I recently had a dream set in my story-world. This is not unusual. I dream about my characters and story situations often, particularly while I’m immersed in a draft. But this dream was strange. My dreaming self gave the dream-story a title: The First Blade-Wielder. And a narrator told me (the dreamer/audience member), in the voice of my work, about the origin of one of my warrior sects. The scenes played out as they were described, mostly without dialogue—sort of like a cinematic flashback sequence. The events are from hundreds of years before any of my stories actually take place.
As I wandered from deep slumber toward wakefulness, my dreaming self was emphatically urging my conscious self to remember the specifics, to write it all down. “It’s good stuff,” Dream-me reassured Wakeful-me. “You’re going to use this someday.”
So I did as I’d bidden, and wrote notes that morning. As I was writing, I was able to step outside myself and marvel at how well I know the details of this place and time that doesn’t exist. My grasp made the dream palpable, even as I came fully awake.
I consider dreams like this to be the result of having worked in one lone story-world for over a decade. Not that other writers don’t dream about their work. I’ve been having dreams about my stories since my earliest days of writing fiction. But this was a reminder of how the breadth and intricacy—as well as the frequency—of my dreams and daydreams about my work have expanded over the years.
Lately I’ve seen a lot of advice to writers about being willing to diversify, to try different genres and styles. I’ve also seen writers advised to be willing to walk away from a project that’s not bearing fruit. Or to scrap a story and start over when one has started in the wrong place. Indeed, at times it seems writers are urged to shelve what they’ve started and move on.
While I understand that such advice is generic, I’d like to offer myself as an example of how every writer’s journey is unique. And I, for one, am grateful that I clung to a genre project that didn’t immediately bear fruit in the form of publishing recognition. I’m even grateful for having started in the wrong place. Sound crazy?
If it does sound crazy, I’ll admit that I’ve also read that one of the definitions of psychosis is a fixed belief in an imaginary world lasting months or years. I guess you could call my faith in my story-world a fixed belief. As I mentioned, I started working on it over a decade ago, and early on I was as focused on fleshing out the details of world-building as on plotting or story development.
I invented tribes, cultural customs, systems of law, religions—you name it. I have maps and a glossary of characters, place names, and terms that has over two-hundred entries. My world is alternate history, and before I started I spent a year reading everything I could find about the real version of the era. Having an understanding of the unfolding of history in the wider world offers context and insight that hopefully lends the stories plausibility as well as an aura of familiarity. I congratulate myself that I’m the foremost expert on my imaginary world. Mostly because no one else will, but sometimes one has to pat one’s own back.
And yet, none of these things alone will make my stories worthy of a reader’s attention and time.
False Starts? No Such Thing
I’ve written before about how I started a story that turned into a trilogy. I’ve also mentioned online that I moved on to write a “prequel” story about my characters’ parents, and how that’s now sprawled into a trilogy. And then there was the time I was going to scrap my original book one and start with book two. What I’ve almost never said publicly is that I started all of my major story arcs more than once. In the case of the original trilogy, I rewrote the opening at least a dozen times, starting at almost as many points in time.
Sound like I was having problems with inciting incidents? I was. Heck, half of those starts were written before I knew what an inciting incident was. And I have to admit, with each new start it was hard to accept that it wasn’t working. What I know now is that writing all of those openings helped me to gain a better grasp of my stories, and what truly incites them. Just as importantly, I began to learn what a vital role backstory plays in a novel, and to gain appreciation for its deft and intricate weave into an unfolding narrative. Have I written info-dumps? Oh yes. Have I introduced backstory clumsily, even via unrealistic dialog? Guilty as charged.
In other words, I fail a lot and learn from it—just as we all do. But for me there was an advantage to all of this trial and error in my own story-world. I had my own sequestered playroom—sort of like a story Lego-land in my writerly basement. It was a safe place to play and practice building things. And some of what I found in the freedom there was worth keeping and showing to the world.
Plus, something else was happening through all of those trials (and failures). I was gaining a fuller and more nuanced understanding of another important story element: my characters.
The Generational Advantage
I finished the first draft of the original trilogy almost exactly seven years ago. Shortly afterward I outlined another story that moved on in time, featuring the children of the trilogy’s characters. And currently I’m working on a story about the parents of the original characters. I’ve also written several short stories about the parents of my current characters (the grandparents of the originals). I even have a good feel for what kind of guy my current protagonist’s grandfather was. So to various degrees, I’ve explored five generations.
I have to give my beginner self a bit of credit. I’ve always known the parents of my original characters played significantly on their roles and worldviews. What I hadn’t foreseen is how heavily their parents’ choices and outlooks weigh on their identities, and subsequently on their own choices and outlooks.
I can’t tell you how often during this last rewrite I was able to draw on that generational knowledge to better recognize—and hopefully to better convey—its effect on my characters’ goals and motivations, and how those effects incite and impel their internal and external conflicts.
Being able to look backward, and in some cases forward, in time is a real boon. If there’s a significant event in the lives of your characters’ parents, and you haven’t already, I highly recommend writing a short story about it. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s just for you. Trust me, the insight gained far outweighs the effort.
World in Your Pocket
Some of you might be thinking my example can only apply for those writing speculative fiction. And certainly world-building is central to fantasy and sci-fi. But every novelist builds a story-world. Many reuse the key elements from novel to novel (think John Grisham or Anne Rice). Often writers build a new world for each new story, and that’s fine. I’m sure some of you think exploring one world for a decade would be boring or limiting.
I’ve found it to be the opposite. The deeper I delve into the intricacies, the more fascinated I become. I can imagine an infinite variety of stories, from an increasing array of characters. And finding how it all interconnects provides payoff after payoff.
So maybe Sting didn’t have it quite right for storytellers. Maybe one world isn’t enough for all of us. As for me, I’m glad I didn’t abandon my story-world or my first story. I’m even glad I started in the wrong place. And while I would never limit my options, I can imagine happily exploring this story-world for many years to come.
Does your Dream-self ever scold your Waking-self? Have you started in the wrong place? Have you written multiple stories in the same world or reused major elements? Did Sting get it right for you?