I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no great mystery about writing successfully. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone can do it, any more than everyone can master any craft. It does mean, though, that if your talent and your inclinations lie in that direction, you can learn to do it. And, hopefully, you’ll recognize that you can always learn to do it better. Personally, I consider myself a storyteller who happens to use the written word as the medium in which I tell them. As such, I also consider myself a writer, a craftsman, rather than an “author” or an artist. Some writers are both, and craft can certainly approach and become art, but my focus is on the tale well told, rather than worrying about whether or not it’s “literature,” and that’s the way I approach my craft.
One of the things that’s always struck me when I talk to people about writing is how many of them worry about the wrong parts being “hard.” The biggest fallacy of all, in a lot of ways, is the notion that coming up with the “idea” for a story is the really hard part. Don’t get me wrong, because coming up with the concept for a story—or, at least, working your way from the original concept to a workable basis for a story—can be difficult. But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
I think it’s wrong to tell someone that he or she should only “write what you know,” because too often that’s taken to mean that you should write only about something you have personally experienced. If you can write about something you’ve personally experienced, that’s a wonderful thing, but very few of us have ever been starship captains, amnesiac government assassins, elven warrior-mages, or artificial intelligences. In the sense of telling a prospective writer that he should write about subjects upon which he is informed, on the other hand, writing “what you know” makes wonderful sense. One thing I’ve discovered is that if you make basic errors, at least one of your readers is going to turn out to be an expert in the subject and whack you for it. And when that happens, it’s kind of like spotting a cockroach in the kitchen. You can be certain that if one reader has called you on an error, there are at least a dozen others you don’t know about who also recognized the error when they saw it.
It’s what’s known technically as a “D’oh!” moment.
So if you want to write successfully, getting the basic nuts and bolts of your literary universe straight is really, in a lot of ways, the very first and most fundamental step. Having a wonderful idea for a story and then screwing up the basic building blocks from which you intend to build the story in question is not a recipe for success.
Now, writers of science fiction or fantasy have certain advantages when it comes to those nuts and boats. Unfortunately, they also have offsetting disadvantages.
The advantages lie in the fact that they can adjust factors to suit the environment they want to build for their story. I genuinely cannot remember who it was that I first heard describe the element called “unobtanium.” I believe it was Larry Niven, but I could be mistaken about that. At any rate, unobtanium is an incredibly useful substance, because with the proper isotope you can do anything. The problem is that you have to be careful how much of it you use. For readers to enjoy a story, it has to be convincing, at least in terms of its own internal logic and consistency. So if you’re going to use unobtanium, you have to use it in limited doses and you have to use it consistently. There have to be rules and limitations (personally, I think that’s true even when you’re writing about outright “magic”), and you have to play fair with the reader about recognizing those rules and limitations and working within them.
As with the physical science and laws of nature that you might modify or construct, there are also the social aspects of your literary universe. Political structures, societal structures, philosophical and/or religious concepts, and demographics. Geography, climate, and how the basic technological capabilities of the universe you’re constructing interact with those elements. A lot of fantasy (and science fiction) worlds, for example, seem to be about the size of Connecticut when you start looking at them in terms of variations in climate and terrain. And all too often you come across someone who writes about a world with animal-based transport but whose denizens have the attitudes and outlooks of a far more cosmopolitan, physically interconnected world. It’s hard, for example, to remember that in preindustrial societies people living a hundred miles apart might as well have been five thousand miles apart in terms of their ability to interact with (and thus to understand or “be just like”) one another. A writer can create reasons why this might not be the case in his universe, but if he does, he’d better incorporate those reasons in a way which makes them evident to his readers.
As I say, the advantage for the science fiction or fantasy writer is that he gets to create and adjust the parameters of his literary universe any way he wants to, although it’s generally wise to exercise a little discretion and self-control when one begins tinkering with the basic warp and woof of the universe. What I think is his greatest single disadvantage, however, is that the very fact that he’s creating his own unique literary template means he’s responsible for getting all of it right. If he’s going to transport a reader to a different physical world, or into a radically different society, it has to be different. Similarities and points of contiguity between the literary creation and the familiar, everyday world of his reader are essential, I think, but they aren’t going to be the same worlds, and the writer has to keep that firmly in mind at all times.
Obviously, that isn’t always going to be the case. Or, rather, an awful lot of really good science fiction and fantasy has been set right in the midst of the “familiar, everyday world” of the reader. In those instances, much of the strength of the story frequently comes from the juxtaposition of the mundane world and all of the people living in it with what the protagonist and his supporting cast of characters know is really going on. Or the strength can come from taking most of the mundane world we all know and changing specific elements of it and then controlling for those changes throughout, as in the best of alternate history science fiction. (By the way, I think good alternate history may be the hardest subgenre of all from a writer’s perspective, but that’s a topic for another day.)
It helps, in many cases, that genre writers tend to operate within the confines of certain shared concepts. I’m not suggesting cookie cutters, or trying to imply a lack of originality or some sort of literary incest, but the truth is that genres develop a certain common set of furniture. Ideas and attitudes that readers of that genre will have already internalized before the writer gets to them. Faster than light travel and its ramifications, for example. Any given writer may have his own take on how that’s going to be accomplished, but the concept of faster than light travel is already going to be established. The heavy lifting in that regard has already been accomplished.
The bottom line, though, is that the writer has to put all of the bits and pieces together. He has to do it in a way which is internally consistent. And once he’s done that, he has to be consistent in the way he uses all of those bits and pieces. He can’t go around introducing contradictions or casual anachronisms. If there’s something that violates the internal logic of his literary universe, there has to be a reason for its existence, and he has to explain it satisfactorily. And he has to recognize the logical implications of what he’s done, has to allow for its logical consequences, both in storytelling terms and in terms of its impact on the fictitious world he’s created.
That’s hard work. I can’t speak for all writers, obviously, but I generally find that building the world my characters are going to run around in takes me a heck of a lot more effort than simply coming up with an idea for what they’re supposed to be doing in the process. Fitting all those elements together, filing off rough edges to establish a smooth fit, structuring things to provide a believable whole for the reader, and then remembering how it all goes together and honoring the restrictions I’ve built in takes a lot of work. In the long run, though, I think it pays off big time. When you write from a firm platform, one that you’ve taken the time to develop, it provides a consistency and a sense of cohesion—one the reader may not even consciously notice, but one of which, believe me, the reader’s enjoyment is well aware.
And almost serendipitously, the better developed your literary universe is, the better developed your story concept will turn out in the end. Actions and events are constrained by the matrix within which they occur. They affect and alter that matrix, in turn, but they still happen within it, and as a writer compels himself to operate within the limitations and opportunities of the literary world he’s created, it adds richness and nuance to the actions and events of his characters and their stories.
Which, after all, is what it’s all ultimately about, isn’t it?
David Weber is the author of the very popular Honor Harrington series. His new novel in his Safehold series, By Heresies Distressed, is available from Tor Books.