endever* and I (GeGi) have rather different approaches to writing (partly because we have very different backgrounds for how we became writers). It’s one of the contributing factors for the awesomeness of our writerly discussions. Things are generally much more interesting when different points of view can come together to tackle a problem, after all. Talking about your writing with someone who will ask questions you never thought of is extremely helpful. The reverse of that — being asked questions you hadn’t thought of about someone else’s writing — is incredibly useful for exploring knowledge you have but hadn’t bothered to put into words. Incidentally, it also happens to be a excellent example of the whole “teaching is the best way to learn” advice… But getting into the importance of writerly friends is a topic for a future post!
In my past writing, a story inception tends to come from a good opening line appearing in my head, and me sitting down to write it out. Then I keep writing to see what happens next. I figure out the characters, plot, and world as I go along — filling things out or adjusting them as needed. Then I rewrite it, having a clearer idea of what it is I’m writing. Then I rewrite again. And a few more times; each round honing further into the details, refining the prose, finding the heart of the story. Eventually, the result doesn’t much resemble the first draft — sometimes it’s a completely different story — but in the process of revising over and over, I’ve fleshed out a world and populated it. And each time I start over with a rewrite, I’m a little bit closer to being the writer I want to be and writing the story I want to write.
As endever* discussed in the last post, the act of writing is, among other things, also the act of learning to write. Each time I write a draft, I’m learning as I go — not just about the world and characters, but also about how to get the words themselves to do what I want. Each time I rewrite a scene and watch it shift around and change under my fingertips, I’m learning. Each time I craft a conversation, and then rewrite it later because when I’ve reread it it didn’t sound quite right yet, I’m learning and growing as an author. I start to pay more attention when I read something I like, because I’m trying to see how it was done, so I can try do it again later.
It’s a running joke between me and my Mum (who is my first and always beta reader), that I’m incapable of simply editing a draft, and that every time I say I’m going to edit a draft it really means I’m going to rewrite the entire thing into something new. The joke is basically accurate; writing that way is how I learned to be as good an author as I am now, and it’s how I’ll keep learning in the future to become even better. It doesn’t matter how much positive feedback I get on a completed draft; I can’t let myself become afraid or timid about changing the entire story, if that’s what needs to happen. If the story doesn’t feel finished to me, then it can’t matter what anyone else says. If it feels unfinished, it means there’s still something else in there, in the writing, that I haven’t figured out how to do yet. It means there’s still something I can learn from playing around with it.
At a certain point, though, I needed to pause in my rewriting and actually dig into research mode. It’s derailing and distracting to do in-depth researching while trying to complete a draft; that’s one of the reasons why drafts are a thing in the first place. A draft can be messy and incomplete and imperfect. A draft is there to be played around with, to learn on, and to get creative with. It can be filled with various placeholders to be fleshed out later, ideas and thoughts still half-formed, and research to be done in the future.
For me, that future is now. These past three weeks, I’ve been doing more in-depth research for my world-building than I think I ever have in my life as a writer. It’s been incredibly rewarding. For example: I decided I should put some thought into the celestial skyscape of my made-up world. I jotted down a few random ideas (multiple moons, a Saturn-like ring, etc) to see if I could find articles online about them, and then decide if they’d be plausible to have for my world. As it turned out, I’d already added features to my world that fit in beautifully with the effect two moons would have on our Earth (at least according to one article, which in this case was good enough for me to run with it). So two moons it would be! At about this point, I remembered I had multiple cultures and races in my world, including a government that would have suppressed the moons’ original names and replaced them with something without religious or mythological affiliation. Coming up with two names for each culture — names which needed to be grounded in each cultures’ beliefs and history — meant spending time thinking about those cultures, getting at least a shape of their legends and mythology and values in my head so the names would be meaningful and appropriate.
All of this thought and research isn’t necessarily going to be included in the plot or even in any part of narrative itself, but it doesn’t mean it’s time wasted. On the contrary, the more I know about these background details, the richer and more believable the end result of the novel will be. It’s details like this which inform how characters are portrayed; if you, the author, don’t understand the cultural influences and background of your character, how can you make portray them realistically (since those things are part of everyone in every world)? Passing mentions of historical events and cultural significance will give the world weight and meaning, evoking a shared history and conjuring up a past to the world and the characters beyond what’s on the page. How can you know what’s important to mention, how can you give it consistency, if you don’t know yourself what the passing comments are referring to? It’s not as important for the reader to know — the fact that it exists at all can be enough, and if the author knows the full story (so to speak), then enough information can be included to give it sufficient context and move on. You don’t need to include an encyclopedia of information within the writing (unless that’s part of the point of the story, obviously), but you should at least know enough about your creations that you could write an encyclopedia — or make a good start at it, anyway!
That’s the point of world-building, after all; literally building a world. It’s creating a new reality with enough detail and depth to feel real to the readers. It’s an art form unto itself; an essential symbiont of writing which requires an entirely different yet complimentary skill-set. It’s a challenge, but it’s a rewarding one. The thrill of figuring out all the right details and discovering your world becoming real and alive in a way you’d only dreamed of is comparable only to the thrill of discovering that world in the first place. Writers are explorers and anthropologists. We happen to be exploring things via our imaginations, but it doesn’t make it any less wondrous than explorers who trek across undiscovered countries and study various cultures. We get to travel beyond the here and now, and we get to share what we find in those places only we can reach. We are changed by our adventures, too. We learn to look at the world in front of us through the lenses of new knowledge and ideas, which we’ve gathered in order to better understand those other worlds and other people. We share our discoveries, bringing our readers into the other places, introducing them to the other people. And our readers become changed as well.
Isn’t that fantastic?
Let us know in the comments what being a writer means to you, or what your writing style is and how you like to learn and grow as an author! Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week with another very lovely post from endever*…