Writing speculative fiction is not an exercise in chaos, nor is it the literary equivalent of “throwing spaghetti against the wall and keeping what sticks”.
At the same time, the picture at left does feel strangely familiar. Especially when writing the first draft of a new novel.
The “rules” for writing fiction are very much in the eye of the beholder. While there is a consistent body of wisdom setting parameters for the genre, even among some of the most successful authors, there can be a wide range of strongly-held opinions.
A famous example on the topic of adverbs:
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” ~ Stephen King
“Adverbs and adjectives are rich and good and nourishing. They add colour, life, immediacy.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin
So, which expert’s advice do you take?
The same can also be true for the age-old conundrum when approaching a new writing project: to plan, or not to plan?
Many writers and writing instructors insist that you map out the structure, storyline, and characters before starting to create the actual content.
Other writers advocate for sitting down with a blank piece of paper (or a blank laptop screen), and simply begin writing and “see what comes out”. It’s known among writers as “pantsing”—a reference to the old adage, “flying by the seat of your pants.”
A famous quote for this approach has been variously attributed to Stephen King and Terry Pratchett (and probably others).
“The first draft is just you telling the story to yourself.”
Elizabeth Lyon, author of ‘A Writer’s Guide to Fiction’, has a markedly different view. “Perhaps some writers believe that preparation or structure will stifle creativity… I can understand their choice—and predict their failure.”
So, again, which expert’s advice do you take?
Honestly, when I write, I do a bit of both. The first draft of a new novel is more or less free-fall (pantsing). I wrestle everything into submission in subsequent rewrites.
When I decided to try my hand at a science-fiction novel (and having just finished reading Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’), I thought it would be a fun challenge to ‘tell myself the story’ first.
It was fun. And creative. And a huge, heaping pile of hard work in subsequent drafts, as I wrestled with “telling other people the story”.
The first book in the Tracker Trilogy was a free-flow, ‘tell yourself the story first’ adventure. The second and third books were mapped out beforehand—and yet, as the content was written, the map began to resemble (at times) Captain Barbossa’s interpretation of the Pirates’ Code:
“It’s more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”
Creative writing is often like that. That’s why it’s ‘creative’—it seems to have a mind of its own. What’s important to remember is this:
“First drafts don’t have to be perfect, they just have to be written.”
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” ~ Terry Pratchett
“The first draft of anything is [dreck].” ~ Ernest Hemingway
“Edit. Or regret it. Depend on this, your story does.” ~ Master Yoda
(Okay, I made that one up, but it’s something Yoda would‘ve said, if writing was a Jedi art.)