How I Became a Writer

In my Quora inbox there are, as we speak, no fewer than nine different answer requests for variations on the same question: “How did you become a writer?”

Gather round, and ye shall hear my tale.

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I Discover Chapter Books

About a month into kindergarten, in ye fabled year 1987, we went to the school library for the first time. We were read a story by one of the school librarians and then turned loose onto the two rows of children’s books at the front of the room.

I didn’t even make it to the shelves, however, before the school librarian stopped me. “Are you Danielle?”

I said I was.

“I want to show you something,” she said, and led me to one of the tall shelves full of “big kid books” that we’d passed on the way into the library. And that’s how I met Ramona Quimby.

Ramona the Pest was the first chapter book I ever read. It took me a little less than a week to read, on my own, in between kindergarten activities like playing with clay and trying to trace my name. And I was hooked.

I knew what books were long before that first library day. I’d grown up surrounded by them, and I was reading fluently when I started kindergarten. But something about Beverly Cleary’s work made me realize, at age five, that books didn’t appear out of thin air. They existed because somebody wrote them.

I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be a writer.

I Become a Master of Plot

Fast-forward to the spring of 1990. I’m now in second grade, where reading Beverly Cleary is pretty common (I’ve moved on to The Boxcar Children, Agatha Christie, and the Baby-sitters Club). My teacher announces that we’re all going to write our own stories.

Over the course of several weeks, we write stories, edit them, draw the accompanying pictures, and paste everything into those little blue booklets I wouldn’t see again until 2005, when I had to write law school exams in them.

My book was called The Violet That Played the Violin. That was also the entire plot.

That book was the moment that I realized that not only did books exist because people wrote them, but that I had now written a book. That meant I was a writer.

Writers Write

The Violet That Played the Violin had rocketed me to the pinnacle of writerdom. Suddenly, I was no longer a kid who wanted to be a writer; I was a writer.

And writers write. So I wrote.

I acquired the first of a truly staggering collection of blank books and wrote a short story, “The Cat Who Made a Quilt.” In the interests of full disclosure and also total self-embarrassment, here’s the full text:

Once upon a time in the old city of Swanland, which is now Paris, there was a cat. She loved to sew patchwork quilts. Almost everyone in Swanland had a quilt made by the cat.

Everyone except Old Barney, the bulldog.

The cat’s name was Kitten. Kitten said one say, “I want to make a special quilt, but I don’t have an idea.” So she set out to find an idea.

First she tried to think of an idea. All that popped into Kitten’s head were the ideas for her old quilts. So she asked her friends. They didn’t have any ideas either. So she went to the fabric store, where she usually got her patterns and fabric.

First she decided to make a quilt for Old Barney, to make him feel better. There was only one problem. Old Barney was her enemy, not her friend.

But she found a pattern. She found a pattern just right for a dog. It had dogs doing almost anything a dog can do outside.

Kitten sewed it together and then asked Anne, the prettiest poodle in town, to deliver it to Old Barney. Anne did, and Old Barney fell in love with her, and Kitten’s troubles were over.

So she went back to the pattern store, and got a new pattern. This one was beautiful. It had all sorts of different things on it. Kitten sewed it together and kept it in her family forever.

The End.

One can see the rapid evolution of my craft in this piece. It has a plot!

Starting at this point (May 1990), I was never without a working notebook again. Sometimes that notebook was the same notebook as the one I used for schoolwork, and sometimes it wasn’t. But I always, always had a notebook with me, and I got extremely itchy when I was separated from it.

And I wrote. Daily. Because writers write.

Stealth Writing and What I Learned from Fanfic

Nearly all of the “note taking” I did in high school was actually writing fan fiction. A friend and I had a joint X-Files fanfic that we’d pass back and forth between classes, each of us writing a paragraph or two instead of actually doing our schoolwork. I wrote the equivalent of two or three novels’ worth of fanfiction every year between tenth grade and the end of law school (ca. 1997-2007).

I had help from my dad as well. He and I wrote several stories and poems together when I was in elementary and middle school. There was Snow, the Christmas Horse, a novella about a poor family that sells its beloved horse and gets her back just in time for Christmas, and a 24-installment mystery in which the original American Girls (Kirsten, Samantha and Molly) search for a missing silver cup, which was probably the first piece of fan fiction I ever wrote.

Fan fiction was absolutely essential to my eventual career in which I actually write in exchange for actual cash moneys. Fan fiction taught me a lot about characterization, pacing and scene development. It also taught me why Shift+F7 is not your friend and why words ending in -ly will not in fact make your story better.

Where Ideas Come From

I honestly don’t remember having been troubled by “where ideas come from” when I was a kid. The point of being a writer was to write, not necessarily to have ideas for The Great American Novel or whatever.

So I didn’t always try to write fiction. Sometimes writing consisted of copying entire poems out of my dad’s Oxford anthologies. Sometimes it involved character assassinations of whichever classmate had treated me crappily that day. For two weeks in eighth grade, it consisted of trying to translate the US Constitution into ordinary middle-school English.

The point was to fill a notebook a month. I didn’t matter what I filled it with.

All that copying, translating and character assassination taught me a lot about writing, too. By copying, I started to see how other writers had constructed sentences and paragraphs. Character assassination taught me how to build characters convincingly, making their flaws and position within the story clear without sounding too melodramatic or unreliable as a narrator. Translation taught me how to state clearly what I meant.

By the time I left high school, the basic structure of my writing skills was already in place. My writing has improved dramatically during that time, but the fundamentals I fall back on today were all things I learned between the ages of seven and 17.

I learned them by writing. Because that’s what writers do.

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A Day in the Life of This Freelance Writer

Yesterday, I stumbled across this article at Wait But Why, proposing a new way to think about the value of our time and how we use it. It works like this:

If you sleep about eight hours a night, that leaves about 1,000 minutes a day in which you’re awake. Think of these 1,000 minutes as 100 ten-minute blocks of time.

What do you do with each of your 100 blocks? Is what you’re currently doing worth the number of blocks out of 100 that gets devoted to it each day?

While neither the author of the piece nor I recommend trying to schedule every block every day (it’s an exercise in hair-tearing), it has provided me a useful way to consider exactly where my time goes.

So Where Does It Go, Exactly?

The 100 Blocks method is especially intriguing to me in the context of one of the most commonly-asked questions I receive on Quora: “What do freelance writers do all day?” “What does a day in the life of a freelance writer look like?”

While I won’t subject you to a list of where my 100 ten-minute day-chunks go, here’s what an average day in my freelance life looks like.

A Day in the Life of this freelance writer

Morning

6:30 am: I roll out of bed, because if I don’t, I’ll miss a chance to get a hug from my husband when he leaves for work. If I don’t get a hug, I am cranky the rest of the day.

6:40 am: I feed the cats before the sheer force of their STARVACEOUS YOWLING tears me to pieces. The cats wish it to be known that they WILL DIE if they are not given canned food at 6:40 am. No, the bowl of kibble is NOT SUFFICIENT. THEY WILL STARVE. I AM A TERRIBLE CAT PARENT.

7:00 am: The yowling has subsided. I sit down with my toast and tea to read the Internet. If the Internet is terrible, I read a book instead. The Internet is usually terrible.

8:00 am: I decide I should probably do something useful with my life. I load the dishwasher and clean the litter boxes in order to avoid selling my labor for money.

8:30 am: I sell labor for money. I may also blog, work on things for rehearsals (see “Evening”), send invoices, and so on.

12:00 pmish: I am done selling labor for money, unless it is Tuesday. On Tuesdays I get done at 1:00 pm, because 12-1 pm Tuesday is the Holy Hour of Client Meetings.

Not-Morning

12:30 or 1:00 pm: Having eaten whatever tasty glop was leftover in the fridge from the previous evening (or microwaved some chicken nuggets), I proceed to the gym for a hot date with the elliptical, weight room and/or pool. On nice days, I go into my backyard and throw things.

2:30 or 3:00 pm: I get home from the gym, or I run some errands, depending on which needs doing. When I have to schedule appointments, they’re nearly always between 2:30 and 5:00 pm. If I’m not running errands, I might do some composing, or photography, or spend 12 of my daily 100 timechunks murdering werebears in Skyrim.

Evening

5:00 pmish: Usually, the husband is home by this time. He makes food. We eat food. While watching Netflix. This is literally the only time we spend watching television at all, so I have no guilt whatsoever about abandoning the upper-middle-class manners of my youth to cram nachos into my face on the couch in front of the boob tube.

6:00 pmish: Time to go to rehearsal. Which rehearsal it is depends on the time of year and the day of the week. Candidates include marching band, wind symphony, drum ensemble, colorguard, and winterguard. Sometimes I perform in these ensembles and sometimes I yell at them.

8:30 pm: I feed the cats, because once again, they will STARVE without canned food, even though kibble magically appears in their bowl on the regular. Then I write fiction.

10:30 pm: I sleep.

On Wednesdays, I clean the house instead of selling my labor for money. Otherwise, things are pretty much the same.  A few times a year I go on vacation, during which I might spend an hour or two working in the mornings.

Your schedule as a freelancer may, of course, vary. My work time is scheduled with two major constraints in mind:

  1. When do I have the focus to do this work most efficiently?
  2. How can I get my work done in the handful of hours I have allotted per day to do so, which I cannot exceed because addiction?

As For the Blocks….

It’s interesting to me how quickly things fall into perspective when I analyze them in terms of the 100 blocks of time.

For instance: The gym costs me 120 minutes, or 12 of my 100 timechunks every day.

Prior to thinking of it as 12/100 timechunks, I struggled to go to the gym. It felt like recreation. It felt like “wasting time” or “ignoring my responsibilities” (because I wasn’t checking the clock every five minutes to make sure I hadn’t dissociated into some frivolous project, because ADHD means I have no idea what time is).

Now, however, 12/100 timechunks feels like a total steal. That time I spend at the gym manages my chronic pain, alleviates my anxiety, provides the only workable method for me to meditate, lets me catch up with my best friend by snarkily texting her between sets, and enables me to kick people twice my size through windows should I ever wake up in an action film.

I get all that for twelve percent of my day. That’s what we call “good value.”

It’s also made it easier to stop hating myself for things like scrolling Twitter, while simultaneously helping me put limits on things like scrolling Twitter. Yes, sometimes I just need to sit and scroll Twitter for 1/100 timechunks. That’s okay.

But I rarely need to do it for 3/100 timechunks. That’s when I start getting restless. So I can allot 1 timechunk to it totally guilt-free, then go do something else, again totally guilt-free.

For the record, I have allotted 11 timechunks today to selling my labor for money and 3.6 timechunks to the writing of this blog post. Now I will go devote about 2 timechunks to eating food and a few to preparing for this week’s Holy Hour of Client Meetings. Happy Tuesday.

Real-Life Writer Lifestyle Blog!

I have been glamorously fighting a cold for the past week, which has involved ingesting copious quantities of glamorous chicken soup, Vernor’s and Tylenol; glamorously sleeping 15 hours a day; and glamorously sneezing into an ever-expanding pile of glamorously wadded Kleenex.

At some point during one of my virus-fueled fever dreams, my muse came unto me and told me I should start a lifestyle blog. Featuring my actual lifestyle.

I’ve already fielded a couple different questions about writer lifestyles on Quora this month, and I’m also full of cold medicine, so my response was a resounding “Yes!”

…Followed by a resounding “What’s a lifestyle blog?”

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Since Googling things and then pretending I knew that all along is completely on-brand in my particular writer lifestyle, here’s what I have learned have sagely always known about lifestyle blogging.

1. It’s basically a digital zoo exhibit.

This post at MediaKix says:

A lifestyle blog is best defined as a digital content representation of its author’s everyday life and interests. A lifestyle blogger creates content inspired and curated by their personal interests and daily activities.

I’ve been trying to write content inspired and curated by “things I find interesting about writing and creativity that other people might also find interesting about writing and creativity.” Apparently, my illness-impelled muse says this is all wrong, and I should just be badly Instagramming my food instead. (“How to Take Photos That Are Definitely Not Insta-Worthy,” coming soon to this blog!)

2. …Except it’s supposed to teach you how to brush the cheetahs.

Meanwhile, blogger Ashley Coleman has this to say about the difference between personal blogging and lifestyle blogging:

Personal blogs will rely heavily on personal narrative, essay, opinion. Lifestyle blogs include personal elements but often give you some really tangible things to take away. How to make a great cake. How to design your workspace. Meanwhile, personal stories will either inspire you, inform you, or maybe make you laugh.

…I mean, I can definitely teach people how to emulate my glamorously snotty  writer lifestyle. In fact, here’s a free printable (I guess that’s a thing now?) for emulating my glamorous writer wardrobe!

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Actionable takeaways! This lifestyle blog thing is really taking off.

3.  I’m supposed to make people jealous, I guess?

I’m a little confused on this point, because Googling “lifestyle blogging jealousy” turned up a ton of posts on how to stop being jealous of other people’s perfectly-curated lifestyle blogs and Instagram accounts, but the whole point of perfect curation seems to be to make other people jealous of your lifestyle in the first place.

So here’s my best shot at making you all jealous of me:

I write for a living, which is to say that I have no day job or side gig: Writing is what I do. I’ve been doing that for about ten years now. I live in an adorably venerable house with three adorable cats who adorably destroy things for fun, I have a husband who thinks I’m the greatest thing since sliced greatness, I have spent the last week sneezing my brain matter into handfuls of tissues, and I only sometimes wear pants.

And I can show you how to do it, too. I guess.

4. Write about everything but also only these things.

So: My muse wants me to present my life the way it is in order to engender jealousy in others, which is obviously not going to work. I mean, just check out my totally cute and enviable kitchen:

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WRITER LIFE is all about the deluxe-sized bag of corn chips, empty food containers nobody’s put in the recycling yet, and a sinkful of dishes I’m ignoring in order to write this blog post. You, too, can have this amazingly glamorous lifestyle!

What the heck is my lifestyle blog supposed to be about, then? MediaKix recommends:

Lifestyle bloggers share a broad variety of content centered around and inspired by their personal lives — most notably family, home, travel, beauty, food, recipes, fashion, makeup, design and decor.

*rubs hands together* *cracks knuckles* Okay, I got this.

Coming soon, from my totally awesome writer lifestyle blog that is totally awesome and definitely not something I got told to do by the Nyquil-addled voices in my head….

  • Family: How to Spend Quality Time With Your Manuscript Instead of These Weirdos!
  • Home: My Favorite Houses to Not Die of Consumption In
  • Travel: The Bright Thing In the Sky: What It Is and Why You Shouldn’t Stare Directly At It
  • Beauty: Hey, This Ink Smudge On My Hand Kinda Looks Like a Cat
  • Food: How to Make Coffee Part of Every Major Food Group
  • Recipes: Coffee, Coffee With Milk, Coffee With Vodka, Coffee With Milk and Vodka, Okay That’s a White Russian You Literally Just Invented a White Russian Now Stop It
  • Fashion: *points to infographic*
  • Makeup: 1.2 Ways to Make Yourself Presentable Before You Run Out for More Creamer (You NEED to Do At Least Number 0.2, Okay?)
  • Design: Creating Your Perfect Writing Space (and Then Ignoring It In Favor of Scribbling on the Toilet)
  • Decor: 50 Fun Organization Hacks to Avoid Your Looming Deadlines

…Y’all, I am so excited about this new lifestyle blog! Praise to my plague-prompted muse!

 

Should You Write Your First Draft By Hand?

We’re in a love-hate relationship with handwriting. Some studies claim that writing by hand makes us smarter than keyboarding; others insist that while handwriting remains a relevant skill in general, teaching cursive handwriting has become a waste of students’ time. Still others think handwriting is already obsolete.

Writers are split as well. Some insist that writing by hand is a waste of time, particularly in a world where easy connectivity means you can type or tap out any note at any time and have it instantly stored in a centralized (typically, cloud-based) location. Others, like me, say that you can pry my pen from my cold dead hands.

I write all my fiction first drafts by hand. Here’s why.

Leave The Office ASAP

Writing is Personal

There’s no consensus as to who first penned (pun intended) the image of writing as “sitting down and bleeding,” but that image keeps being invoked because it’s so illustrative of the process.

Fiction writing is intensely personal. Its intimacy can intimidate beginners into never starting, and it can stall veterans who decide to open a vein rather than simply write to deadline.

Since I also make my living by writing copy, sitting at the computer feels public to me. I draft most of the work I do for clients on the computer; when I’m sitting at it, I’m in People Mode, even when there’s no one else in my house. People Mode is necessary in order for me to occupy the same space as my audience, which I have to do in order to ensure I’m writing a piece that will make sense to them.

I cannot, however, both write fiction and be in People Mode. I can edit that way, but forming ideas into words is, for me, incompatible with performative extroversion.

In my notebook, I’m free to write the worst crap in the world. I can fill five pages with crappy false starts. I can doodle until I figure out what I came to say. None of it matters, since nobody but me will ever see it. I’m alone with my thoughts, which is exactly where I need to be in order to tell a story.

Handwriting is More Secure

Sure, I can’t password-protect a notebook. But I’ve never lost a notebook because I failed to hit “save” or had one eaten by the Blue Screen of Death.

I lost my first round of typed fiction drafts in 1998, when my mother’s Gateway 2000 crashed. I lost another round, including two full and three partial novel drafts, in 2004 when my then-boyfriend botched a backup job.

Even files I haven’t technically lost, I’ve lost due to advances in technology and/or the degradation of digital media. I have zip disks from the late 1990s with my work stored on them, but neither I nor anyone I know owns a zip drive any longer. The floppy disks containing my earliest work, from the late 1980s, are probably corrupt – even if I had an Apple IIGS that could read them.

My notebooks from the 1980s, however, are still entirely readable. Embarrassing, but readable.

The problem with preserving digital works and the degradation of media hasn’t pinged only my radar, either. Check out, for example, the 2015 art project that printed 106 volumes of Wikipedia in English – of nearly 7,500 total volumes.

Speaking of Wikipedia….

Ever hop online to check just one little thing, and suddenly you have 83 tabs open, are reading about the social life of aardvarks, and it’s Tuesday?

Falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole is really easy to do, and it’s even easier when you have ADHD. But I can’t fall down the research hole or get wrapped up in a social media argument when I don’t have access to the Internet.

The notebook prevents me from getting sidetracked by the Intertubes. It removes the quick-hit solution to intermittent boredom. And since boredom appears to be essential to creativity, it may also make me a better writer.

I’m Old

I also like the notebook for deeply personal, even idiosyncratic reasons.

For instance, writing by hand angers my arthritis far less than typing on my phone. I like being in less pain.

I also like notebooks because they’re an old habit: I grew up at a time in which computers weren’t a standard household object. My dad bought an Apple IIGS not long after they hit the market, but he was very much in the minority (even my school hadn’t sprung for the IIGS, preferring to stick with the IIe when anybody used a computer at all). My mother was gifted a Commodore 64, but it had no word-processing program.

My computer time was limited until I was in high school, but I was allowed to have all the notebooks and writing utensils I wanted. Today, when I think, “I want to write,” my brain spits out images of notebooks, not of my laptop, tablet or phone.

…And I Used to Be a Smug Little Snot

I also (major confession time) used to love being smug. Loved it. I was one of those college kids who carried around a Moleskine and said “I’m writing a novel” with just the right elitist inflection.

Notebooks let you be smug in a way laptops simply don’t. Look around your local coffee shop: Chances are you’ll see half a dozen people on laptops or tablets. What are they doing? Are they writing, checking Facebook, making dinosaur porn?

There’s no way to know. Everybody buried in a device looks exactly the same, which is how we get endless smug Boomer memes about phone use instead of acknowledging that half the people on their phones in public at any given time are probably doing some kind of business, especially in a world where people think that just because you can answer the phone any moment of the day or night means you should.

But write in a notebook, and everybody knows you are writing. More importantly, everyone knows you are serious about your art. Otherwise you’d bang it out on a keyboard like a Philistine.

(Philistines had keyboards, right? I’m pretty sure they had keyboards.)

Smugness lost its appeal right around the end of my sophomore year of college. That’s when I realized I was filling a Moleskine every month, and that my habit of carrying it everywhere was making it look…no longer smug. Plus my favorite pens are Pilot V5s, which are not smug.

Besides, I almost never write in coffee shops.

Notebook vs. Laptop: Which Should You Use?

Honestly? I don’t know. I’m not you.

Some folks struggle with handwriting for various reasons, or can’t do it at all, making the keyboard their only realistic choice for writing in a manner that can even begin to keep up with their brains. The ability to store things in the cloud is great if you’re constantly losing your notes. And someone, somewhere, probably possesses the self-restraint (or the Internet restriction apps) to write without getting sidetracked by Instagram.

The best method for writing is the one that lets you finish. Everything else is window dressing.

The Joy of Writing

“Why do writers always talk about how hard writing is?” lamented an anonymous query in my inbox recently. “Can’t you all talk about the good stuff for a change?”

Sure. Let’s talk about the joy of writing.

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Why Do We Talk About the Hard Stuff, Anyway?

Anonymous Commenter isn’t wrong here: a lot of writing advice on the Internet is about how dang hard writing is. The percentage of “how dang hard writing is” advice appears to be even higher on sites like Quora. And there’s a reason for this.

A lot of people who seek out writing advice want two things:

  • Shortcuts to the hard work, and/or
  • To skip the work altogether and get to the luxurious utopia of Having Written.

The replies, then, are aimed at bursting this double bubble. Because there aren’t any shortcuts, and nobody reaches the halcyon shores of Having Written without first braving the turbulent seas of Doing Writing.

And Doing Writing is hard. If The Odyssey wasn’t an allegory about writing The Odyssey, it should be.

If Writing Is That Hard, Why Does Anyone Do It?

My high school band handbook included the promise that participation in band would teach us “the joy (as opposed to the “fun”) of hard work.” Like most of the high achievers in the room, however, I didn’t learn that joy in band. I enjoyed band because I already knew how hard work paid off.

I learned it by writing.

Writing is…not that fun, actually. At least not for me. Having written is fun. Turning things in ahead of deadline and watching them get published without a single editorial change is fun. Hearing people tell me how much they liked my novel is fun.

Writing is not fun. Writing is joy.

I used to share a rink with several Olympic champions, hopefuls, and hopefuls-turned-champions. I knew from watching them that they skated on a totally different level than I did, and I’m not talking about technical skill. They were driven to excel at every aspect of figure skating in a way that I simply wasn’t. I was content to be good. They weren’t even content to be great.

Writing is my Olympic sport. I’m not content to be good at it, and the moment I achieve “great,” I guarantee I’ll be looking past it asking, “What’s next?”

That kind of joy is tough to explain. Most people look at drudgery and see drudgery. Those of us who look at the same drudgery and see the deepest desires of our hearts seem weird, if not downright insane.

A handful of recent “joy moments” I found in writing:

  • Tossing my manuscript across the room and yelling, “I am sick of finding plot holes in this damn thing!”, while being proud of myself for finding them because it means I can send a stronger book out the door.
  • Realizing why my B plot felt contrived while in the middle of a wind symphony rehearsal and scribbling notes on how to fix it on the back the first clarinet part of Grainger’s Themes From “Green Bushes” (it was a photocopy) instead of actually playing Themes from “Green Bushes.”
  • Reading four cases on expert witness evidentiary standards in order to write one clean, concise, accurate paragraph.
  • Typing up 5000 words of revisions and realizing, hey, these actually aren’t terrible.

But there’s something more important than joy.

Writing isn’t merely joyful for me. Writing is my Hedgehog Concept.

Your Hedgehog Concept, as Jim Collins explains in Good to Great (2001), is the idea, process, or goal that fits into all three of the following categories:

  • You can become better than anyone in the world at it.
  • You’re passionate about it.
  • People will pay you to do it.

Most companies and even more individuals never find their Hedgehog Concept. Some never find the thing they have the skills, character or talent to become the best in the world at. Some never find their passion. Some never figure out how to get paid for what they do even if it meets the first two criteria.

My Hedgehog Concept is writing.

I’m not the best in the world at it, but I have the education, talent, character and drive to become so, if I choose. I’m passionate about it, and I have been since I understood what books were. And people have been paying me to do it ever since I started submitting work to places that paid for it.

Yes, writing is hard. It’s not “fun.” It’s deeper than fun. It’s my Hedgehog Concept, and having realized that, I’d be a fool to abandon it.

Worldbuilding: How Much Do You Need? How Much Do You Use?

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Once in a while, I get a Quora question that I just don’t know how to answer. I try to answer it anyway. It turns into a blog post.

This one, for instance: What percentage of your overall worldbuilding ends up in your story?

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…But I also have no idea how to leave exam questions blank, so here goes.

Answer One: Less than 10 percent.

Probably less than one percent.

If you saw my post on what I keep in my writing notebook, you probably deduced that I’ve done a lot of worldbuilding. A lot. My worldbuilding currently runs to several books’ worth of content, if we combine all the notes in various notebooks, the content of my OneNote worldbuilding file, the Excel spreadsheet slash Niralanes dictionary, and the actual book I wrote just so I could cite it in other books.

That last book alone is longer than my first novel. The OneNote file probably contains more pages than my last novel. The Excel spreadsheet runs to over a thousand entries. My pages upon pages of notebook scribbles probably amount to more pages than the entire trilogy will combined.

The page counts get even longer when we start adding texts that are part of the world I’m building, but that I didn’t write. An example that is also a spoiler: like The US Book, which features prominently in Nahara

There’s a reason the OneNote file has a tab called “Library.”

How much of that ends up on the pages of the published books? Not a lot, and to be honest, more than I’d like. I don’t like exposition-dumping, even when there’s a plot- or character-based reason it’s happening.

Suffice it to say that what I’ve published is a mere fraction of what I actually know about the spacetime in which the Non-Compliant Space series is set. And what I know expands daily, since I constantly have to contextualize characters, places, and events. Every day I write, I have to find answers to questions I didn’t know I had.

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Answer Two: All of it.

“But wait!” said my brain, as I labored to calculate the exact quantity of worldbuilding that appears in my final drafts. “Without all those years of plotting and planning, none of the words in this story would exist at all. So isn’t all of our worldbuilding actually in this book?”

…My brain has a point.

There are a lot of things that aren’t explicitly laid out in the books. For instance, Nantais tells you, the reader, that the Jemison is a research vessel owned and operated by a massive and somewhat shadowy corporation called Interstellar Science, but it never explains exactly what Interstellar Science is or how it came to be. The Ambassador includes several opening scenes that reveal some key negotiations between another massive, shadowy corporation, Amalgamated Logistics, and various governments on a planet called Viida, without giving you one second of the millennia that led to Viida’s current configuration of nation-states. Characters in Nahara jump to conclusions about a Viidan character based on what they can deduce from the languages he speaks, without stopping to lecture on ethnopolitical minutiae.

And every piece I’ve written so far contains a sliver of the puzzle regarding who, what, and why the La’Isshai are, but nobody ever tells the whole story even though at least one character in every piece knows the whole story.

None of these things can happen without all the worldbuilding I’ve done. They just wouldn’t exist. If I hadn’t bothered to think through things like interplanetary politics, what happens when corporations have all the rights of natural persons, or just how it is humans can distinguish the English from the Irish by their accents, the novel universe would be hokey as heck. I’d be a poster child for Terrible Writing Advice.

Yes, I know exactly how the quest launched in Nantais ends. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to give you, the reader, the pieces you need at the right moments in order to make that conclusion seem realistic, let alone interesting. So all that worldbuilding is ending up in the story; it’s just ending up there in pieces, instead of as an infodump.

veruca-salt-edit

Answer Three: As Much As I Need

How much worldbuilding do you really need?

As much as it takes to tell the story well.

And how much of it ends up in the finished work? All of it, if you’re using your worldbuilding time efficiently, but almost none of that appears as an exposition or infodump.

Instead, it appears as:

Character descriptions that tell us something about the character.

She wore battered standard-issue coveralls and a pair of fingerless gloves that covered her palms. Tools bristled from the pockets at her sides.

In my notes, Dar’s use of work to avoid dealing with monumental life changes is laid out across several pages. Here, all we see is what she’s wearing. By combining this image with later revelations about her rank and her impending divorce, I can show without saying that burying herself in work is how she avoids her problems, I can show without saying that burying herself in work is how she avoids her problems.

Revelations that the problem is more complicated – and thus the stakes are higher – than we thought.

“Wait,” Molloy said, as the first half of this sentence registered. “Five species in one system? Sentient species?”

“Yes.”

She’d never heard of such a thing. “And forty languages? In the system?”

“Forty in the Syndicate,” Nantais corrected. “There are over ten thousand in the system.”

I could just say “This universe is very politically, culturally, and linguistically complex. I am definitely not introducing you to species after species that are defined by one particular character trait.” Or I can let readers experience what it feels like to learn how big the universe is for the first time.

Plot drivers.

“Those two are regulars, and regular assholes if they get drunk enough. But they keep to themselves. Usually.”

“Usually?” Molloy asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Cordry said. “They’re fine as long as they’re sober and everyone keeps their mouths shut about their precious empire.”

...You see it coming, don’t you?

After this scene, I’ll never have to waste time describing the Viidan imperial military as a breeding ground for knee-jerk patriotism and xenophobia ever again. You already know, and when it costs someone their life, you’ll have seen it coming from five books away.

Symbolism.

“I’m afraid I don’t know much about espionage. Mostly, all I do is talk.”

The waxberries were actually cranberries. Maz flicked one onto the desk in disgust.

Presented without comment.

I find it easiest to worldbuild-as-needed. I make myself notes in the margins, which I then add to the OneNote or Excel files at a later date. If a particularly interesting idea arises, I make a note of it, then do research later, when I’m not trying to write. My worldbuilding files have increased in size over time, as I’ve added finished stories and novels to the published universe.


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Reasons Your Novel Manuscript Got Rejected by a Publisher (Even When You Got the Basics Right)

Your novel manuscript is formatted correctly. It doesn’t contain a single typo (okay, maybe one). It’s a coherent, interesting story that’s appropriate for the age range and interests of your intended audience. And you submitted it to a publisher or imprint based on detailed research that targeted this publisher/imprint as the ideal place for a book like yours. You even spelled the editor’s name right.

….And you’re still staring at a rejection.

Often, an editor who rejects an otherwise publishable and appropriate novel will tell you why they’ve kicked it to the curb. Whether or not you’re looking at this feedback, here are some “beyond the basics” reasons your novel may have been rejected:

rjection

1.  It’s too long (or too short).

Every genre has a conventional word count. This isn’t The Man trying to keep you down; it’s a function of (a) the audience’s expectations (and attention span), (b) the conventions of certain genres, and (c) printing costs.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could be a YA novel and still clock in north of 250,000 words because, by the time it came out, the publisher knew that Harry Potter fans would read a novel of any length and pay just about anything to get it. If Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had been that long, it’d still be sitting in Rowling’s unheated flat: Sorcerer’s Stone contains about 76,000 words, a respectable length for a YA novel.

Know the conventions for novel lengths in your genre and stick to them – at least until you’re an international household name.

2. It’s too similar to another book that’s already on the market (which may or may not have come from this publisher).

About 350,000 books are published in the United States each year. While the Big Five account for most of those, scores of smaller presses put out books too – as do intrepid self-publishers.

Given that half of U.S. adults read fewer than five books a year, every book is broadly in competition with every other. The “real” competition, however, is between books in particular genres or on particular subjects – which means that small presses in particular are keenly aware of which books like your books have been published in the past five years, which are currently “frontlisted” in other publishers’ catalogs, and which are the subject of the most aggressive marketing campaigns.

Very few publishers will publish a book that is substantially similar to another book that’s already out there, whether or not they were the press to publish the first book. Marketing books is already a tough game: If your book is “just like [insert other book here],” that tough game becomes one neither you nor your publisher can win.

3. The book is great, but its author is a pill.

You don’t just need to find the right publisher. You also need to find the right editor.

If you’re going to harass your editor every other week about the status of your book, demand proprietary details as to the publishing process, or nitpick every detail of the contract, you need an editor with the patience to deal with that. Most editors do not have that patience.

It’s not always easy to know which questions are and are not reasonable to ask, especially if you’re new to book publishing. When in doubt, hedge the question: “I don’t know if this is a reasonable question, but….” Admitting your limits rather than demanding answers may (may) improve your editor’s patience, especially if you really are new to publishing.

Like your doctor, lawyer, or babysitter, your editor needs to be someone you can communicate with and trust. Pay attention to how your editor communicates. If you’re getting terse answers, no answers, or being told to sit down, your editor might be ready to cut you loose – or they might be so busy and/or bad at communicating that your best course of action is to choose another publisher.


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