This past couple of weeks, I’ve been working through the rough draft of a short story. I have the basic outline in my mind. I know what’s happening, for the most part. And I know some of the middle. Going in, there was so much I did not know about these characters, or the world, or the details of the plot. So, I want to share with you the struggle of writing something that yearns to be written. The struggle of character building and world building.
This story is a compilation of two stories that have been burning in my mind for a long time. A month or so back, the two tales merged in my mind’s eye and a new story was born: The Flame Song. I had a vision of an island, a fire, a tribe of island dwellers, a few castaways. There was the inkling of a plot, like the lower half of a skeleton, barely visible in the dark. So I pressed forward, torch held before me, and inch by inch the form of that skeleton took shape.
I knew from the start it would be a weird tale. Something occult or horror based. And I had no doubt it would be a short story. There’s just not enough going on to fill a novel, or even a novella. But what of the world? What of the characters? Who are these people? What do each of them have going on before, and during, the events of this story? And what of the world itself? What’s the deal with this island? With the fire? The mist? The forest? The village and locals?
These questions lead us to the ideas of character building and world building. Many of us think of world building in terms of fantasy and science fiction: the idea of creating a brand-new place like Middle-earth, Faerun, Krynn, Dennis L. McKiernan’s Mithgar, Harry Potter’s wizarding world, an ancient civilization on Mars or Venus. But world building applies to all stories of all genres. Neil Gaiman builds (and reinvents) London in Neverwhere. Stephen King builds worlds in Maine and other “real world” places. World building takes place in all stories or all genres, and it takes work to pull it off and make the invented world believable.
So, I needed to take people from this world, our world, this place we call Earth, and drop them onto an island that also exists on this planet, but somehow has slightly different rules. I had to build a new world that exists within this world. My task is to make you, the reader, believe that such things could be. That this strange island somewhere on our planet can contain, and support, the unbelievable. To lead you on a journey where your sense of what’s real and what’s not, what’s possible and what’s not, fade away and you find yourself believing what lies before you on the page. That is the essence of world building in fiction.
Sometimes the words come easy for me and I can crank out a whole rough draft in a day. My first Sola Pyne story, Extraterrestrial: A Love Story, came in one fluid draft. 46 pages flowed from me in about five hours. I was on fire. It came easy. Three drafts later, the final version came out at about 64 pages and became something I’m very proud of. The first draft of my novella, Panacea, came in two writing sessions, and that world came together easily. In both these examples, the world building and character building just flowed. It just came easy.
With this new story, The Flame Song, things are a bit more challenging. That is why I wanted to write this post. Just to share that sometimes there really is a struggle. It happens to all of us. My friend, Jim, always tells me he is impressed with how prolific I can be, but the sheer volume of stories I’m working on at one time, the number of pages I can put out in a short time. Sometimes, it’s like that. Some months, I write and write and write, and things come out good, and stories are complete. I wrote Fireflies in about 30 minutes. A Candle in the Dark took two weeks. High Steaks took about a week. Project Geek took a few months.
In each of these stories, though, I feel that the world building and character building came out nicely, though each took the time and effort required of it. This newest tale, The Flame Song, is taking some time, taking some real effort, but it’s okay. That’s the nature of fiction writing. Effort. That’s the writing life. Effort.
I have found that the effort is always worth it. Always.
Sometimes the story writes itself, just pouring from your brain to the page. Sometimes, it takes a great deal of work.
I found a picture on Pinterest a while back and I made it the desktop background on my laptop. It’s a handwritten note on purple lined paper. Three simple sentences. It has changed the way I approach my writing and I hope it inspires you and affects the way you approach your own writing.
It reads: Don’t worry. You’ll figure it out—you always do. Just keep writing.