppelins and robot sentries are what tell me I’m in for something different. And with the last words, “always vigilant,” I’m expecting the action to start, our main character to be introduced, and one of the zeppelins or robots to appear within the next two paragraphs.

I do get a bit of a noir feel from the narration — the writer’s established that as his voice, and so promises to tell the entire story with the same voice that’s here in the first paragraph. I have no idea what the main conflict is, but that’s perfectly reasonable this early in the story, especially when a character hasn’t been introduced yet. However, the writer has set me up with a generalized conflict with a corrupt city — perhaps someone will fight to change this, either on a large or small scale. I’m very interested in this city and what it holds, but I need a character right away or the author’s going to start losing me.

It’s off to a great start and I hope the writer makes good on the promises he’s made right here.


If you’d like to volunteer a piece of writing for a Studio Session, head to my contact page. I’ll go sentence by sentence, commenting on the writer’s voice, authority, intention, the expectations they create, and the level of intrigue. Any and all types and genres are accepted. I will happily give my two cents on the opening to your novel, short story, memoir, cover letter, artist statement, author bio, potentially rude email to professors or coworkers, ode to tater tots, and whatever else you creative geniuses come up with.

Please include your name and the URL to your website (optional), the title of your piece, a brief description, your first paragraph only, and any specific concerns you’d like me to address if you have them.

Writing Wednesday: An excerpt from The Thieves of Traska

I’ve been working a lot lately on developing one of the side characters in The Thieves of Traska, and he’s quickly becoming one of my favorites. For Writing Wednesday Thursday this week, I wanted to share part of Claire’s first conversation with her rival, Travis Sharp.*


 

She felt behind her for a moment before locking the door. “I figured we might bump into each other again, so I wanted to know exactly who I’d made an enemy of.”

“Not me, that’s for certain. Why don’t you have a seat?” He gestured to a plush sofa with velvet cushions. She sank into it, hoping she would leave some dirt behind. Or at least a lot of blood if he kills me while I’m sitting on it, she thought, fighting to suppress a smile. Fortunately, the dark-haired rogue thought it was for him. “See? No reason we can’t be pleasant.”

“Didn’t you mention selling me as a slave?” she asked dryly.

“I’ve been known to have questionable judgement when I’ve been drinking. Then again, that’s how I’ve met all my best friends.” He gently touched the edges of a gash over one blue eye, wincing slightly. Even with his face sliced and swollen, his easy smile threatened to put her at ease. She steeled herself against it, refusing to forget for even one moment that her life was in danger. “Where’s that fellow you were with earlier?”

Claire looked down at her feet, as if her muddy shoes could provide her with a lie. Surprisingly, they did. “He drowned in the river. I thought he could swim.”

She peeked up at him, but it was impossible to tell whether or not he believed her. Her heart sank as he closed and locked the window behind him, then sat across the room from her on a cushioned stool. From his indulgent smile, she knew he wasn’t fooled. Strangely, he didn’t press the matter. Instead, he asked to see her hands.

“Why?” The change in subject caught her off guard, her mask of calm slipping.

“I’d feel better knowing if you’re hiding a knife.” Letting him know she had nothing to give her an edge was the last thing she wanted to do, but there was no real alternative. Sighing, she held both hands up, flashing the backs and her palms until he nodded. “I was surprised the Messenger came to rescue you. Not many redheaded girls among his lot, and I’d never seen you before.”

“And you know every redhead in Traska?”

He laughed, resting his elbows on his knees. The indulgent smile was back. “I know you’re not with him or the Crows. See, they’ve all got this mark on their hands.” He pinched the skin between his forefinger and thumb, showing were the mark would be. She felt the blood drain out of her face with the realization of how much she’d given away. Perhaps revealing she wasn’t with this man’s enemies would be enough to save her life.

“I’d bet my left hand that boy came to help you for a reason,” he continued. “And I’m sure he’s the reason why you’re here, giving you a little test. I’m thinking he wants to recruit you. If you’ve caught his eye, maybe I ought to get to know you a little better.”

“Not interested,” she said flatly. “I don’t like people who threaten me.”

“There’s no need to take it personally. We’re on opposite sides of the board, but we’re just pieces. The moves aren’t up to us.”


*This scene is new to this draft, so will likely see many changes in the future. Any and all feedback is appreciated.