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 Next Big Thing: Blog Hop

I was tagged in this Blog Hop business a while ago. I meant to get on it right away, but a few things pushed ahead of it. Now that I’m less busy, I can indulge in this and talk about my own writing. As part of the rules, I have to explain the rules:

Give credit to the person who tagged you. That would be Dave Higgins over at Davetopia. I’m very glad of this; I enjoy reading his blog.

Explain the Rules. Self explanatory.

Answer the ten questions about your current work in progress. Since I’ve started various projects and work on them at different paces, I’ll go with the one I’ve been working on for the longest.

Tag five other people and link to their blogs. Continuing this practice isn’t necessary, but I wouldn’t mind sending some of my readers to blogs I enjoy reading.

Now that the rules are out of the way, I shall get on to the questions. I am hesitant to put any details of my writing in public view, but I have been working on this book for almost six years now.

What is the working title of your book? The new working title is Beholden to None, thanks to a coworker. It had a placeholder name (Bayonets IN SPACE), but I’m glad it has a serious title now.

Where did the idea come from for the book? Randomly, I thought “What if Pandora’s box wasn’t a box, but actually a person?” The story has absolutely nothing to do with that now, but that’s where it started.

What genre does the book fall under? I’m going to go with science fiction.

What actors would you choose to play your characters in the movie rendition? That’s a tough question. I never thought this would be a book anyone would ever want to turn into a movie. I think I could see Arnold Vosloo as my villain.

What is the one-sentence synopsis for your book? As of right now, that would have to be something along the lines of “Civil war has divided an alien planet as they fight for Earth’s fate: enslavement beneath the Secure Empire, or a hostile alliance with the Ahkhar Fleet.” (As I’m sure every writer does, I hate writing a one-sentence synopsis.)

Will your book be self-published or published by an agency? I honestly have no idea. We’ll see what happens when I finish it.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? It took me a little under a year for the first draft. The five years since then have been spent on the second and second-and-a-half drafts. (Draft 2.5 happened when I rewrote the plot.)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Another difficult question. Aside from the previously mentioned thought about Pandora’s box, I’m not certain what inspired me. It could be my failed first attempt at science fiction made me want to write something new that was much better.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? I’m not sure about “within my genre,” since I haven’t read as much science fiction as I would like. I like to think I’ve channeled some Brandon Sanderson into my writing, but that might be wishful thinking. There is one place, however, where I noticed a major shift in my writing; the way I handled each character’s emotions made me think I subconsciously tried emulating Monica McCarty (a romance author). I believe I wrote that part when I first discovered her work and then developed a minor obsession.

What else about your book might piqué the reader’s interest?
Two of my characters share a telepathic bond, and the addition of a third person affects their relationship as well as the events of the story. Plus there are giant robot fights (if you’re into that kind of thing).

I’m going to break the rules a bit here and ask Shylock Books to tell us about her project.

Recommended Reads: The Alloy of Law

This is the only series I’ve seen where a fantasy world is created, and then is revisited 300 years later as technology evolves. But it’s not just railroads and electricity advancing in the Mistborn world–Allomancy has changed, as well.

Those familiar with the series know about Mistings (those born with the ability to use one Allomantic power) and Mistborn (those born with the ability to use all Allomantic powers). The Alloy of Law introduces two new kinds of people: Ferrings (those born with the ability to use one Feruchemic power) and Twinborn (those born with one Feruchemic power and one Allomantic power). The world of Mistborn has taken on an old-west and steampunk feel, making the story even more irresistable.

Those unfamiliar with the series will want to pick up the first book and get started.

Waxillium Ladrian uses his Twinborn powers as a lawman in the Roughs. After twenty years of that life, he is forced to return to the city of Elendel and assume his responsibility as the lord of his noble house. He puts away his guns for good and reluctantly settles in the life of a nobleman until havoc strikes the city on a major scale. Wax balances the line between rough and refined, immediately becoming another of my favorite characters.

Helping Wax with his investigations are Wayne, an old friend from the Roughs, and Lady Marasi, a young woman studying law. Wayne is another wonderful character, making me laugh with the usual sharp dialogue one can expect from Sanderson. Marasi is a joy to follow, as well. I greatly look forward to these characters returning in the next novel. (With an ending like this one, there has to be another one!)

Brandon Sanderson delivers another inspiring work of genius with this book. I will never be able to get over his characters, the intwined stories, and the insane surprises that will keep me reading for hours and hours. I eagerly await any information on the next book.

One of McSweeney's illustrations from The Alloy of Law

I would also like to extend my approval to Mr. Ben McSweeney, one of two illustraters who contributed to this book. Without following Mr. McSweeney on deviantART, I probably would not have known about this book until after it was released. Many thanks to you!