For me, the process of writing a story is an adventure. As a writer of epic fantasy, people often ask, “How do you world build? How do you establish plot lines? How do you create characters? How do you build magic systems?” To each and every one of those questions, the answer is simple. I don't.
So many people devote countless hours (some take years!) building a fantastical world. They spend days and weeks fretting over magic systems. They agonize until the sun comes up about the plot. I get it. There are a lot of people who require structure. Hey, if that works for them, great, but I don't have the patience, nor the time to devote to these things when I could be writing instead. I don’t need to stress over things my characters are going to sort out for themselves anyway.
What do I mean by that? Well, in some circles, I am called a ‘pantser.’ I had never heard of this term until a few months ago. It means I fly by the seat of my pants. Truth be told, I like to think I fly by the seat of my character's pants. When I sit down to write, I haven't spent weeks agonizing over scene development or crisis management. Heck, I don't even know what the land looks like around the next bend in the trail. The beauty is, I don't have to. My characters tell me everything I need to know as they experience it.
My worldbuilding consists of maintaining two detailed excel spreadsheets, which, by the way, are made and added to as the story progresses. Nothing is done beforehand. One spreadsheet, the places spreadsheet, has a tab for everyplace, road, river, etc. I put in the story—each with their own description. The other spreadsheet, the people spreadsheet, lists almost every character mentioned, with 3 subcategories: Physical Description, Clothing, and Other. (The obligatory guy that shows up and becomes collateral damage, doesn’t count.)
At some point, I generate a map, but not before the story is well underway. Why, because the characters haven’t told me what’s on the map yet. And magic systems? Huh? I write fantasy. Magic is an inherent part of the story. I don’t explain how people stay alive by describing the intricacies of breathing: oxygen enters one’s lungs via a tube called an esophagus and then passes through…you get what I’m saying? You just accept the fact that the character’s body is capable of breathing. That being said, I don’t need to explain how magic works—by definition, it’s magic!
There are days when the writing process doesn’t flow. Those days are tough. Some people like to hide behind the security curtain many refer to as writer’s block. I refuse to let myself do this. On the days writing doesn’t come naturally, my word count suffers for sure, but I still get a count. I force myself to write the word, ‘The,’ and then the next word, and then the one after that. You might surprise yourself. Once you change your mindset from “I can’t do it” to “I am doing it,” more often than not, the so-called ‘writer’s block’ disappears. Don’t worry if it’s not Pulitzer prize winning material—that’s what editing is for!
For me, writing a story is simple. I put a character in a room, or on a trail, or in a boat, and all I need to do is have them place that first foot in front of the other and give them a shove. The rest is easy. The land and their story will evolve before their eyes. My job as a writer is to keep up and tell the reader what my characters are experiencing.
Life is short. Don’t let it pass you by with your characters locked inside your head. If you don’t write it, no one can read it. Sit in front of your keyboard, look through your character’s eyes, and take part in the wondrous adventure awaiting them.
Richard H. Stephens
Born in Simcoe, Ontario, in 1965, Richard began writing circa 1974, a bored child looking for something to while away the long, summertime days. His penchant for reading The Hardy Boys led to an inspiration one sweltering summer afternoon when he and his best friend realized, "Hey, we could write one of those." And so, Richard did.
As his reading horizons broadened, so did his writing. Star Wars inspired Richard to write a 600-page novel about outer space that caught the attention of a special teacher, Mr. Woodley, who saw his talent and encouraged him to keep writing.
A few years later, Richard visited a local bookstore. The proprietor introduced him to Stephen R. Donaldson and Terry Brooks. Richard's writing life was forever changed.
Amazon Author Page: www.amazon.com/author/richardhstephens
YouTube Channel: https://bit.ly/2NKpOhn
Three weeks into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and I’m seeing a lot of people on social media say they’ve hit a wall when it comes to their work in progress (WIP). Let’s face it, churning out 2,000 or more words a day every day for weeks on end is a challenging pace.
When I’m stuck with a WIP, I ask myself what kind of inspiration I need. Sometimes, I do not understand a character. The way that I’m describing them is flat, they have poor dialogue, and they’re doing things mechanically and clinically. To get inspired, I watch a movie or two or three on a related theme that I’m writing on. Sometimes I’m trying to write something funny, so I watch a comedy in a setting that’s related to my books. If I’m stuck on a military character, then I pick a movie appropriate to the period of time I’m writing and focused on the rank that I’m writing (foot soldiers versus from Caesar’s perspective). I watch their body language and jot down notes to see how I can incorporate some of that into my characterisations.
If I need to brainstorm more realistic interactions, then I pick an appropriate public spot, and people watch for a while. I’ll sit in a café and watch two friends interact, or go to a restaurant that is family friendly to see how families with younger children communicate differently than those with older children.
Even though I use an outline for the main plot points and a few character moments, I do sometimes write myself into a corner or get stuck on the next logical step to get my character from A to B. One thing that really helps me is to jot thoughts down. (I have so many notebooks I had to get new shelves installed). I brainstorm a few words or plot points, I draw a relationship map between the characters, I write down a few motivations and goals for the characters involved in the scene, and I’ll even sketch the movement in a battle. I find that writing pen to paper uses a different brain mechanism than typing. Things pry loose from the corners of my mind, and I can continue with my scene.
If the words aren’t coming to me, I write an outline for another short story or book. I’m still working on my craft and moving my projects forward, without working on my word count. I feel productive and satisfied at the end of the day.
One of the most underrated things to do when you’re stuck is to do something else. Go for a walk. Exercise. Read a book. Take a course to improve your writing skills. Play a computer game. Visit a friend. Do anything else except writing, and it will give your brain a break.
When we read how well others are writing, their astronomical word counts, and the staggering pace at which they release books, remind yourself that they too get stuck. All writers face similar structural and characterisation issues, all writers have written themselves into corners and have had to find ways out. Getting stuck is part of the craft, and with persistence, everyone can get unstuck.
I wear many hats, and in one of my non-writing hats, I’ve had a burnout that took me years to recover from. So when I saw a lot of people on social media become piles of frayed nerves about their word count for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I thought I’d write this post.
I’m going to keep things simple and define burnout as working too hard for too long until you can’t do it anymore. Sometimes you fall into a depression, sometimes everything physically hurts, other times you’re a ball of anxiety. The list goes on and on. Basically, you’re falling apart.
Not only is burnout demanding on physical and mental health, but it also takes a toll on the person’s willingness to work in that field again. Which is a huge problem for writers who started writing because they love writing, they enjoy creating. If they have a burnout from writing, it’s unlikely they’ll heal enough to return to writing.
Just like anything else that you’re passionate about, you have to pace yourself and recognise that there are other aspects of your life and health that need attention. The professional athlete who over-trains risks injury. The lawyer who is on top of their game working 120 hours a week will likely miss the warning signs their partner is thinking of a divorce.
A key factor in preventing burnout is to have realistic expectations. I have goals for my businesses, and I have goals for my writing career. And as ambitious as they are, I rein myself in to compare my time frame with my resources. I can write a best-selling novel. I know I can, just not in this current draft. I can take every course I can find on editing and writing, function (barely) on five hours’ sleep a night until the novel is of sufficient quality to publish it. But then, will I have the energy to write another novel?
It’s hard to have a career in writing if you’ve only ever written one book.
And it’s hard to access the resources to further your writing career when you’re struggling to maintain a paying job because you’re not sleeping enough, you catch every cold and flu out there because you’re run down, and you fall into a depression because you never see your family or friends.
Your brain needs a break. My advice for writers is to schedule time for social activities not centered around writing. Have strong social relationships outside of work helps people destress.
Your body wasn’t meant to be moulded to a chair. Even taking a fifteen-minute walk around the block helps stretch muscles and gets you away from a computer screen.
Your body needs real food. I eat junk food. I drink beer. I don’t live off of junk food and beer. Making sure you have reasonably balanced diet and are hydrated helps your health in so many beautiful ways and helps protect against the effects of stress.
You can take a vacation and not feel guilty about it. A change of pace a few times a year is a good thing. Don’t be ashamed to go to the cottage, visit family and friends in another city, or travel.
The worst part about burnout is that right up to the point of collapse, writers are on top of their game. They are writing the best prose, the most interesting characters and the strongest plots of their careers. Until one morning they wake up and they can’t do it anymore.
Take care of yourself first, lay the foundations for a healthy and balanced life, and then watch your writing flourish.
Word Crafting is a blog to help writers strive for excellence. If you would like to be a guest blogger, pitch me an idea.