Do I Have to Write a Little More Every Day, Though?

So far, the biggest thing I needed to learn about writing a novel came from running: just like you can’t go from couch potato to marathon runner, you can’t just sit down and write 100,000 words. Even if you’ve done it before, even if you start at, say, 4 in the morning and write until midnight. Let’s break it down, just for fun:

100,000 / 20 hours = 5000 words an hour

But there’s a book with that title, so I guess that means it’s possible, right? No. Even if you can crank 5000 words in 60 minutes, you can’t do that over and over again, 60 minutes after 60 minutes, with no break1.

And if you’ve never written anything longer than, say, a 10,000-word short story before (raises hand), you definitely can’t spend 20 hours writing a novel.

But that’s ridiculous anyway, so why are we even talking about it?

The way I used to approach writing a book was:

  1. Have an idea
  2. Dawdle for a year or two
  3. Open a Word document2, and… start typing.

If this works for you, cool, but what I’ve discovered is I am definitely not a pantser: I need to plan things out. I need to know where I’m going, I need to know what the point of the scene I’m about to write is, how it serves to either move the character or plot forward (ergo, I need to know what the both of those are) otherwise I end up staring at a blinking cursor until my nose starts to bleed.

More to the point it doesn’t avail us to sit down and bang out two thousand words in a breakneck session and then write nothing for the next two weeks… because I don’t know about you but I want this novel done in months and not years. So back to the marathon metaphor: the way you train for a marathon is, you run just a little, and then a little more, and then a little more, and then a little more, until your “Oh, just going for a relaxing Sunday run” is still 15-20 K, like my crazy running friends.

Same deal here. I tell people I can do about 1000-1500 words in about 20-40 minutes 3, and that’s impressive to most people who aren’t writers in the same way as tossing off an “easy” 10 K is impressive to most people who aren’t runners, but we got here the same way.

It’s all a matter of training.

So: write a little, then write a little more. But here’s the thing, and I mentioned 5000 Words Per Hour before, here’s a big tip I took away from that book:

You need to track how much you write

Do this:

  1. Choose a piece of spreadsheet software. Say, Numbers on the Mac, Excel on Windows.
  2. In one table (Numbers uses separate ‘tables’ on a single sheet, in Excel each sheet is basically a big table but you can just use different ranges of that sheet as little independent tables) make a long list of dates in one column
  3. In the next column, tally how many words you write per day

Do this. Right now, I’m serious.

My writing tends to fall into two buckets—The Almighty Novel, and Everything Else—so I use two separate tables. Novel Words, which is how many words I threw at the draft, and Total Words, which is Novel Words plus everything else I wrote that day, including notes and journal entries and, for example, this blog post. Here’s a pic:

I’ve dropped a handy chart in there with a trend line. That’s cute, but… what’s the point of this busywork?

The point is, I can see that if I keep up the current pace, in eight weeks I should be averaging 4000 words per day instead of 2500. And you can watch that trend line over time. When it starts getting shallower, you know something’s up.

We can look at ranges of time, too. Look at this period: Banging that novel out.

Yeah, baby. But in the last week or so, I’ve been limping along. Full disclosure:

Now I can pull back and examine… well, why? What else is going on in my life, what can I do to get back in the groove? This is where journaling comes in handy.

If you don’t quantify any of this stuff, you can’t grasp it by the neck and take back control.

The trend lines are there to reinforce this message: you can’t improve all at once, you improve a little over time. In his book Atomic Habits4, James Clear talks about getting 1% better every day. Like compound interest, this sneaks up on you: after a year of writing 1% more per day, you’re doing 37 times what you started with.

Let’s pause for a second, that’s ridiculous. So if you were writing 100 words a day, now you’re writing 3700. That’s a novel in a month instead of in three years. Gimme gimme.

And this goal is much more realistic, less threatening, less fear-inducing, than thinking “OH GOD I HAVE TO WRITE A WHOLE NOVEL???!!” No. Someday a whole novel will have been written by you. All you have to do is, write today. Try to write as much as you wrote yesterday. In fact, just try to write 1% more. And you’ll get there, eventually.

  1. And Chris Fox never suggests this, I’m not calling him out. Not only is that not at all my place, but it’s also a great book.
  2. Literally don’t get me started
  3. Depending mostly on how well I can visualize the scene, I’m finding out. Action pours out of me, two people talking in a room takes ages.
  4. I may have mentioned this before. I will mention this again. Go read this book, seriously.

Producing as Much as We Consume

Been thinking of putting up a page here with book recommendations, and/or links to the things I mention all the time (Chris Fox, Pressfield, etc.)

But it also occurred to me: it’s dangerous to spend more time reading than writing. Or reading at the expense of writing. What if we agree to write a certain fixed amount as the “price” of making a recommendation? What if you wrote a page for every page of a book you recommended?

Pretty soon you’d be recommending your own books. Well, if politeness allowed such a thing.

The Learning Trap

I’ve bought a lot of “infoproducts” over the last few years. And some are excellent. Many feel oily, though: they teach you how to make money, quit your job, live the life of your dreams by…. creating infoproducts. This sort of self-referential loop, we’ve all been warned, will leave us with hair growing out of our palms.

But I want those outcomes so much, and you know what? I always think because I’ve spent my heard-earned money on a course, now I’m invested and now surely I’ll have the motivation to work!

Well, no.

Not for me, anyway. It turns out if I spend a couple hundred bucks on something it doesn’t really make me get out of bed in the morning to do that thing. That isn’t me being fancy, like a couple hundred bucks isn’t a lot of money, it’s just apparently not how my brain works. Okay.

You can consume information forever which would be fine except it feels like you’re doing work, and you’re not. I could teach you a couple things because I’ve read and watched videos for hours on end about writing… but it doesn’t mean I can sit down and grind out a half-decent novel1.

At some point you have to elevate implementation over information, and a mentor of mine suggested declaring the coming period an Implementation Season, where you pay less attention to incoming information and just create output.

Sounds great! But this is not easy, because information is

  1. Seductive, and
  2. Everywhere

I don’t really want to shut off the input entirely, you know? Because, well… let’s be honest, because the reason you sign up for a course after reading the hypnotic sales page or you buy the book after reading the Amazon reviews is there’s a little nagging part of you full of hope, thinking, oh, this one will be what makes everything finally slide into place.

Oops.

For Example

An offer emerged from my inbox for one of these joint-venture deals, where two dozen people throw their books and courses and videos about writing into a hat, and instead of the two grand it’d cost you to go buy each one individually2, you pay fifty bucks for the lot.

It’s so tempting, it might as well come slathered in maple syrup. 🍁

And I bought it! Because if you read ten books and nine of them aren’t great but one changes your life, you’re out maybe a hundred bucks and a few hours, which is a lot less than the cost of, oh, I don’t know, a university degree.

Right??

The problem isn’t really the money, it’s I could easily spend the next 300 hours poring over all this material instead of writing, which isn’t really going to help me be a writer.

What I really need to do is close my web browser and get to cranking, get to staring my inadequacies in the face long enough to actually produce these words.

A Modest Proposal

So I made myself the deal I suggested up top, and I recommend this to anyone who has to choose between consuming and producing (i.e. all of us): if you’re going to recommend a book, you’ve got to write, say, a thousand words first.

If you want to recommend another book, you’ve got to write another thousand.

As long as I bought all this material, I’ll be here to share whatever I learn. But the point is to keep writing even while I’m learning, instead of being the most-learned learner with no books to his name.

Let’s you and I adopt this rule: between every chapter of the latest book that will finally turn you into a writer, between every module of the course you’re still a little shell-shocked you spent so much money on, commit to writing those words.

At the end of all the courses and all the books that were supposed to turn us into writers, surprise! We’ll have done a bunch of writing. So we’ll end up writers after all.

  1. Though I’m trying.
  2. Not that you even knew they existed, which is the point of the joint venture…

Delilah Dawson on Finding the Time to Write

I’ve been loving the “Ten Things” bursts of writing advice Delilah S. Dawson posts on Twitter. This one, on Finding the Time to Write, grabbed me by the lapels and shook, so let’s talk about it. All quotations below are her words, from the linked thread1.

  1. My best tip first: DON’T LET YOUR WRITING PROCESS GET PRECIOUS. By which I mean that you don’t want to get too caught up in a ritual– at this time, drinking this coffee, in this chair. Make it so that you can write anywhere, laptop or pad. Keep your process nimble, not rigid.

Like all writing advice, the ritual thing is mutually exclusive: some folks say, have a ritual, always write in the same place or at the same time or using the same device… but doesn’t the above directly contradict that?

So which one is RIGHT?

Well, there is no right. All that matters is you get the words in, I’m pretty sure that’s Delilah’s point. Note she doesn’t say “don’t have a ritual, throw out your lucky t-shirt”, she says don’t get too caught up in your ritual.

It’s one thing to have a lucky t-shirt, but if you can’t work on your novel because it’s in the wash, you’re screwed.

I suspect that when authors talk about their rituals they’re not to be taken too literally: yes, when all the pieces are in place, Stephen Pressfield does all the stuff he describes in the The War of Art, but I would guess he probably types a couple hundred words into his phone now and again.

And whether he does or not, look: I want to embrace both worldviews. I am happy to have a ritual, it works well for me2. But after reading this thread, you know what? I was sitting in a pub waiting for my friends to show up, and instead of scrolling Twitter I opened Ulysses and just started writing.

Fast and messy. And there’s an extra 150 words by the time my mate showed up. That felt great.

Which brings us to,

  1. Stop thinking you need 4 hours to get anything done. Start thinking in doable chunks. Let’s say you aim for 1000 words a day, about an hour of writing. Do a page in the morning, a page at lunch, two pages at night. BOOM. Totally doable. Those little bits add up!

I’m not good at acting like writing books is my job. I don’t sit at my desk for hours at a time; I get up early, write for 20-40 minutes, and then go have breakfast.

After that, most of the day runs away with itself. I’ve had a hard time putting the writing at the forefront: that is, fitting the rest of the day in around writing as opposed to slipping a little writing into my day.

It’s frustrating. But this tip reminds me I am still getting somewhere: I’m 12,000 words into the draft in about two weeks; I wish it was even more, but that’s still much, much, much better than I’ve ever done except that one time I did NaNoWriMo: and the output of that frenzied month never went anywhere.

This time it feels more sustainable: if I have to go get a job again in a few months, so be it, as long as I’m up at 6 and writing before breakfast, this book will get done.

  1. Make writing A PRIORITY. When you’re just starting out, it can be hard to treat writing like a job– like it’s important. I was insecure about it, too. Telling family you need time and they need to respect it for what feels like a hobby is hard. THIS IS ART. ART IS IMPORTANT.

This. Fundamentally, this is what I grapple with the most.

It’s one of those cases of “I know I want to do this… so why aren’t I?” I don’t know about you, but I’ve hit a lot of such roadblocks over the years. Here’s a thing I want to do… but somehow I spent the whole day doing other stuff instead.

What’s going on here? One part is, just wanting to do stuff doesn’t seem sufficient if

  1. Doing something else is easier, or
  2. You have the habit of doing something else (a special case of 1.), and
  3. It’s not totally clear what to do next, or
  4. Something about the thing you want to do threatens your identity

That last one, which Delilah touches on in the quoted tweet above, is at the heart of it. It’s subtle, cryptic, it’s this thing we know is there but it disappears when we turn to look, it slips thorugh our fingers when we grasp for it.

It’s that thing Stephen Pressfield called The Resistance: The part of you that doesn’t want to change.

Is this just me? It’s hard to give myself over to my obsession with writing, with storytelling—it’s hard to take it as seriously as I want to take it. I want to be like a monk at this stuff: I really do want writing to be the axis the rest of my life orbits around. But it’s like this: I had a job, and tried to fit pleasant things around the job. Writing was one of them. Right now, I don’t have a job, bless me, so I just do pleasant things and try to fit writing around them.

But writing must become the job. It isn’t easy to flip that switch just because those words are capitalized in a tweet, even if I know they’re true, which I do. Maybe the secret is in that word priority. Delilah says “treat writing as a priority”, and the correct way to think about “priority”3 is that you can’t have A priority, you can only have THE priority: the priority is the one thing that can’t be allowed to die.

The core of it is focus. You focus on your priority. Once you’ve done that, you focus on whatever thing is the next priority. If you want to write but you have pick your kid up from school, picking your kid up is the priority. But once you’ve done so, then writing is your priority, and you shut the office door. Or put your headphones in, or whatever it takes.

So far the most effective way to make writing the prioriity for me is to do it first. But I want to go beyond that: I don’t want the production I can do in a day to be constrained to how long I can wait before breakfast, I don’t want to lose a day of writing just because I slept in until 8.

I want to reach the point where I spend a nice 3-hour block of time in a day working on the book; I’m sure I won’t be typing the whole time, god forbid, but I’ll be focused on the work like it’s a job.

When I was a software developer I was rarely focused on writing code for more than maybe 20-40 minutes at a time. Your mind wanders, you need to pee, you want a coffee, you want to chat. That’s fine as long as you come back and find some more time to be focused.

Bless the writer: frankly it’s a bit harder to get back into the headspace of a complex piece of software and working on it requires more complicated tools: I never got any coding done on the train or in the bar. We have it a little easier in that regard, that’s something to rejoice about.

I’ll keep working towards the point where I treat bookwritin’ like a full-time job so that it can be my full-time job. I’m not sure how to get there, yet, but Delilah’s tips took me a step further along the path.

  1. I haven’t used the cute little twitter-embed widget, because frankly I don’t trust Twitter not to fuck it up; either to not exist anymore in five years, or to, I don’t know, decide they need to start injecting ads into other people’s websites via that mechanism. For that matter, I assume it already carries tracking functionality… forget it. So I’ve just quoted and attributed the words themselves, which are the important bit.
  2. I hope it does eventually, anyway, it’s a work in progress.
  3. Chris fox just did a video about this topic

Do I Have to Write Every Day, Though?

I’m pretty sure I do, yeah. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t magically happen for free.

My current status is I’ve got a novel outlined and for the last week I’ve begun the drafting of the thing. I’ve given myself an ambitous goal: get it drafted in twelve weeks. I want to get it done so the editing cycles can begin, because I know it’s going to be rough. Assuming the draft is around one hundred thousand words (it’s epic fantasy, after all), that’s about 1300 words a day, starting on 31 December 2018. Depending where your head’s at and what level of experience you have with writing, 1300 words every day may sound like crazy talk, or child’s play.

It doesn’t sound like very much to me: I’ve been writing at least a thousand words a day with reasonable consistency for the past few weeks… but they haven’t been novel words. Here’s my word counts on the book from the past week:

  • Monday: 1006 (77%)
  • Tuesday: 379 (29%)
  • Wednesday: 0 (0%)
  • Thursday: 765 (59%)
  • Friday: 669 (51%)
  • Saturday: 0 (0%)
  • Sunday: 0 (0%)

Hmm. Two observations: I did write every day last week, but like I said the writing wasn’t for the novel. I wrote reflections, I wrote things that could become blog posts like this one, but I only threw keystrokes at scenes for the book on four of the seven days.

And, when I did, it was harder than I imagined it would be. It was hard to get into that flow state where the words just pour out. I have a list of scenes and I know where the story is going in each phase, so it’s not like I’m constantly asking “what happens next?”

Except locally, in each scene, I am. I have a pretty visual brain, so I tend to see pictures of the scene in my head; here’s the guy standing by the deck rail on the ship’s forecastle, looking out to sea and day-dreaming about adventure.

The thing that makes it hardest to keep cranking those scenes is sheer self-doubt: the constant observation what’s coming out of my fingers is not nearly as good as I want it to be. The description is lame, the dialogue is stilted, the action is too fast or too slow…

“This’ll never be a book”, whispers the voice, “you’re wasting your time.”

Oof. No wonder most people—like me, over and over again—give up on this. If you’re gonna sit there and type for, say, an hour or two each day it’s got to be some kind of fun otherwise you won’t do it. I’m quite convinced you don’t accomplish hard things that take a long time unless you either are under the lash or you figure out the version of the task that is fun for you.

You might be able to force your way through a 2000-word short story, but you’re not squeezing an entire novel through clenched fingers.

I’m thinking back to when I did NaNoWriMo in 2012: I did indeed write 50,000 words in a month, which is sixteen-hundred-and-something a day. If only I were doing that now, I’d hit my goal!

So what was different?

I remember just focusing on hitting that number, maybe that’s what’s missing. I’m looking at something like 8000-9000 words a week, a goal I could just put my head down and type frantically towards. Measure it every day.

Getting to the end of this week, I think it was Saturday, and realizing I’d only done 2819 didn’t feel great (and it didn’t translate into novel-writing on the weekend, either).

In terms of eliminating the self-doubt, I keep reminding myself that everything can be fixed in the future. Writing a first draft is just producing a pile of raw materials you can shape, the way you need to cut down a bunch of trees before you can make the logs that you’ll heave into place to build your log cabin1. If you’re worried about getting every stroke of the axe just right, you’ll freeze to death on the cold, cold ground: it’s the wrong place in the process to pour your time and attention.

Just take another breath and swing the axe as best you can.

Hey, there’s some magic of writing for you: I didn’t have that metaphor when I sat down this morning, but I’m quite pleased with it. 🙂

And I have to believe that’s what happens in the muck and horror of drafting the book, too. I know where the story has to go, I know a bunch of the things that happen in vague terms, the sitting down every day is where I find out the specifics, and that’s a kind of fun in itself.

The other way I’m trying to keep it fun, and the impetus for doing the planning up front, is an idea from my writing coach and elsewhere: you don’t need to write the book from the beginning to the end.

I have a stack of index cards, each one an idea for a scene, like “Introduce the expedition at sea”, and before (either the night before or right before) I sit down to draft, I can just pick the one that excites me the most.

Again, this is all in the service of producing raw materials, not “getting it right the first time”; so even if I write a scene in the middle of the novel and then the things I find out while writing the earlier bits necessitate changing or eliminating that scene… well, that’s fine. It’s a couple extra keystrokes. And they come later, in the future; the future I’ll never reach but by sitting down and typing.

I hope this little exploration is helpful to someone else, that’s why I’m putting it on the internet. You might also be sitting there staring at a blank page or lamenting the lack of words you’ve produced for that big, beautiful dream you’ve had for years if you could only somehow force yourself to actually do it.

As for me, writing this makes me want to throw some keystrokes at the book, so here I go.

And there it is: when all else fails, write about how you’re having trouble writing.

  1. Isn’t that a pleasantly old-fashioned, rustic workmanlike image of artisanal craftsmanship? Pardon me while I don a flannel shirt and wait for my beard to grow.

What difference does mindset make, anyway?

I did it again: I signed up for a ‘free indie author summit’, so I guess I’m on a bunch more authors’ mailing lists, and I have a bunch more videos to watch and take notes on.

This all seems great until you realize it’s just another form of procrastination. But let’s dutifully try to extract some value. The first three videos, by Joanna Penn, Adam Cross, and Jennifer Blanchard, are about “mindset”.

I’ve already been convinced mindset is important. The last few years of paying attention to people I admire, authors and entrepreneurs, makes a pretty compelling case. Among other things I’ve adopted the idea of doing daily affirmations: you get up in the morning, and you look in the mirror, and you tell yourself about the person you want to be.

I’ll admit it: I’m doing this every morning. I have a repeating reminder in my phone. I look in the mirror and I say out loud, “I am a successful author,” and then I describe what that looks like for me.

Does it help? Remains to be seen. The idea is, you put yourself in a mental state where you start to do the things that will make the visualization a reality.

I know, it sounds like airy-fairy nonsense to me, too.

Let’s put it this way, though: If you look in the mirror every day, literally or not, and tell yourself, “I’m a failure, I’ll never finish a whole novel, I’m no good at this, I’ll never be as good as whoever,” do you reckon your chances of success will,

a) improve,

b) plummet, or

c) stay the same?

I know you want to say it’ll have no effect whatsoever because we love to cling to the fantasy that we’re beings of pure reason, and surely nothing as stupid and unscientific as talking to ourselves could make any difference in our behaviour.

But you know what? There seems to be science that suggests it does, and it doesn’t take much introspection to realize your self-talk can really mess up your mood. So why wouldn’t that work in reverse?

And if there’s a chance this will yield an advantage and the only downside is I feel a little silly I don’t need to read twenty peer-reviewed articles to give it a shot.

I did get a good piece of clarifying advice from Jennifer’s video, though. She talked about shaping the mindset practice, that thing you do every day, to the place you are in your journey. Because ultimately the point of mindset is to guide your actions—if you don’t take action, your mindset is totally irrelevant. So if you’re just starting out, like I am, to build the habit of writing, structure your language around that. I’ve been saying things to myself like, “I’m a successfull author, I write books and have an audience of people that can’t wait to read them. I work on what I want, when I want, how I want, I live the lifestyle I want…” well, that’s a nice visualization of my desired identity, but it’s taking a long view.

Instead, Jennifer suggests something like this, based on the actions I need to perform:

“I really enjoy writing”

“It’s easy to sit down every day and write my words”

“I have a habit of writing every day”

“I’m excited to make a little more progress on the story I’m telling”

I like this because I like positive feedback loops. People think of the phrase “positive feedback loop” like the “positive” means “good”, but it doesn’t; it means “increasing in magnitude”, and we must focus on that. You set up your mindset to do certain things, then you do them and find out the mindset is slightly more aligned with reality (hey, I DID enjoy writing my words and making a little more progress), which strengthens your mindset, which makes it a little easier to live the things you’re telling yourself are true…

Repeat a thousand times and call me in a year.

I’m going to give this a shot in the coming days and weeks and see if my consistency improves. If you try it, let me know how that goes for you, too.

History in Fiction

I’ve been spending a lot of time playing a game I hadn’t played in a decade: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. I’ve spent too much time playing it, because that’s always been an easy habit for me to fall back into. But I tell myself it’s not a total loss…

I’ve always loved fantasy worlds, where “fantasy” usually means “appears to take place in what I understand to be something like Medieval Europe, except in a parallel universe with dragons and magic and stuff”. I can delve in and theorize about why that was always my thing, moreso than, say, true crime (which is more of a recent fascination), but right now I just want to focus on the features of those stories. And specifically I’m going to talk about what makes the made-up world of The Elder Scrolls series so delicious to me.

The first one of those games I played was Daggerfall, which came out in 1996. It was very ambitious, but the technology couldn’t really keep up: there was this huge world to explore, but a lot of it felt the same because it was generated procedurally, and a lot of it didn’t work properly. I remember lamenting that I loved the concept of the game, and I wished they made a version where the world was smaller but much more detailed (and less buggy).

Then the next game in the series, Morrowind, came out, and I started to worry that Bethesda Software had microphones hidden in my house.

What I loved so much about both Morrowind and its follow-up, Oblivion, is how they both let you wander around a fantasy world doing all sorts of things. They have a storyline, but you can ignore it and find other stories going on in the same world, or just invent your own. I refer to that kind of game as a “fantasy sandbox”, and I think it must be my favourite style: I’ve poured hundreds of hours into these two games over the years.

You could say one of my reasons for writing books is that I finally want to play in my own fantasy sandbox.

The fictional world behind these games—and there are close to a dozen titles in the series at this point, some major, some minor—is incredibly, wonderfully full of detail and history. There’s a creation myth for the game world, and the world is divided into provinces, and each one has a different indigenous race—some human, some not—with their own takes on the myth. There’s this massive history spread over four “eras” that’s accumulated over time from the writing of these games.

As someone who wants to make an immersive fantasy world of my own, it’s breathtaking to see such scope… and incredibly exciting.

So I was thinking the other day (in the shower, where all real thinking takes place) about what gives this fictional history its legs. What makes it compelling, and what, if you’re going to create your own fictional world, do you need to do or avoid doing, in order to make your history compelling?

What you need

If you want to create a history that has some resonance with people living in our world, which has its own history that we tend to be exposed to and understand in specific ways, well, real history is where you start. Our world has this set of information about the past that is generally recorded, preserved, and disseminated. For our purposes, we’re going to split it into two different buckets:

History, and Myth.

This is a deliberate simplification, because we could spend an entire Arts degree debating the distinctions. For right now, I’m going to say “history” tends to have a physical record, a source that’s widely agreed-upon, and “myth” tends to… not have either of those.

Like I said: deliberate simplification. Stick with me here.

Your world’s history, like our world’s history, will probably include “historical” information that is more recent, better agreed-upon, with some physical record (like people who saw it who are still alive, or detailed writings, or actual physical properties like a battlefield or ruin), sitting on top of a background of older, less agreed-upon, less verifiable and probably more fantastic myth.

Let’s start with creation myths. Our world has many, but, given the limitations of reality as we currently understand it, we can neither confirm nor wholly deny any of them. In fantasy worlds, however, the creation myths can play much more direct and literal roles in the ongoing stories in the world.1

One way to build your world’s history is to start at its literal beginning. But having to invent a creation myth every time you want to write about a dragon is a little tedious. So for my purposes, I have some vague, cool ideas about my world’s creation myths… and as I think about the stories I want to tell, I’ll start filling in the gaps.

Once you have an idea for how the world was created, you start filling in how the other stuff got there, too, and the Bible shows how simply you can do that: on the first day God created this, and on the second day, that, and on the last day, he created Man… and then it got complicated.

If you have a few different races of intelligent beings, as many fantasy worlds do, how did they each get created? Were they split off from each other or from some older, extinct race? Does the oldest race have the most advanced civilization? If not, why not? Did they have a very advanced civilization but it was destroyed? Or are there reasons they didn’t develop as quickly as “younger” races, or in the same directions?

Just answering questions like those gives you heaps of story material, and you can drill down and down and down… maybe the ancient precursors of humankind in your world had incredible technologies powered by magic, but they tried to use their technology to ascend to godhood, and the actual gods struck them down, or fomented a terrible civil war that ripped their civilization apart… and now you can make up the details of that war, the names of the two major states or cities involved, who their rulers were, what were a couple of the key battles of that war…

And you don’t ever need to write a whole book about the above, though you can! But it provides you with this rich topsoil in which to grow the stories you’re going to tell in your fantasy world. When you need a reason for why things are the way they are in your story, you can look back at that history: the dangerous cave full of weird magical traps and guardians that the characters have to quest through to find the Sword of Awesome—that cave could be a remnant of the war above.

Again, you never need to mention the history, but its presence suffuses the stories you tell with my favourite word: verisimilitude. It helps you come up with the details that make your world feel real.

The other direction

You don’t have to start from the beginning, either. You can move in the other direction: given the story you want to tell, what is the recent history of the world behind it? For example, the stories I’m working on focus on an empire that is in the midst of expansion. One of the first things I wondered after coming up with this idea was, “Okay, fantasy empire, great…. But how do empires come to exist? Why do you get an empire and not just kingdoms or feudal states?” So I turned again to the history of our world.

I found a great video on what makes an empire viable. It uses examples both from our world and from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, really. If you click that link and go watch it instead of reading the rest of this, I won’t be offended.2

And at a friend’s recommendation, I started reading The Origins of Political Order, which looks at why, exactly, different cultures in different parts of the world achieved “statehood” at different times. We can apply all of those principles to our fantasy world… but, as always, only as much as we need to.

A simple example is, if you have an empire, then it got to be an empire (as opposed to a smaller state) by absorbing some existing states. Now there’s got to be a story there; how did that happen? Often, there was warfare, and even if you don’t need to figure out all the details of that conflict you can come up with, say, a single battle—The Battle at Minotaur Pass—and make a main or side character be a veteran of that battle. How did they end up there? How did they comport themselves? Did they fight nobly? Did they run away? Did they kill people? Did they witness the destruction of people and places they loved? And how did those events shape who they are in the story you’re telling now? This adds so much depth and potential to even a “template” character like the gruff sergeant who has to teach the hero how to swing a longsword.

I’ve said plenty about asking questions to work out details of your world’s history. In the next post in this series, I’ll talk about the dangers of doing exactly that.

  1. In The Lord of the Rings mythology, and I realize the risk I’m taking by saying this off the cuff and probably getting some details slightly wrong, the god or entity that was responsible for creation first created other entities, called the Valar, and then either it or the Valar created a sort of second tier of entities called the Maiar. Gandalf is actually one of these Maiar—so this character that plays a large role in the events happening in the “present” of the story was actually a part of the world’s creation myth. That’s pretty cool.
  2. To be totally honest, I will be a little offended, but I’ll try not to let it show.

No Switch to Flip

I posted to this blog for a few weeks and then, like every other time I’ve ever tried blogging, I stopped. I stopped pretty much everything, in fact: writing, working out, etc. Right now, today, I’m working my way back. I don’t know about you, but I always want there to be a switch. When I was a kid I remember distinctly writing in a notebook that I’d had this revelation. Maybe I was thirteen. The revelation was that there isn’t this switch that gets flipped and now you’re an adult, possessed of all the knowledge and capabilities adolescent-you lacks.

You do change, but it’s slow, and it’s not always in the ways you think.

I started blogging in 2011… and 2013… and 2017. But if you look back at this site, the earliest post is from 2018. What used to happen is, I’d make a few posts, excited to be doing this… and then I’d stop. And then, after six months or a year of inactivity, those couple of lonely islands in a sea of unproductive time would fill me with shame, and I’d just delete the thing. Until, a few years later, I’d start all over again.

I was and am jealous of those folks who have a blog for a decade or more; they can look back on this mountain of work they’ve slowly accumulated. The same is true for the fiction side, as I’ve said before: I love the idea of standing on top of a mountain of stuff you made. Not just one or two things breaking through the filmy surface of distraction and laziness once or twice in your life, but regular, consistent production. It doesn’t have to be genius work, most if not all of it won’t be, it just has to be yours. In the world. Outside of your head. Made. Done.

Sometimes, always, there’s no magic switch: the tricky and terrifying thing is that you just have to keep choosing to show up. It’s true in relationships and exercise and writing, anything that slowly builds a mountain one rock at a time. I always wanted there to be a switch that flipped and then I wouldn’t have to worry anymore about whether or not I was going to do the work.

But I’m losing faith such a switch exists—or gaining clarity that it doesn’t.

What I hope instead is that I reach the place where there’s a habit, and, the same way I don’t have to wonder if I’m going to brush my teeth before I go to bed tonight, I won’t have to wonder “will I write today?” But maybe that never happens. What I’ve realized I can do, though, must do, if only to never again feel like I gave up on this, is not mind the times I fall off: just keep showing back up.

Early

So to get back on the horse, I’m doing a three-week challenge: wake up at six in the morning and write at least one thousand words. First thing, before you do anything else. I’m on day seventeen as I edit and post this, and it’s been going pretty smoothly. I’ll say this, though: every time I get up at six I wish I was getting up at seven instead. I’m going to do an experiment when this phase is over: I’m going to try waking up at seven and writing, for, say, a week, and see if I actually feel different upon waking, or if I always feel like “it’s too early”.

I suspect it’ll be the latter: wanting to hit snooze just one more time is merely a passing feeling.

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of waking up early, and, fair enough, but I don’t think it’s magic; look, the point is to do the writing, the thing I’ll otherwise spend all day thinking about but not doing, the thing I’ll feel like shit because I didn’t do. I’ve got to do that first before the rewarding activities of eating breakfast and drinking coffee and catching up on the internet and going for a walk and playing video games, because all of those activities can and do stretch out to fill the whole day.

I still have a nagging voice telling me I’m not writing enough, but at least it’s a start. I did something, and I did it every day. If I write a thousand words a day I can work on pushing it to two thousand. If I go back to writing zero, well, I’m back where I came from.

When you do a challenge like this you have to plan. One thing I did right away was create a little three-week calendar on graph paper, and I wrote in the dates and highlighted the weekend days in red. The red is a warning that weekends are often a break in routine, they require more deliberation to wake up early and to therefore go to bed at the right time.

The red highlights were a reminder to consider this beforehand: instead of realizing it’s Friday night and I’m staying out ’til midnight but, oops, I wanted to wake up at six tomorrow, I’d have to be planning for Friday night that whole day.

Likewise, for going to bed earlier. Once or twice, I stayed up past midnight and then woke up at six. And I did get up at six, because, dammit, I was going to do this challenge. And I could always go back to bed for a couple more hours afterwards. It still feels terrible, though, so most days I started going to bed earlier. Doing this requires planning that rolls backwards through the rest of the day: I wanted to be in bed with nothing left to do but read a bit until ten and then turn out the light. That meant whatever else I wanted to do during the evening had to stop at nine at the latest. And then that becomes easier because you were up at six and you’re tired by nine anyway, and you’ve already had fifteen hours in your day, how much more do you need? When you get up after nine in the morning it’s easy to stay up til midnight; when you get up at six, it gets a lot less easy.

I talked about switches, wishing I could find and flip the switch to shunt myself from the inconsistent writer track to the writes all the time track. But maybe a more apt metaphor for how we really change is, we need to set up roadblocks for ourselves, forcing us to navigate onto the right roads. We’re not Nietzschean super-beings of unlimited and awesome willpower, it turns out: we’re creatures of habit, but that’s fine. The difference between us and, say, a lab rat, is we can become aware of the routines running our lives and change them, maybe not through force of will, but through the deliberate construction of an environment, both internal and external, which slowly molds us into the people we want to be.

That sure sounds a lot less satisfying than just flipping a switch, but my experience is that the switch is a fantasy. The other… well, I’m hoping it isn’t.