Year Three of the New Worlds Patreon has had quite a lot of months with five Fridays, and this is the last one. Which means it’s time for a theory post! This time around, it’s the question of where to start the worldbuilding process — which parts of it should be high-priority, and which can be left until later. Comment over there!
One of the things that makes a writing career difficult is that all your payoffs are deferred.
Let’s say you’re writing a novel. Each day, or whatever schedule you work on, you add some more to the pile of words. Go you! But if you’re not someone who lets people read the draft in progress (I’m usually not, though there have been exceptions), then you do that work in a void. And it’s a long, long road to having a completed draft, so you’re in that void for quite a while.
Then you finish your draft. Go you! Now maybe you let somebody read it. But you know, in your heart of hearts, that this isn’t the end of anything; it’s just an intermediate stage. There’s revision, and that’s before the novel even heads out into the wide wide world.
Ah, but surely you get payoff when you sell the novel, right? Go you! Except . . . what “selling a novel” actually looks like is generally that your agent sends you an email saying “here’s what they’re offering,” and you say “that sounds great, let’s do it!” Whereupon your agent haggles for a while, because that’s their job. Or maybe this is the next book in a multi-book contract you already signed, at which point this stage doesn’t even really happen, because it happened years ago.
Assuming it’s a new deal, eventually somebody sends you a contract to sign. This comes probably weeks after the offer you said yes to, if not months. Is this the payoff? It doesn’t feel much like a payoff. On the one hand, you kinda sorta sold the book a while ago; on the other hand, you haven’t been paid yet, much less seen your book in print.
Some number of days or weeks after you signed the contract, money shows up. This used to be in the form of an actual check, but these days lots of people use direct deposit instead. So instead of a Real Live Check, you get an email saying “hey, we’ve deposited this money in your account.” Is that the payoff? Literally, yes; emotionally, no.
Somewhere in here, you get a cover. Awesome! It mostly has nothing to do with you, since at best you got to offer some ideas that your publisher may or may not have listened to, but at least it’s shiny! Meanwhile you’re busy with something else.
And then, one day, FINALLY, months after you got paid, months after you sold it, months or maybe even years after you wrote the book . . . it’s on the shelves! Everybody is so excited!
Except for you. I mean, sure, you’re happy. I’m not trying to say that it isn’t cool to hold your very own book in your hands and see your name on the cover. But . . . as a payoff for the long marathon of writing the thing, it isn’t much, because it comes way too late. By the time it arrives, you’re already doing something else. You’re in the void of a different book, probably, and when people talk about “your new book,” you have to remind yourself which one they’re talking about. To them, the one that matters is the one they can buy. But that’s not the one eating your time and attention anymore. And psychologically speaking, a reward that’s massively deferred from the behavior that earned it is pretty much useless.
This is why I’m coming around to the opinion that it is hugely important to set up some kind of ritual for yourself — in whatever form works for you — that celebrates the milestones. Two years may go by between finishing the rough draft and seeing the result on a shelf, but if you’ve done something meaningful to mark the achievement of that draft, or the other landmarks along the way, then you won’t run as much risk of the job starting to feel meaningless. If the way the circumstances work isn’t going to reward you in a timely manner, then you’ve got to do it yourself.
Writing advice books tend to go into great detail on things like how to structure your plot, or develop character, or describe things, or whatever.
They do not — in my limited experience; hence this post — bother to say much about how to decide where to break chapters, scenes, or paragraphs, apart from telling you to start a new paragraph if you’re switching speakers in dialogue. Maybe a vague nod at “cliffhangers are exciting!,” but that’s about it. You’re just supposed to figure that stuff out as you go, apparently. Or else (and this is entirely possible) it never occurred to the writer of the writing advice book that there’s an actual skill buried in there.
But I haven’t read a huge number of writing advice books, so I’m perfectly willing to believe that someone out there has at some point unpacked this stuff for the reader. Any recs? Because it’s one of those things that I do instinctively, without much ability to articulate how the decision-making process goes — and since I enjoy teaching writing, being able to articulate it would be useful.
There is a sad lack of noodle soup in my cooking repertoire. What recipes do you guys recommend? The main requirement is that it be non-spicy, in the peppers/chili sense; other things are easy to leave out (cilantro) or substitute (eggplant for squash).
Once she had nothing: no name, no memory, no purpose beyond the one her master bound her to fulfill. Now the wandering archon known as Ree must walk an unseen path — one that will lead her toward the untold story of her origins. But the road to the truth is paved with blood . . .
One of the mediation apps on my phone (yes, I have several . . . I am the walking stereotype of “I really want to make a habit of this! Maybe if I find The Perfect Program, I’ll succeed!) is running a New Year’s Challenge, with a goal of meditating at least fifteen days in the first twenty-one, i.e. five days a week for three weeks. So far I’m 11 for 11 (it started on the 6th, not the 1st), which is good, and I sort of wish they’d launch another challenge after this one, because seeing that little gold medal does help with motivation and persistence.
But it’s gotten me thinking about a bunch of things. Like New Year’s resolutions, and the ways in which that whole concept tends to set us up for failure. One of the “ohhhhh” moments for me in trying to practice mindfulness meditation was when it finally got through my skull that those moments when I realize my attention has wandered away from my breath? That’s not me failing at meditation; that’s me succeeding. Because the point is not to achieve perfect tranquility from start to finish, but rather to be mindful: both to pay attention to a thing (my breath), and also to notice when my attention has strayed. “Begin again,” as several of the meditation teachers in this app have said — and as one of them pointed out, that applies to the practice of meditation in general as well as any individual session again. Missed a day? Begin again. Missed a week? Begin again. Missed six months? Notice that you’ve stopped. Be mindful of what you’re doing. And what you’re not doing.
I have a poster on my wall with the text of “An Invocation for Beginnings”. It’s one of the few “motivational” things that’s ever spoken to me on an emotional level. And to quote one pertinent bit: “Let me realize that my past failures at follow-through are no indications of my future performance, they’re just healthy little fires that are going to warm up my ass.” New Year’s resolutions, though . . . we treat them as rigid. If you resolve to do a thing, and then drop the ball, you’ve broken your resolution. Game over. Stop trying.
No. Begin again.
The app has been providing a meditation lesson for each day, which I recognize is so they can advertise the various series that require a paid account to use. But I’m still appreciating it as a tour of different things, like deep breathing techniques to reduce stress. Today’s was on “loving-kindness” meditation, which is about developing compassion toward yourself and other people. Chesed, maitrī, agape in its less-religious sense. What really struck me was the brief video beforehand, with Dan Harris (the guy behind the app) and Sharon Salzberg (the teacher for that session) discussing the concept of loving-kindness — and how we as a society tend to disparage the idea, as if compassion and kindness make us weak. The video was only a few minutes long, so I’m not surprised they didn’t attempt to unpack the gender dimension, but it’s there: loving-kindness is a trait associated with femininity, and therefore men are discouraged from developing it. Harris straight-up admitted that he was embarrassed to be seen reading Salzberg’s book — that he literally hid the cover when he was reading it on planes, etc. How messed-up is that? But he’s a white dude in America, which means he’s not supposed to be squishy and touchy-feely and nice.
Hello, toxic masculinity. And yet, so many of our religions praise this quality, not just for girls but for everybody. But it’s hardly news that we’re historically bad at actually practicing what we preach.
I don’t really have a point here that I’m trying to arrive at, except that getting back into meditation (begin again) is prompting a variety of thoughts in me. And that I’m hoping it will help me develop the internal equilibrium I’m going to need to survive 2020. Our whole society could use a mega-dose of loving-kindness, if only we had some way to inject it.
Temporarily, at least. 🙂
I’m currently slated to do two teaching stints in 2020. The first is coming up soon: Pen, Paper, Action!, a one-day workshop at Clarion West in Seattle on February 8th. There I’ll be covering not just fight scenes in specific, but action more generally.
The second is later this year, during the Sirens Studio that takes place before the main conference. I’ll be teaching a writing intensive on creating religions for fantasy worlds — going beyond deciding who the gods are, and delving into how beliefs can be integrated into the daily lives of the characters. Sirens is a beautiful event focusing on women in fantasy; I haven’t been to the Studio before, but I was one of the Guests of Honor at the conference in its second year, and had an amazing time.
Registration for both of these things is limited, so if you’re interested, sign up soon!
I never did post about Yuletide, did I? I blame the chaos that was the last several months of 2019 — I’m still picking myself off the floor.
I lucked into three (!) gifts this year. The first was “the three Chrestomancis,” the prompt for which was borne out of me realizing that Cat arrived at the castle before Gabriel passed away, meaning that for a while there were three nine-lived enchanters running around at once. (Not that any of them still had nine lives by that point, but it doesn’t affect their power.) Then I received “as wine pervades water,” which features exactly the kind of wedding I’d expect Rick O’Connell and Evy Carnahan (from the 1999 Mummy movie) to have, i.e. ad hoc and done at speed to save the world from a supernatural threat. I also got the Madness treat “When a Body Meets a Body,” and it amuses me how many Mummy fics I’ve seen involve bog bodies over the last few years; I credit Sovay and her comment that I quote in my Yuletide letter. 🙂
For my own part, I dove deep into the history of D&D for “Third-Party Supplements,” a fic for The Order of the Stick. My thanks to the various people who helped me research old editions, and especially whoever it was on Twitter (too difficult to dig back that far now) that linked me to the infamous Random Harlot Table. 😀 I legit rolled dice for this story, y’all.