I’ve been writing for a while now, starting back in 2009 and writing and improving my craft with the intent to publish since 2011. I was 15 when I first started sending out short fiction to markets in hopes of publication. But I still took a break to hone my craft and focus on school and succeeded in 2018, at age 21.
The thing is, I feel like I learned very little for the big chunk of that time. The tools and methods available to me were very, very prescriptive and encouraged a writing process that ultimately stagnated my writing instead of improving it. Checklists for worldbuilding, plot, and characters; character profiles that listed minute details that are irrelevant to the story; an expectation to adhere to appeasing a Western SFF-reading majority in both prose level information and how a story is told; everything that taught me to look at elements of a story (its narrative, concept, and plot; its characters, setting, and genre) as separate elements that need to be forced together rather than crafted to work from conception.
The last point is what I want to get at.
I recently made a thread commenting on how, despite worldbuilding still being one of my favourite parts of writing SFF, I’ve moved away from viewing extensive worlds as necessary for my storytelling. Is it still my instinct to do so? Yes. Do I feel the need to do so for every story I write now? No.
It’s been an interesting shift. I think I spent more time viewing worldbuilding as a replacement for writing, where I didn’t have stories, I had worlds I wanted to write in and I had to go digging for stories inside somewhere. I’m not saying this is wrong and I’m not saying I’m going to stop doing it. What I am saying, is that it held me back quite a bit with how I told stories.
Stories have a lot of moving parts; a bunch of tiny things and a few giant things that need to work together to be successful. Like I mentioned above, they’re narrative, concept, and plot; they’re characters, setting, and genre. But to think of these elements as separate does storytelling a disservice; once you figure out what you are trying to say with your story, what you are trying to accomplish with your work, a character may no longer fit the framework of the plot, a setting may no longer suit the story you are trying to tell. When elements are created separately, it’s like trying to force together puzzle pieces without realizing you threw two boxes together.
Ask yourself, what are you trying to do? It might not seem intuitive at first, but if you make a decision and then decide you don’t like it, congrats, you’ve made a connection that the elements you’ve created don’t align with the goal of your work.
In a way, my current process isn’t that much different. I still throw things at the wall to see what sticks, only this time these things aren’t fully-formed; they’re ideas, concepts, tests — things that I’m not quite attached to yet but will fit together better before I get to know them and grow to love them. I learned a lot recently to accept that I have a theme, that I have a message that I want to tell and share and that the decisions I make afterward for all the usual elements of storytelling then serve to reinforce and amplify them. For me, so much of writing is the act of craft, of choosing my image and colours at the same time, such that they work together and complement each other. Writing is an act of creation, crafting a story using the tools you’ve accumulated along the way while figuring out what works for you and what doesn’t.
This isn’t to say this is the only way to write. I am fully aware that writing advice tends to lean prescriptive, that any kind of post about writing and craft gets the appearance of authority. This isn’t. In fact, don’t even think of this as some hard line of advice where I am telling you abandon your old methods entirely for the sake of me imposing my process onto you. Like I said, I haven’t changed things that much; it’s the order that’s changed.
A lot of writing tools are a bit like games and that’s fine. Create your characters how you like, build your worlds how you like. Think of this instead as a process, a new step that will go in front of your other steps, a new framework that will allow you to piece together your old tools in a way that will help it all come together more easily. If it doesn’t work for you either, that’s chill. There’s great value in learning about a process and then later realizing it doesn’t work for you at all. I’m not trying to impede on anyone’s fun — but I do hope that maybe, just maybe, I can make your writing go a bit easier and help you really focus on the fun parts.