Freedom of Writing, inspiration

Leaving the Comfort Zone

How ambitious are you? If I traced my ambition on a graph over the course of my writing life, it would look something like this:

I won’t go into a boring explanation – suffice to say that I turned my mid-life crisis into mid-life hubris, worked on a novel for 26 years, and eventually found a very enthusiastic publisher who barely a year later went bust. I like to think that’s not a cause and effect relationship. 

Naturally, the ambition took a nose dive. But it takes more than that to cure a writer’s compulsion, so I was perfectly happy to start again from scratch. And why is the curve creeping upwards again? Well, it’s partly due to a remark on this site by GD:  The easy formulas grow stale. I’m bored by antagonists still damaged from childhood trauma. Antagonists fighting others because they want something only one can have are maddeningly repetitive. Antagonists who can’t get along with others who are different from them annoy me. And don’t get me started on stupid conflicts arising because the antagonist simply misunderstands reality. It’s time for better antagonists.

At that point I was undecided what I was going to write next, with the favourite being a science thriller centred on virtual reality. Nothing wrong with the theme itself, but looking at my outline, it struck me that it didn’t break new ground, let alone develop a better antagonist. Scientists with a hidden agenda – what’s new in that? Virtual reality might be fascinating, but the conflict at the heart of the story has been done time and again. The Island of Dr. Moreau was written in 1896.

So now I’m planning a trilogy set on another planet. The possibilities are endless. It so happens that the planet bears an uncanny resemblance to Earth, so although I’m having great fun with the world building, it’s not really another planet at all. You may be thinking, ‘OK – but again, what’s new?’ Nothing probably, but it gives me a space in which to develop a large cast of characters, several different story arcs, and deeper issues than those of a crime novel or thriller. So yes, for me at least, it’s more ambitious. In fact I’m pitching it (to myself) as Lord of the Rings meets Animal Farm with a hefty dose of Game of Thrones thrown in. (Did I mention hubris somewhere?)

When I say ambition, I don’t of course mean sales or readership. Sure, that would be nice, and it’s certainly something to aim for, but we all know better than to have any expectations. All the more so as from a marketing point of view, leaping into a completely different genre is probably a leap into oblivion. But I don’t write in order to repeat myself. I once read a rather snarky comment to the effect that Danielle Steel hasn’t written 140 novels but the same novel 140 times. Which is fair enough. If you’ve got a formula that works, why change it? She’s found a comfort zone and is very comfortable in it. But I suspect most writers don’t have a comfort zone – every book is a new beginning, beset with anxiety and doubt. Which I’m all too happy to embrace, because even if I did find a comfort zone, I wouldn’t want to stay in it. That’s not what writing is about. So I’d like to conclude by thanking GD, who without knowing it rekindled my ambition.

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About Writers, world-building, writing technique

How much world?

Alex’s Sci-Fi World by Matt Schaefer

I don’t write, or even read, much sci-fi, but I do have a trilogy planned that takes place on another planet. I don’t know if it qualifies as sci-fi since the inhabitants are as human-like as hobbits and face very human problems. Really it’s just an excuse for me to give free rein to my imagination by writing a story about humans without the constraint of respecting earthly reality.

But of course they inhabit a world which has other constraints, so I’ll have to decide how much of that world to describe. In other words, the world-building issue. We always have it, but a story set on earth can rely on shared assumptions about how the world operates. Not so on another planet, where we can make the world as we want, but then we have to replace those unwritten assumptions with explicit information. What will my inhabitants eat? How will they dress? Travel? Communicate? What are their towns and cities like? The list is almost endless.

Here are a few thoughts on the matter from some proper sci-fi writers:

Alastair Reynolds. My approach to world-building is a bit smoke and mirrors – there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.

Nnedi Okorafor. My stories tend to start with the characters. Then I look through their eyes (or however they “see”), minds, perspectives to observe the world. Typically this happens the moment the character exists. So I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it.

AnnLeckie. I try to choose details that are real – the whole of human history and culture is fantastically varied – and that seem to fit together. In real life, cultures and histories are full of things that contradict each other. There will be one common narrative of how things happen, how people live and eat and so on, but people won’t actually always do things that way. I try to include such moments, because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also leave some things unexplained or just referred to, as though the world is much bigger than just this one story and won’t all fit in the pages.

Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.

These are just excerpts – the full article is here. It’s given me some useful pointers on how to set about it. But I’m sure you have others – whether you write sci-fi or not, how do you build your worlds?

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