As a budding fantasy writer I remember rushing off to George R. R. Martin’s blog to glean some advice from a master. As luck would have it the very first questions on the FAQ page was: ‘I want to be a writer. Can you give me any advice?’ I devoured his response: Read widely young apprentice and let your curious creative soul be nourished by others that have gone before. And then, fledgling writer, do that thing that draws you back to the page again and again – write, grow strong and develop some writing muscles. (Of course I am paraphrasing for effect, but you get the drift). But then he said something that deserves to be quoted in full:
Given the realities of today’s market in science fiction and fantasy, I would also suggest that any aspiring writer begin with short stories. These days, I meet far too many young writers who try to start off with a novel right off, or a trilogy, or even a nine-book series. That’s like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest. Short stories help you learn your craft. They are a good place for you to make the mistakes that every beginning writer is going to make. And they are still the best way for a young writer to break in, since the magazines are always hungry for short SF and fantasy stories. Once you’ve been selling short stories for five years or so, you’ll have built up a name for yourself, and editors will start asking you about that first novel.
Cue needle skidding off the record with a jarring discordant thud. Hang on a minute, I’m rubbish at writing short stories. And five years worth? Five years? Five! But George I have this great whopping story in my head that is desperate to get out. And the problem with writing any fantasy for me is the world building involved. Write a 2000 word story and it takes me three months to build the world. Sorry George, it’s not going to happen.
Well a few years on, and this word of advice doesn’t seem quite so outlandish. Because one thing I’ve discovered about writing a novel with a handful of POV characters, set in a fantasy realm, is that it’s really complicated. And as the story progressed I began to see that there were great big holes that required details as rich and as commonplace as the world we experience everyday.
Perhaps I should have cut my teeth on short stories.
However being in this deep with the story, I’ve had to forge ahead and do whatever it takes to keep this novel going. This has meant spending a lot of time world building and working out backstories, and evaluating whether the story still works on the crisper canvas.
Surprisingly rather than just adding colour, the world building and backstory has really influenced the story too.
For example, there is a ring in my story. Not a ‘one ring to rule them all‘ type, but a small identifier in some larger action. I’d sketched it in and not really given much thought to what it looked like, symbolised, or why the character had it in the first place.
However while I’ve been working on the backstory of one of the characters, and coming to grips with the culture this character lives in, I found myself focussed on this ring. I’d written it as being pretty insignificant in appearance, but of significance to a small group of people. As I pondered what it looked like, it not only became very vivid in my mind, but I realised there needed to be something special about it that evoked a reaction in this group of people. As the details were pinned down, so was the impetus to move the story forward.
It’s not possible to nail down a backstory for every little detail in your novel, but the right detail can motivate your characters to action and kick-start a stalled story.
Do you use world-building or back stories to help you push through a knotty plot? Or have you ever been surprised by some seemingly insignificant detail that took the story in a whole new direction?