This post by Kyle Adams spoke to me personally as I’ve been struggling with receiving criticism on my work lately. As necessary as it is to gain others’ opinions, it is also a very difficult process. I’ve often felt like a leaf in the wind, being blown in whatever direction critics took me. As this post demonstrates, it is important to keep control of your own work.
All writers go through stages of believing their work is utterly fabulous, and believing their work is awful, even the best ones. Though when you’re thinking clearly, flawed is a better word than awful.
After all, what you wrote yesterday is better than the chicken scratch you were churning out ten years ago, right?
So you know you’re somewhere between complete drivel and genius. But where, exactly, are you on that spectrum? “I know I write well, but am I good enough” is the recurring theme.
Answering the “good enough” question, even if it were possible, probably wouldn’t be very helpful. You want to know, but really only if you’re going to be told you are good enough. In which case you would get complacent and stop seeing your errors.
All you can do is get better. Keep learning the craft of writing.
You’re not as good as some people say you are. You’re not as bad as other people say you are. You’re learning. We’re all learning.
Here’s how you can do it.
I’m not going to go into a bunch of techniques, there is a lot out there already for you to find. I’m talking about attitude.
First, you need to get into a headspace where you can see your mistakes, let’s call it the editorial mindset. It’s not as much fun as the writer’s mindset I’m going to talk about next, but it’s not the “every word I write is trash” mindset either.
Taking writing workshops and the like is helpful, I imagine. I’ve never done much of that, but I probably should. I like to get out and observe people calling out writing mistakes in the “wild”. You can do this three ways, by getting critiqued yourself, by reading the critiques other people have written about other people, or by critiquing other people’s work.
The middle option sucks the most, and you may very well need to time to move out of the “every word I write is trash” mindset before you can think clearly again. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most effective methods. Learning correct writing principles is one thing, applying them to your work is another.
Having someone do that for you shows you what mistakes to look out for in your work, and it makes the lesson difficult to forget. Like, impossible.
Secondly, you must put aside (not forget) everything you learned in step one, and enjoy yourself. This is the writer’s mindset.
Are you good enough? Good enough for what? Why are you doing this anyway?
You do this because you enjoy it, and enjoy it you must or your writing will be as dry as toast. And you probably won’t do very much of it. Dry toast crumbs.
Some parts of writing are just for you. First drafts mainly, anything you write from scratch. Mr. Fancy Pants Critique Man is not invited.
Just write, enjoy it. Do you unreservedly love what you just wrote? No? Wonderful! You’ll fix it later. Keep going.
To learn to write better, you have to write. Make a mess. Then fix it.
And get those people who love whatever you write no matter what to critique your work, too. You may not learn anything from them, but you need them. When you do get published, these will be your readers.
Some people will love what you write, some people already do. But keep getting better. Keep writing.
Stories are powerful. I suspect that all writers who yearn to create more than entertainment believe this too.
I’ve found meaning in many stories, though I don’t know what the creators of these stories intended, and honestly I don’t really want to.
I’ve been thinking about one of them a lot lately, so I thought I’d share it with you.
A few years ago Apple decided to give everybody a free digital copy of Song’s of Innocence by U2. A lot of people were annoyed by this, but I wasn’t. Many of the songs spoke to me. I could probably write a blog post any of them, but one of my favorites is “The Troubles.”
That song hits me in the feels every time. Especially this part:
“Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control
You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”
(I often skip over quotes when I’m reading. If you do, that’s fine, but you might want to go back and read the lyrics when you’re finished reading this post. It’ll make more sense then.)
I find this song so meaningful because it reminds me of a friend of mine. He made a stupid mistake once. He was young, but that didn’t protect him from the consequences of his actions. He had a long road ahead to make it right. But he trusted the wrong people, eventually lost control of himself, and ultimately his mistake cost him his life. I haven’t told any of my friends or family about him, but I cried when he died.
My friend isn’t real. And by that I mean he is a fictional character and not a tangible human being. He is very real to me, and I did cry for him.
So I got emotional over a story, and a song reminds me of that story, and now I get a little choked up every time I hear it. So what?
These stories matter because my friend is not alone. We lose too many people this way. Too many people give over control of themselves “little by little” until it’s too late.
For instance, my city is currently suffering the consequences of a drug called fentanyl. It’s killed hundreds of people a year since it showed up. If this current year is anything like last year, a couple people have probably OD’d this week already. They probably weren’t bad people.
Addictions are insidious things. Perhaps someone starts with a low-grade drug. A little bad choice, the consequences of which would be slight if they left it at that. But they don’t. They progress to stronger and stronger forms. At some point other destructive habits form in order to conceal and feed the addiction. Then one day it’s too late.
Sometimes they pick the wrong drug the first time, and their one bad choice is the last choice they ever make.
I believe most, if not all, evil works this way. Not everyone dies from a slowly and innocuously growing pile of bad decisions. Sometimes people “just” lose their job, or “just” lose their marriage, or “just” end up in jail.
Too many people are getting caught in nightmares that grew so slowly they didn’t realize what was happening. Well, let’s be honest, they probably did. There are always warning signs. But it always seems so difficult to back out, and going deeper seems easier.
(It’s almost like people are being lured to destruction by intelligent, malevolent beings. Huh.)
I’ve seen this happen to other people, in milder forms to myself, over and over. I think I found my friend’s story so compelling because it reminded me of this.
Through fiction, we can find truth in the strangest of places. I’m not mentioning “my friend’s” name because I’m not sure about copyright issues, and chances are none of you will have heard of him. Though my friend’s story resembles no scenario that is possible in this world, I found truth in it. The stories we tell matter.
Writer’s block happens to everyone, for all kinds of reasons.
When it happens to me, more often than not, it’s because something has upset my delicate internal balances.
My schedule changed, I’m starting a new diet and my blood sugar is low, something traumatic or exciting happened…lots of things.
One entire semester I hardly wrote at all. To this day I have little idea why, but thank goodness that’s over with.
Sometimes, however, I can’t write because something has gone wrong with the story. My inner writer has detected something amiss and slammed on the brakes.
Now this may not apply to everyone. We all have different styles of writing. My inner writer is very particular. I need a quiet place with a minimum of distractions (unless I’m in “the zone” already), and I can only write in chronological order. Although I know I may change the order of events or scenes later, I can’t write one scene if I know it will be read after a scene I haven’t written yet.
Similarly, if my inner writer detects something wrong with the story, hello writer’s block. Until I’ve figured out what the problem is.
Now, for me, this only applies to my creative writing. If writer’s block involves anything with a deadline (like a school assignment), writer’s block is usually caused by stress or procrastination, or lack of interest…etc.
But I digress.
Over time, I’ve learned how to tell if the story is the problem or if its just me. Usually there will be some little thing nagging at me that I haven’t addressed. Or I actually just don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Whatever the case, the fix for it is the same. Or similar, anyway. If something’s bothering me about the story, I write down what the problem is. I try to work out these problems in a conversational way. This is a technique I learned from a writing book, the name and author of which I have forgotten.
For instance, were I to do this for my current project, I would write something like…
So I’ve gotten my two characters in a predicament and I don’t really know how to get them out of it.
What exactly is their predicament? (This is myself, answering me back)
Well, MC (main character) and SC (supporting character) have been taken hostage by BG (bad guy). Blah blah blah story problem blah blah blah.
Blah blah blah what my problem actually is blah blah blah
Blah blah blah potential solution to problem.
And so on and so forth.
Sometimes I just don’t know what will happen next. Granted, that looks like that’s what the problem is above, but it really isn’t. In the above case, I know what’s going to happen (that my MC is going to do something clever and get himself and SC away from my BG), I just don’t know how. Yet. I’ll work it out later using a pencil. I find keyboards useless for these kinds of exercises.
Now if I don’t know what is going to happen next. I start by asking what each character involved wants. If the gap I’m trying to fill is significant, I go through each of the conflicts going on in the novel and work on them individually.
The process is simple. Once I figure out what each character wants (which I usually know already), I figure out what s/he is going to do about it. Then what is the other character going to do about that, based on what s/he wants. I usually have the added complication of intentionally moving these characters towards a specific plot-point. But the characters and their desires normally came from, or caused, these plot-points to begin with, so usually it’s not difficult.
Writing down the problem has two benefits. Firstly, you can get the problem, whether its your story or a specific issue, out of your head so you can look at it. Secondly, given that you’re writing it down, you’re writing. Hence, you don’t really have writer’s block anymore, even if you’re not ready to continue with the story yet.
As a disclaimer, however, just because your inner writer is blissfully chugging away at the story does not mean it isn’t broken. It just means neither of you have noticed yet. There will always be plot errors, and errors in writing, you aren’t seeing. So eventually you have to send your inner writer out of the room, and edit, and get critiques.
Happy writing everybody!
As I mentioned in my last post, experiences are key to developing ideas for your writing.
One of the formational experiences that helped me create the world I now write in was the road trip I took with my sisters to Vancouver Island.
The absolute highlight of that trip was our whale-watching trip.
We donned fantastic orange jumpsuits. I imagine they were designed to keep us alive should we have fallen into the icy Pacific water, but they also succeeded in making us feel ridiculous.
The trip was amazing. I love the sea, experiencing the rolling waves and all the creatures that live there. We saw sea birds, and chubby seals resting on the rocks. The highlight of the trip was undoubtedly the whales.
Our boat hung out with a pod of gray whales, and I was in awe of the size and gentleness of these creatures. Such powerful creatures could have escaped into the ocean depths or even sent us all to a watery grave if they became annoyed by us. Yet they seemed indifferent, if anything.
But one gray whale swam within feet of our boat and looked up at us..In that moment, I felt I had met at least one member of the ocean world I have always been so fascinated by.
Meeting the unknown is a crucial part of building a fantasy world. We create and explore worlds out of our own imagination.
It is easy to think that in this age, there is no more room for exploration. But the world is no less filled with mystery, just because someone else has already experienced that mystery. Fantasy writers need to be acquainted with the unknown. How can we create the experience of something entirely new if we have not ourselves experienced and met with the unknown?
Therefore, we must go out and seek encounters with things we have never experienced before. We must broaden our imaginations by broadening our experience, and store up feelings of wonder to relate to our audiences.
Photo courtesy of my sister. This is one of the gray whales we saw on our whale watching trip.
In my last post, I shared why I write fantasy, now I’m going to tell you a bit about how I do it. Many writers of fantasy and even science fiction set their novels in unique worlds they have created. This process of creating these worlds is called world-building.
Apart from writing super-emotionally charged scenes at the climax of the novel, world-building is my favorite part of being a novelist. Like all creative processes though, it can be messy and a little frustrating.
Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
Don’t Start From Scratch
There are few things more frustrating than trying to will an idea into existence. The harder you try, the less creative you’re going to be. Ideas have to grow organically.
Personally, I can’t imagine waking up one day and saying “today I’m going to come up with an idea of a new novel.” I usually have a backlog of ideas, and one of them is more insistent about existing than the others. However, ideas do have to start somewhere. For me, they usually come out of daydreams.
My latest novel, The King’s Children, began as the tragic backstory of a character I liked to daydream about. Today, neither the backstory nor the world the character inhabits bear any resemblance to my original ideas. The only thing that is remotely similar is the character’s personality, and the fact that his backstory is tragic.
So if you can’t just clench your teeth and pop out a story, what do you do? The key, as my heading suggests, is daydreaming. Telling yourself stories in your head.
Again, not something you can will yourself to do, but if you are a creative person you probably know under what circumstances ideas usually come to you.
Most of my ideas come to me either during quiet moments (like on the bus or while gardening), or during experiences. Such as going to the movies (story ideas seem to be contagious), the zoo, hiking, or traveling. Seeing or experiencing something out of the ordinary seems to spark ideas for me.
A lot of the inspiration for the setting in The King’s Children comes from the road trips my sisters and I took to the west coast of Canada and the US.
Seeing how fog banks look, hearing the ocean under different weather conditions, smelling the ocean, it all contributed details that help the reader experience the world I’ve created. These road trips also gave me a lot of time to stare out the car window and think about the story.
Daydreaming doesn’t necessarily fill in all the holes or provide the all necessary details you need to make your plot seem realistic and your world feel real. Sometimes when I’m building a new section of my story world, something will feel artificial. This is usually an indication that I’ve left an important question unanswered.
My plot for The King’s Children required the king of North Caladavan to send his daughter on a voyage that would almost certainly lead to her death. In fact, when tragic-backstory-badboy-hero idea met crazy-voyage idea, my novel was conceived. But it needed much more than that before it was ready to survive outside the womb of my mind, if you will.
The obvious question (which I completely overlooked for many drafts) was why the king would send his daughter on such a stupid voyage. My initial answer to that question, “the king said so,” was not enough.
The real question I had to answer was: in what sort of society would it make sense for a king to send his daughter to her death? Not that everyone would agree with the way things are, people almost never do in the real world.
But how was it possible?
In the course of answering that question, the country in which my story takes place gained its own history, culture, worldview, religions, cult leaders, etc etc.
I didn’t figure that out all at once, of course. But just knowing what the question was seemed to spark new ideas. At the question-discovering stage, I like to use a pen to get things out of my head and onto paper where I can look at them. Which brings me to my next point.
Write It Down
And with enough detail that you will remember what you were talking about when you wrote about it. Not only is this a memory aid, but physically writing your problems or ideas down on paper will help spawn news ones. Hopefully ideas, not problems.
However, whether you write down an idea or not, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. That’s probably okay.
You’ll come up with a lot of ideas over the course of daydreaming. Many of them you will never use but you’ll nevertheless learn things about your story through them. Ideas are spawned like little embers. Some of them flicker and die and some of them catch fire and grow.
Naturally, this only applies to the big-picture stuff. In the course of world-building, you will want to write down the specific stuff. Like the dates of important events, and the names of places. You may even want to figure out how your world’s calendar system works and write that down too. If your years have numbers, at what point did your civilization start counting?
If you write about more than one civilization in the same world this gets more complicated because they may not keep track of dates the same way. In which case you will need to make a master timeline for yourself which incorporates both civilizations. This will only matter if you write over a long timescale, and if these different civilizations interact with each other.
One Final Point…
Most of this world-building is for the purpose of creating a living, breathing world in your head so you can show parts of it. Within the novel itself, what is “off-screen” only implicitly exists.
For instance, as you go about your day-to-day life, you don’t think about the history of your own country. Neither should your characters.
What is happening now is a product of how it got that way, so it does affect your characters even if they don’t think about it or even know about it. Knowing how your world got the way it is will help you flesh out details and bring it to life, but don’t give your readers a history lesson unless they need it. Even then, keep it short.
By the way, the image in this post is a picture I took of Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.
Stories can communicate truth in ways facts can’t. Many authors have said this many ways, but this post is titled “why I write fantasy,” so I thought it only appropriate that I should write this from my own head and without researching what other authors have written about the subject. That’s exactly what I’m going to do; even if quotations from Tolkien or Hemmingway would have made me sound smarter.
A good story can be merely entertaining. I have enjoyed many films that offered nothing except witty dialogue, interesting characters, and explosions. The creators of these films, as far as I know, intended for the film to do nothing other than entertain people and make money. Fine.
Many writers hope to do more than that, myself among them. Fiction, and for me fantasy, is the perfect way of communicating with people on a deeper level.
Show, don’t tell. All writers know this.
We writers use this saying to remind ourselves to dramatize the story instead of merely telling the reader what is happening. But it’s also how writers can get the reader to experience a message instead of merely hearing it. An argument usually doesn’t do anything except provoke a counter-argument. An experience is harder to dismiss.
Fiction in general is sufficient to convey a wide variety of experiences. The experience I wish to convey requires a specific genre. Fantasy is necessary to tell my stories for a simple reason.
My experience involves monsters.
I could have also used horror or urban fantasy. These, I think, are also appropriate to tell the sorts of a stories a Christian author can tell.
I choose to write in a world of my own invention, as opposed to urban fantasy which takes place in our own. This way, I get past any pre-conceived notions a person might have about real-world spiritual warfare or deliverance that might distract from what I’m trying to say.
And I don’t like doing research. I prefer to make stuff up. It’s more fun.
Horror tends to be too evil-centric for my taste, although my novels have their dark moments. Spiritual warfare is a tricky business. It’s like biking: if you stare at the rock, you’re going to hit it.
But there are monsters. Real ones. Intelligent, evil beings operating invisibly in our world. It’s not enough just to know they exist. It’s not even the point of my fiction to prove they exist. Otherwise, I would be compiling an anthology of real-life stories, not writing fiction. The point of my stories is to show people what I learned about defeating them.
I’ve struggled with demonic oppression in the past. It wasn’t fun, and my experiences were very mild compared with the experiences of others. Even so, the principles I learned were enough to build a world around. I based the world of my stories (I call it Desylvar) on my understanding of the way spiritual laws actually work in our world.
In Desylvar, spiritual laws are as visible and relevant as the law of gravity. Though really, spiritual laws are similarly visible and relevant. It’s just that not everyone believes the Isaac Newtons running around today, and there are many competing theories. Not everyone in Desylvar realizes the way their world works either, but the reader does.
By allowing my readers to experience the world I’ve created, I can show them what it feels like to encounter evil, what it feels like to have victory over that evil. And I can show them how.
That’s why I write fantasy.