Friends, it has been a week of ups and downs. My mental health has been all over the place, it’s been insanely busy at the day job, I’m stressing hard about sending my kids to public school in a state where masks have been forbidden from being mandated.
But it hasn’t been all bad. I pretty quickly on Monday got an idea for one of my two pitches I plan to submit next month, and on Tuesday after some serious thinking, I finally decided which idea I wanted to tackle for my next attempt at a fantasy novel.
It’s an idea that’s been in development in my brain for about a decade now and I even attempted to write it at one point, but didn’t manage more than about 10,000 words before giving up.
The reason for that is pretty simple. While I have, I feel, a really great cast of diverse characters and, I hope, a setting with fairly interesting deep lore, what I do not have is an actual… plot.
I mean, sort of. Like I said. I have the characters and I have the rough outline of their quest. I know how it ends. But actually getting there… that’s another, heh, story.
With every other idea I’ve ever even attempted at writing, I’ve known the general path the plot would take from the opening scene to the end. The middle, as always, is a bit murkier and tends to develop as I outline and experiment, and even then new ideas crop up while I draft. But, planner such as I am, I do not start writing until I have a firm grasp on the lay of the land.
So the fact that I still don’t really know how to bring these great characters through this interesting world to reach this particular climax… is concerning.
(“But wait,” I hear some of you say, “just pants it! It’ll be fun to discover what you never knew you had in you!” To which I reply…)
Now, it could be that this idea (or, perhaps more accurately, this hodge podge of characters and setting) just isn’t meant to be. If, after all this time, I still can’t come up with a way to move the characters through the world, then maybe I’m just looking at the whole thing through the rose colored glasses of nostalgia.
And if that’s the case, I’ll take my medicine. I mean, that’s why I shelved it in the first place. But I’m older and a bit wiser since I last critically looked at this idea. The way I approach my craft is radically different than when I was a 25 year old baby writer making her first attempt at writing a grown up novel. Rose colored glasses or no, I think these characters and the world they reside in deserve a fair shake.
But this will be the last one they get, because I’m not getting any younger.
Welcome to Just Another Struggling Writer’s very first book review! I have no idea what I’m doing, so lets just get right into it.
First of all…
So, I’m just gonna get it out of the way first: a book this dark isn’t to my taste.
I probably should have done my research before cracking this puppy open. If I had, then I would have learned that The Poppy War is a fantasy retelling of real world events, particularly those of the Second Sino-Japanese War. If I had more than a passing knowledge of that horrific period of Chinese history, I might never have read this novel. But I didn’t, on both accounts, and so I turned each page, particularly after the start of Part II, with increasing horror. By the end, I was glad it was over.
Don’t get me wrong, though. The Poppy War is really, really good. Despite my discomfort with the naked depictions of war time atrocities, it is to R. F. Kuang’s credit that she did not soften history for her readers. The fact that I was ignorant to what I was getting into is proof enough that a novel like this is critical for Western audiences.
There were moments when the grit was fascinating rather than stomach-churning. A moment that particularly stuck with me was when our young heroine, Rin, gets her period for the first time and immediately decides to have her uterus chemically destroyed because it is getting in the way of her military training. Her choice wasn’t shocking to me, it felt absolutely appropriate. That Kuang didn’t shy away from answering this question was both impressive and memorable.
Also, though I don’t have particular interest in these types of stories myself, I thought Rin’s journey from abused shop girl, escaping a forced marriage, to a hardened anti-hero who willfully commits genocide not only believable, but inevitable.
Putting my writer’s hat on, I was left a little disappointed in a few areas. Some of the relationships between the characters didn’t feel earned. I never found myself particularly compelled by Altan and that left so much of the second half feeling like a slog, especially when the war took a turn for the worse. The role of the Gatekeeper, both as part of the pantheon, and his place in the physical realm, I don’t feel was clearly defined and left a gap in my understanding of the narrative. Nezha’s apparent death was also a blow, not just because I was becoming attached to him as a character, but because I thought we were about to get an interesting arc about him having shamanistic abilities with fast healing. I also wish more attention had been paid to the political side of it: why the flying fuck would the Empress betray her people?
Perhaps these threads are picked up in the sequel, The Dragon Republic, rendering my complaints moot, but it might be some time before I feel emotionally equipped to embark on that journey. I finished The Poppy War shortly after midnight last night, and despite the late hour, I immediately had to get up and go hug my kids in their beds. It’s not something I’ll forget soon, and though that is to the book’s credit, I just don’t have the stomach for it.
The Poppy War is good, absolutely, but it was not for me.
Phew. That took a lot out of me. Three hours into drafting this blog post I realized I haven’t the faintest idea how to review things. Which meant that I just word vomited a bit.
In any case, I’ve got to get back to my own writing woes (I’ve decided to write the second half of draft two as if I’ve already made the revisions to the first half because I realllllly don’t want to start all over). I’ll tell you all about it next week. Until then, my your writing be plenty and your struggles be few!
Hey! Fellow white writers! Just a reminder! Diversity is good! Write characters that don’t look like you! It’s healthy! But! Don’t! Write! BIPOC’s! Stories! Just! Don’t!
Also, don’t try to prettify human suffering. Just a thought.
Anyway, those of you who are still here, welcome to another week in the life of a struggling writer. This struggling writer, anyway. And, lord, has it been a struggle. As it turns out, deciding mid-draft that your WIP needs a major developmental revision is not something that can be taken care of in a week. My mental pendulum keeps swinging from “excited and energized” to “I’m a terrible writer, all my ideas are laughably banal, and I’m just going to give up on this whole writing thing in general, don’t at me.”
I’m caught between the idea that my creative well is running dry and I need to take a break and refill it, and the little voice in my head that continually reminds me I took all of December off, I’ve barely done anything creative this month, I keep making excuses not to write.
I’m gonna figure it out. Eventually. I’m gonna strike a balance, and this will get written. Maybe even in my lifetime.
Anyway, one of the things I’m definitely going to have to figure out if I am going to get this book done is how to stop writing so damned thin.
I imagine many writers might say that writing thin is a good problem to have, and I believe that is true for a lot of people. For me, however, it’s a bane. As I’ve mentioned before, I started writing when I was 11, and though I started in original fiction by 13 I had been roped into the magical world of fanfiction. Now, my path is my path, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I learned more than you’d think about craft, but one thing I left behind in those years was the ability to describe literally anything.
I relied on the fact that any readers would already be familiar with the characters and setting, and almost everything I wrote was entirely based on interactions. Conversations, conflict, sex. It was easy.
Now I’m kicking myself, because I find myself falling into that pattern even now that I know I have to set the stage myself.
I just did a read through of my second draft. One of the things I realized is that a major character has only ever been described (once) as “tall.” That’s it. That’s all you know about her. Another character, equally important, hasn’t been physically described at all. Most of my cast are little more than floating, talking heads.
Don’t get me started on worldbuilding. Again. I hate it. I mean, I love it, but, actually, I hate it. I have a perfect image in my head of what my world is, but when it comes to the text of the novel I don’t feel compelled in any way to describe it. “What purpose would mentioning the scenery of the countryside serve?” I ask myself. “Does my made up historical context really have any bearing on this scene?” or “Why slow down the pace and ruin the tension just to remind the reader there is a fully fleshed out world beyond this conversation?”
Most of that is thanks to a piece of writing advice I took and surgically grafted onto my heart, and that is: good storytelling is often about good secret keeping. Don’t give away what you can hold onto until the moment is right. And that is the philosophy I have carried into my fantasy stories: don’t info dump when you can sprinkle in the details as needed.
And, honestly, I still think that is really sound advice, but, in rereading this second draft, I think I may have lost sight of what is too much to hold back. The draft reads like I’m being greedy with my world, or that I’ve forgotten that the readers don’t know what I know. I rush from plot point to plot point without adding critical context, because I already know the background of X and Y characters’ relationship with each other, or where A and B locations are on the map.
At DFWCon I had the chance to sit down with an agent and kind of talk shop (I wasn’t ready to pitch yet, obviously, but I still wanted to get some insight). We got into a discussion about word counts for debut authors, and after hearing that I had just finished a first draft, he asked my word count. 105k, I told him. That’s really good for a debut fantasy, he said. Right in the butter zone. I wish I could have been pleased about that, but I knew, deep in my bones, that the only reason I kept it that low was because the draft wasn’t really complete. I had left so many details on the floor, details that would be inexcusable to leave out of a polished manuscript.
Going into draft 3, I know this is something I’m going to have to be serious about fixing. I need to learn how to take my time and properly build a world that readers will want to crawl into. I need to figure out how the keep the flow going without leaving important information out in the cold. I’ve got to teach myself that it’s okay to do those things, even if it means a 300k word draft.
Because that’s what revision is for.
That’s all from me this week. I hope you enjoyed Captain Kirk coming along for the ride with us. Next week I hope to discuss The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, which I’ve been reading this month. Which means I need to close up and get it finished. Until then, may your writing be plenty and your struggles be few!
Well. 2020 didn’t get off at all how I expected. The world is on fire, figuratively and literally, there have been earthquakes and plane crashes and the threat of war, and how in the actual hell does one keep their head down and write their silly little fantasy book with all this going on?
It’s overwhelming, to say the least.
But, I keep on trucking. That’s all I can do, really.
My partner and I recently sat down and consumed Netflix’s The Witcher, as I’m sure so many of you did as well, and I, for one, quite enjoyed it. While I understand the criticism of the interweaving timelines not being properly denoted, I actually found that to be my favorite part. I didn’t particularly want my hand held and I liked that the showrunners knew I would be smart enough to piece it together without their help.
Afterward, I was basking in the glow of a good fantasy, when I made the fatal error of turning my thoughts inward toward my WIP, Border Towns.
I’ve always described Border Towns as a political fantasy, one that heavily favored the political aspect and left the fantasy as sort of a backdrop. There’s no elves or dwarves, there’s no angels, demons, zombies, dragons, there’s not even magic. I’ve always been fine with this, happy to assume it would occupy a cozy little niche in the fantasy market, should it ever have the good fortune of seeing the light of day.
But, after The Witcher, I started to panic. Was my political fantasy fantasy enough?
I posed this conundrum to my excellent partner, listing all the things typical and, perhaps, expected of fantasy books that did not feature in my novel. I love him with all my heart, I do, but he looked at me dead on and said, “Well, then what makes it a fantasy?”
And then I really started to panic.
I spent the next few days in fervent worldbuilding mode, trying to figure out a way to inject some kind of magic system to shore up my fantasy bona fides, without disrupting the story I actually wanted to tell. And here’s another potential shameful confession for an aspiring fantasy writer: I hate worldbuilding.
I do. My roots are in fanfiction, and as such I’ve always been a heavily character driven kind of writer. I could very easily describe my first draft of Border Towns as just a series of conversations with some light context thrown in. I always think I want to worldbuild, but then I get bogged down in it and never start actually writing. Worldbuilding, I feel quite certain, is the leading cause of my previous WIP, that I labored over for almost 10 years without getting more than 10k words into, being on the shelf at the moment.
Needless to say, I was miserable. I came up with some ideas, some that might even add some interesting plot points, but eventually I just sat back and asked myself, “Why am I doing this?”
I didn’t want to have magic in this story. If I did, I would have included it in the first place. So what’s more important? Living up to some preconceived idea of what makes fantasy fantasy or writing the story I actually want to write.
The latter won out. As it always should do.
I went back to some old scenes I hadn’t gotten to transcribe during NaNo and found one I had really enjoyed writing, and weirdly enough, it’s still good! Maybe, just maybe, I can do this after all.
Write the story you want to write, folks. It makes a world of difference.
That’s all from me this week. Next week’s blog post will be about writing thin. Until then, may your writing be plenty and your struggles few!