Travelling Hopefully (30/12/09)

Someone asked me a couple of days ago whether I plan in detail or use the ‘travel-hopefully’ method. Now being asked questions like that makes me feel all unnaturally important, as if my words and methods might carry some weight and I was all set to write a lengthy post on how to set about writing a story. Fortunately some sense prevailed; the fact is that everyone seems to write in different ways and I think everyone probably has to find what fits the way their head works.
That said, ‘travel hopefully’ does describe the way I write quite well once I get going, but having said that, there does have to be some sort of framework in place before I start; everyone has to have something, right? Otherwise how do you know where to begin? I don’t think I know anyone who sits down in front of a keyboard knowing nothing more than that they are about to write a story…

So what do I need? I need:

  • A world. It doesn’t have to be fleshed out an detailed, but it needs to be there in skeleton form. In particular, I think what matters are the general rules by which the world operates. The big things that will shape it need to be thought through. The Adamantine Palace may not have that much world-building actually in it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t thought about. For a fantasy world, is there an analogous period in history? I will always start from something real and then add bits (magic, dragons, the fact that the moon is made of cheese, whatever). These bits need a little basic thinking through, too, about what the consequences are for the base society when you add the extras. I’ll do most of this as a go along, but I need to know how the rules that govern the way the world works have changed because of whatever I’ve added (or taken away). Same principle goes for Science Fiction and technology. If you’re going to set a story in the real world, then which part of the real world and which time in history?
  • Some driver characters. A few main protagonists with what they are trying to do and why and very roughly what they’re like. These might be characters who will be in the foreground of the story (example: Prince Jehal: Intelligent, cynical, callous, wants to be top dog (because being the top dog is the only place that’s safe), deep down also wants to be… <spoiler deleted>) or they might be in the background (Saffran Kuy in The Thief-Taker’s Apprentice). They are the characters who are shaping events. What they are trying to do and why they are trying to do it will define the way the world changes during the course of the story.
  • Some front-line characters. These might be the same as the above or they might be different, but these are the characters who are in the foreground of the story. I find they tend to acquire their own personalities and colour themselves in as the story goes on, so all I have here at the start are a few seed characteristics that make them stand out from those around them (Angry, guilty, can swing a sword. That sort of thing).
  • An end. In some ways most important of all, I need to know how the end is going to feel. Someone has to either achieve something or fail to achieve something. It’s not so much the specifics of what that I have up front, it’s how it’s going to feel for the reader (bitter-sweet is always a favourite with crushing despair a close second, but there’s always the possibility of a happy success). There may well be several ends for several different story-lines.

And that’s it. After that it’s travel hopefully time. Which has worked extremely well on some occasions and less well on others. This year’s submissions will be The Order of the Scales and The Warlock’s Shadow, both already written in draft straight off the back of their prequels (on the grounds that all the preparation work had already been done) and both examples of FAILURE of the method, dammit! The Order of the Scales in particular has rolled a fumble (er, I mean has a lot wrong with it). I can see at least three re-writes being necessary before it’s good enough to be submitted. The first one started this week, along with the stress headaches.

This would also be the time when some sort of review of the year would appear, but I haven’t got time for that right now. Here’s one someone else made earlier.

4 Responses to “Travelling Hopefully (30/12/09)”

  1. neil... says:

    Great post, always interesting to learn how others work.
    Like you, I feel some framework is vital. In particular, the ultimate destination. This at least helps to prevent the tedious meandering that can easily befall a story in the second half of the second act. If you don’t know where you are going, you cannot possibly know how to get there.

  2. Stephen says:

    There’s also a whole other story about re-writes and how many and for how long and how much they can change events…

  3. mmSeason says:

    Hi Stephen! I didn’t expect to inspire a blogpost! Nor did i intend to make you feel all ‘unnaturally important’… ;0)
    (Only the least seasoned, surely, would try to use your description of your own way as a how-to?)

    I’ve recently come to the conclusion that ‘pure’ travel-hopefully writing produces a very long outline, rather than a true first draft. I keep reading interviews with authors that work from a plan but take diversions as the story or characters dictate, once under steam, and i haven’t worked out how that can happen without losing hold of the structure altogether. That’s why i asked – interested in your method and whether/how well it works for you. It’s like the question of whether someone starts from a concept, a dilemma, a character or character conflict, or a setting etc. Some seem to be world-builders, some storytellers, and so on. You list ‘a world’ first so i imagine you’re at heart a world-builder?

    The thing about characters who ‘acquire their own personalities and colour themselves in as the story goes on’ must be that you end up rewriting at least the early chapters, to make them consistent with the characters you come to know by the end. I suppose. I’m guessing.

    Are you a rewrite-hater or a rewrite-lover?

    ~ mand

  4. Stephen says:

    Worldbuilder? Me? Ha! You might be right, but you won’t see much evidence of it. I find though, that the characters defined themsleves very quickly. It’s rare to have to go back and rewrite them. They seem to more bloom than evolve.

    I like re-writes when I’ve finished them. I don’t like doing them. They’re treading familiar paths and rarely taking me anywhere new.

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