Lessons a Writer Learns Along the Way
Saturday, Sep. 19, 2015
Programming Note: I announced in this space last week that the Season 2 debut of The Great Galavar would premiere on September 27, with a synopsis of the story from Season 1. I am pushing that date back to October 4. I really want to get this new revamp right, and after spending some time working on it, and with my move coming next weekend, and my sister visiting me this week, it's clear now that I won't have the time I need. I apologize for the delay. I may even need to delay it another week, but once I'm in California I'm going to try very hard to make Oct. 4. Check this space next weekend.
I created The Curious Tale over sixteen years ago, and it's fair to say I've learned a few things along the way. This week I'm going to share a few nuggets of insight—literally only a few, though, because that's all I have space for. If you enjoy this kind of article let me know, and I can write more like it in the future.
Writing Hits Much Harder Than Reading
No one will have as powerful an experience as a reader of your work than you will as the writer of it. Writing a passage is a much deeper, more powerful emotional experience. Raw is the word that comes to mind.
This holds true not only for your audiences but for you as the writer. Countless are the times that I've felt naked as I bared my deepest thoughts on the page, only to return later as a reader of my own work and realize how muted and mild the experience is of reading them. Countless are the times that I wrote something and was sure I'd have to remove it during editing, because it was too visceral for me, and yet such acts of self-censorship are quite rare for me.
When you write, your words are going to be much more vivid and evocative for you than they'll be for essentially any reader, including you yourself when you review them later. Take that into account when you write. I for one tend to oversaturate my writing with emotional depth because I know that a lot of it bleeds and fades away for readers.
Everyone "Likes to Write," but Almost Nobody Actually Writes
Humans are natural storytellers, and we've come to associate storytelling with writing—too narrowly, I think. Oftentimes when people want to tell a story they think they need to write it, and that's simply not true. There are so many other ways to do it.
Moreover, most people aren't writers. They just aren't. Many people can be trained, but only to a relatively poor level. Creative writing is an extremely esoteric and intellectually demanding skill that is in no way natural to the human condition.
Other people do possess the acumen for creative writing, but aren't necessarily driven as storytellers. This type of person can produce a powerful work, but their lack of commitment to storytelling usually means they won't stick with it throughout their lives—and thus is almost as functionally unreliable as a storyteller who can't write. In contrast, a storyteller never stops telling stories. It's in the spark.
The practical takeaway from this observation is that I've learned not to rely on people who say they like writing—that is, I've learned not to rely on them as writers: as confidantes, collaborators, critics, and so forth. What I look for now, what I consider to be the gold standard, is a long record of consistent writing. For instance, my personal journal marks me as a writer.
I suppose there's another, somewhat more poignant practical takeaway here: You might not be a writer, even if you "like writing." A number of my friends, including some potential readers of this piece, may fall into that category. It's a possibility you should explore and, if applicable, make peace with. There are other ways to tell stories, if you're a storyteller—far easier ways. Likewise, if you find that you're not a writer after all, that doesn't bar you from doing some writing in the future. It simply releases you from the feeling of obligation that you should write.
My Creativity Is Seeded
Like a crystallization reaction, my creative process can't get started without a seed. If you asked me to be truly original and sit down and come up with a story premise in a complete vacuum, it would be hard for me to do and the end result would be less colorful. I think this is typical of most writers.
Instead, I work at my best when some kernel or seed of an idea comes along and inspires me. Galavar's key inspiration, all those years ago, was "What if somebody like Ganondorf wanted to rule the world but wasn't actually evil?" One of Silence's many early inspirations in that same era was the sight of Emeraldas from the motion picture version of Galaxy Express 999: a red-haired, left-handed, hard-edged space pirate in a cape, pointing her sword at the camera.
These little seeds of inspiration continue to the present day. Some of my most unexpected yet significant creative breakthroughs during the past several years have come from sources like roleplay tarot readings with Amy and my hobby of creating Magic: The Gathering cards set on Relance at the dawn of After The Hero.
It is the creative and entertainment media, of course, that provide me with most of my seeds of inspiration. For instance, I've written in the past that this one picture, of the Magic card Reckless Waif, inspired the character Spade Terlantar and an entire subplot under the Handsel Band umbrella. Just one picture!
A more recent example is that while watching a playthrough of Fire Emblem: Awakening this year on Heather's Handhelds, the character Morgan struck me as the perfect example of a male character prototype that I've been looking for in recent years. Morgan, being the avatar's offspring, is male when the avatar character is female, and vice versa. In order to write a character with a variable, sex the game's creators wrote a sex-neutral character—whom I found incredibly enjoyable in a male form. I'm sure I'll create a character of my own inspired by Morgan.
In that same Fire Emblem playthrough is an enemy character, Pheros, who—despite having only a handful of lines and appearing in only one scene of the game—immediately struck me as perfect to help flesh out DeLatia's High Command, as a defense commander. I did some treatments of her in Magic card form. In a card I titled "Pheros' Traps," which is a blue combat trick, the flavor text reads:
"Taking that fort from Pheros would have been the most annoying victory I've ever won in my life."
"What do you mean 'Would have been?'"
"Well, I retreated!"
This treatment, along with other cards, helped my own version of Pheros to take form.
That's an important detail: The things that inspire me almost always do so as seeds, and I don't mean the kind of seeds that sprout into plants. I mean the little impurities that crystals form around. The characters and plotlines I develop are original. The seeds that inspire me work best as tiny influences that get the reaction started but stay out of the way afterwards. Silence may be a red-haired, left-handed pirate who points her sword at the camera from time to time, but the similarities end there, and she's no Emeraldas.
If you're an aspiring writer, my advice for you is to set yourself up to be exposed to seeds of inspiration all the time. I leave the particulars to your able interpretation.
You Shouldn't Ignore Your Passion
Speaking of Silence, and for that matter speaking of the fact that writing hits harder than reading, it took me many years to admit publicly that Silence Terlais is the most central of the central characters in The Curious Tale. In my mind she assumed that role back in the year 2000 while the RPG was still going, but for years I masqueraded her as second to Galavar in importance, and then co-equivalent with him. She is neither. Even though Galavar is the central vein of the story premise of After The Hero—i.e., the Galan Conquest—Silence is the more central character with respect to the plots and themes that drive the story. In every respect she is more present, and more kindred. In fact there has been no character in my life whom I've felt as kindred with.
For years I didn't come out and say that in plain language. On some level I was embarrassed. I'm very interested in Galavar, but I am fundamentally more interested in Silence, and our passions are natural vulnerabilities for us. It's hard to be so open about something you're so vulnerable about.
It took me many a year to get to the point where I can present Silence as the central character, knowing full well how controversial she'll be and how widely disliked she'll be. The only concession I've made with respect to artistic integrity is to amplify her role in places like the Prelude so that there'll be no doubt to new readers that she's going to be a major presence.
And that leads to the practical application: Don't resist writing about your passions.
It's certainly possible to offer such resistance. For years I thought—to myself, even—that Silence wouldn't occupy as much space in the story as she did in my head. And I could have done that; I could have written that story. I didn't do it because eventually it became clear to me that, if I did, it would amount to a form of subtle torture, and would constitute an enormous squandered opportunity.
How's that? Because I am Silence's one chance to be revealed to the world. A Curious Tale without her dominant presence would be a waste of material. An artist gifted with a strong passion should almost never hide that. Humankind itself is better off when such passions are revealed for all to see.
People Don't Know What They Want
This one is sour grapes, I freely admit. I also admit that focus-group testing is a reliable component of the blockbuster creation process, and that art-by-consensus is a widely accepted practice.
Having said that: People don't know what they want until you show it to them. That's one of the strongest lessons I can impart to fellow aspiring writers, and creators of any stripe.
We live in an age where "business" is held up as the ideal form of human organization. I'm told that I, as a content creator, am supposed to place all confidence in the demands of my customers. They, not I, decide what my product is, should I wish to succeed commercially—and to fall short in fully monetizing one's business is widely held to be a failure of ethical proportions.
This idolatry of business works to a certain extent, and it certainly justifies itself in dollars, to the extent that dollars inform your sense of what is right (and there is some room for dollars on that particular stage, in my opinion).
However, beyond this is the world of art, of eccentric and unusual people who see the world in a different way and are driven by their own passions to manifest the contents of their minds in the form of art.
This is one of the greatest aspects of our species. Business concerns itself with survival and stability, which is the occupation of most species. Art addresses the human need for depth, meaning, purpose, and most of all magic. Most of us would be doomed to live empty and painful lives without a richness of inner thinking on these matters, and art feeds those thoughts profusely. Art is satisfying.
(And it doesn't have to be fancy-schmancy. If you like Star Wars or whatever, great! If you can fulfill your artistic needs from mainstream sources, then count yourself lucky, because you're living in a wonderful time.)
The ideal of seeing the world in terms of business models tends to constrain the innovation and breadth of expression by which artists create things that people didn't know they wanted. Therefore I am of the firm conviction that, if you are an artist, then, to the fullest extent your resources and circumstances will conscionably allow—perhaps even to the point of living in deprivation like I do—you should produce art for yourself rather than art for your customers.
Your audiences will be smaller on average, yes. But you'll still find them. And those audiences will be more meaningful to you than mere customers. One of art's finest rewards is the kindred bonds that it can forge. When you show a person something they didn't know they wanted, you have broadened their world, and they won't soon forget you.
Also, it needs to be said more clearly that there is something to be said for being that bold, decisive, self-driven artist who shows the world their stuff and makes no apologies for it. People are drawn to that kind of personality, even many people who claim they aren't.
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!