I wanted to write a blog describing my process of telling stories. It’s the kind of thing I like talking about, and it’s also the kind of thing that as a younger writer I would have loved to read. When I was younger I loved hearing other writers describe their style. So with that in mind, perhaps this blog will interest not only me but other people as well.
First, though, a caveat. Lots of writers have described different ways of telling stories, and I applaud and admire all of those writers. In his excellent podcast Writing Excuses, for instance, Brandon Sanderson describes a way of telling stories that’s completely contrary to how I do it. And that’s okay. It seems like there are a lot of different paths up the mountain, and each writer describes the process a little differently; and I absolutely love Brandon’s stories (The Reckoners series is one of my all-time favorites) even though we have different processes. His way works for him, and that’s great.
The same goes for Terry Brooks, Holly Lisle, and all of the other wonderful writers whose books I love but who describe a different writing process than mine.
For me, I don’t set out to create characters or stories or plots. It’s not a top-down process for me; I don’t tell my characters what to do, nor do I set out to design a world or magic system (for instance).
Rather, I think the stories I tell exist outside of me. They predate me and live fully and completely without me; it’s not my job to try to create them, but rather my job to uncover them. Stephen King described writing stories as unearthing “fossils”, and that’s more or less how I see it too.
I could go further. When I’m writing characters, it’s not about trying to decide what they’ll do. Instead, it’s more like I’m writing a biography; there are things the characters do, and my job is to identify a) what they do and b) why they do it. When a historian writes about the life of Alexander Hamilton, he doesn’t get to decide that Hamilton shouldn’t say or do XYZ because “it’s not realistic” or “the biography would work so much better if the British won the Revolutionary War.” Instead, the historian’s job is just to figure out what Hamilton did, when and how he did it, and why he did it.
I’m writing a new story now, and it’s an absolute blast. I love sitting down every weekday to write. I recently tried to figure out the magic system, because I think the villain is a mage. The hero might also be one. When I was unearthing the magic system, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh it would be so cool if magic could do XYZ!” or “I need to add in consequences to the magic system so that ABC doesn’t happen.” Instead, I tried to figure out how the magic system in this world actually worked, using some reason but mostly intuition.
I think right now that it lets mages pull life-force from one thing and put it into another thing. Once I was pretty confident that that was true, I had some questions I needed to ask to make sure I understood the magic system fully. “Can mages give themselves life-force; and if so, are they immortal?” for instance. I wasn’t trying to make a balanced magic-system, but I was also fairly confident that mages weren’t immortal omnipowerful Gods in this world I’d discovered. To me, that implied there were checks on their power. What were these checks, and how did they work? That’s the kind of thing I tried to discover. I can sometimes feel the story, and I often have an idea of what feels true (for instance; I’m pretty sure that the heroine has PTSD; though it took me awhile to learn why) or of what feels false (for instance, I’m pretty dwarves don’t appear in this story; though they may exist in this world I’m not sure).
It’s not really a rational process; I’m not consciously thinking these things through. It’s more that I can sometimes feel the story, in the same way that you can feel whether the person you’re with is trustworthy or dangerous, or can feel if you should take a new job or not. Intuitive knowing is the phrase that comes to mind, though I’m not sure where I borrowed it from; when I’m writing, I’m seeking that intuitive knowing.
Another example, because I like this kind of thing. I knew (well, I was pretty confident) that the hero and heroine journey to a city that is, to put it lightly, sketchy. There’s almost no trust there among people, and lots of fear. I got the strong sense that most people there don’t even love their children.
That was something I was pretty confident of, but it led me to questions. Why don’t these people love their children? After all, in our world family love is encoded into our DNA by evolution or by God (I personally believe it was both); and in this story I have no reason to think evolution, at least isn’t equally powerful (the Gods are another matter). So if I’m right that most parents in this city don’t love their children, why not? I tugged at that thread and got some pretty interesting answers about the brutality of their city and what I suspect is the evil of their ruler.
Another example: I was pretty confident that the hero left a certain settlement in the company of the heroine, to go to a certain city. But why? That stumped me for a few days; I went for long walks, trying to understand. I could think of many reasons that sounded plausible, or that a few readers might believe; but they all rang hollow and I let them go. I wasn’t after sounds plausible; I was after the truth. Why did the hero want to go to this city–what motivated him?
And of course, this whole thing is a learning process. Because it’s discovery not creation, my understanding of the story and the world is evolving. For most of first draft, I thought there was a race of sentient bog-cats who lived vicious lives of atomistic individualism, where they’d kill each other for a crust of bread. I still think bog-cats are in the story, but I now believe that most of them live very different lives indeed.
And this brings me to my last point.
Because I believe that the story predates me and lives outside of me, does that mean I just ignore any negative feedback? If a reader reads a section and says the battle sequence seemed implausible, can I just wave my hands and say, “Well that’s how it happened?”
No; because I don’t know how it actually happened. I know the story itself is, tautologically, realistic; in the same way that Hamilton’s life story is, tautologically, realistic. That doesn’t mean I told it right or got it right.
I like to think about Stephen King’s excellent analogy of the fossil. If I was a new paleontologist (or even an experienced one) uncovering a velociraptor for the first time, I might get it wrong. I might mistake the arms for flight-conveying wings, or miss out on the velociraptor’s feathers, or conclude (wrongly, I suspect) that the velociraptor’s signature toe-claws were actually designed by millennia of evolution in an industrial society to make them the perfect can-openers!
The velociraptor itself is realistic, and all of its pieces function perfectly together. I, as the paleontologist, am human. That means I can make mistakes in my attempt to understand and showcase the velociraptor.
But anyway, that’s how I see my writing. It’s about finding truth, not making thing up. About unearthing stories, not trying to create them.
I’m curious—if you write stories, what’s your writing process?