The Rebellious Writer and World Building

Conventional writing wisdom comes in many forms. What you read in articles, writing tips you find on Pinterest, and the advice you heard first hand from your writing partners. Put it all together, and you are told something like this.

‘Show, don’t tell. Unless it’s the backstory, then don’t show any bit of it. Though you have to plan the backstory, down to what your protagonists three year old self preferred for breakfast. You also need to plot out the backstory for all of your other characters down to the same excruciating detail. During this process, don’t forget to figure out the world while you are at it. Include as much history as you have time for. Typically at least five generations back.’

It goes on and on like this. ‘More is better’ is stuffed into every new writers brain. Detail is praised to the heavens, and if anyone dares to argue, a dozen authors swivel their heads around and glare at you. ‘Don’t you want to be a good writer?’ Uuuuum. Yes?

I could tell you that I have a naturally inquisitive mind, and like to consider all of my options before settling on one thing. In reality, I am rebellious. When conventional writing wisdom tells me I have to do something, I say ‘Ha!’ And go try to find my way around it.

Sometimes, I admit defeat and follow the advice. There is a reason some of it has been around for as long as it has. There is no way around those grammar rules guys. I tried, I succumbed, I am now teaching myself the secret language of grammar.

However! Story rules are not set in stone, and they are broken all the time!

For example…

There are those who say that you have to world build forever before you start writing. And by forever, I mean you have to know what has happened in your world for forever. Plan the legends, the races your characters will never see, and find out why the grass is green.

They have a point. Great epics like Lord of the Rings, and The Wheel of Time, have extensive world building. Those worlds are big enough to house multiple civilizations, and histories that are longer than ours. The hours and hours of world building I am sure they spent on their novels paid off. The world is breathtaking.

Here is the part where I raise my hand and say, ‘Wait!’

While world building is all well and good, you don’t have to do hours and hours of it to have an epic story.

Where are the legends of old in Narnia? There are some, a story here and there, but no where near the epics of the Wheel of Time.

What about the Prydain Chronicles? I don’t think the constellations are even mentioned, and as for legends. Not so much.

The world building in those two epic series is nowhere near as vast as the other series. And did the series suffer? No! Narnia is one of the classics we all study, and the Prydain Chronicles is called one of the founders of American fantasy. In fact, it is one of my favorite series ever.

They don’t have so much world building because they don’t need it. It wasn’t necessary to the story.

In The Wheel of Time, where every event is tied to the past and every character aware of the prophecies, not to have all that figured out and squared away would be silly. This series needed the lush, intricate world. Narnia did not.

More detail is not always better. If all the details given in Lord of the Rings was given in the Prydain Chronicles, the magic of those stories would have been lost.

Sure, you will always need some world building. You should decide if the grass is actually green in your world after all. But your story may not need pages upon pages of your worlds history.

You are not trying to make another Middle Earth. You are trying to build your world, where your characters will live and breath and have adventures. What does your world need?

Are your characters delving into the past to find a cure or a historic document? Then figure out your worlds history! Are your characters running for their lives in the mountains? Then by all means figure out in excruciating detail what plants grow there. After all, one of those plants might come in handy when you need to defeat the villain.

But if you are in the mountains for the whole novel, do you need to map out the eco system of the ocean? Or decide what the architecture is of the villages in the plains? No, no you don’t.

More detail is not better. Rather, the right detail is better. This isn’t going to stunt your novel, it is going to give it room to breathe.

Shaina Merrick

What do you think of world building? Do you do a lot? A little? I’m curious, am I the only one who dies inside everytime she looks at those sheets upon sheets of world building questions? (writer problems) Let me know in the comments below!

The Precarious Balance of the Writing Life

Writing. A career path only for those who wish to feel guilty every moment of their life. Every moment of every day becomes a choice between writing, and not writing. If you aren’t writing, you feel guilty because you should be writing. If you are writing, you feel guilty because there is a whole family outside of your novel who could be talked with. Or an email to be sent, or another hobby to be practiced. But if you don’t write at this moment you won’t at all, and you worked an eight hour shift today dang it!

Yup. It kinda sucks.

On the one hand, we know that if we don’t write we will never get better. On the other hand, if we commit to writing for so many hours every day, won’t we become kinda, well, like a hermit? The stereotypical author who spends all of their days writing, and only ventures out into real life when their groceries run low. If they haven’t decided to get all their groceries shipped to them already.

And that was all before the internet. Now, we have Facebook, Instagram, blogs, and countless other ways to be ‘doing the job of writing’, without actually writing. Now there is one more thing to juggle, one more thing to feel guilty over.

And here I almost forgot the infamous day job that every writer slaves away at, all the while hoping to someday break free and only write. Never mind the fact that their day job is the one place they never feel guilty at. They have to be there, and that is that.

The thing is, I am not about to give you some momentous advice about how to balance it all and still keep yourself sane. This is something I am not good at. In fact, you could say I am tremendously, awfully bad at it. Even when I have a schedule.

But sometimes those who are so terrible at it that any step is a step in the right direction, have more to say than those who have done it perfectly their entire lives.

Like this momentous realization that was probably obvious to the rest of you.

Multitasking doesn’t work.

Ever.

I can’t write an interesting scene and write a blog post at the same time, or color and try to teach myself grammar. The best I can do is listen to very, very tame music and write a blog post. But even then I have to pause the music if I really want to concentrate. I realize that some of you are wizards of multitasking. I ain’t. So I keep the tabs low and the projects one at a time lest I overwhelm myself and get nothing done.

The other thing I realized after a long time of trying and failing is that I can’t get everything done in one day. It isn’t possible. Unless of course I decided not to sleep, or eat, or talk with anyone. But that isn’t a good idea (though don’t think I haven’t considered it.).

I have tried to do everything in one day. And at the end of the day I either had a finished to do list and no energy whatsoever to read or be nice, or I had a half completed to do list and loads of guilt to go along with it.

Well. I don’t like feeling guilty, and I also like being able to read. So I stopped trying to do it all. Most of the time.

It’s called a weekly schedule, and I am still trying to figure it out. Turns out they don’t write themselves, and writing down the things you did after you did them doesn’t work. Also, it doesn’t really count if you never look at it during the week.

I still have a long ways to go before I can properly consider myself good at scheduling my days.

Till then, I will muddle through and do my best to have my blog posts done on time.

Shaina Merrick

Since we are one the topic, got any advice for the scheduling writing? Things that worked for you? I’m telling ya, I need all the help I can get!

Book Review: O Pioneers!

I have to talk about ‘O Pioneers’, or I am going to go crazy. Let me rephrase that. I already have talked about this book to anyone who would listen, now I need to again or I am going to go crazy. Yep. It was that kind of book. I mean, how could you not talk about a book that has these kinds of quotes?

‘People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose that to find.’

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O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. (I think I like it better than ‘My Antonia’, and I really liked that book) No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities (to be honest, there are not that many of these harsh realities when you get past the first couple chapters.) and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself. (have you read the book? Obviously not, because her cost was not love, not really anyway)

At once a sophisticated pastoral and a prototype for later feminist novels,
(Yeah, right.) O Pioneers! is a work in which triumph is inextricably enmeshed with tragedy, a story of people who do not claim a land so much as they submit to it and, in the process, become greater than they were.

Don’t you love how there is an exclamation mark in the title? It makes the book sound so cheerful and upbeat. To that I say Ha! No no. It was not a tear jerker. But it wasn’t a enjoyable lark through the countryside either.

What I first noticed about this book was how I wanted to write everything. Every quote, every line. I wanted all of it saved forever it my notebook. But if I did that, I would just be copying the whole book word for word, and I already have the book so… The writing was beautiful, no, it was achingly gorgeous. Honestly, I would have read the whole book just for the prose alone.

But the prose wasn’t the only thing worth reading in this book. There were also characters.

This is the book that I want to shove underneath all writers noses and say, ‘This is how you write realistic characters.’

Willa Cather created characters underneath her pen that almost jumped off of the page. I could see them move and breath in my minds eye. Their strengths, weaknesses, foibles and pet peeves. They were all there for the world to see. What I think made each and every character so imminently real was their weaknesses.

While I can not read the authors mind, it seemed to me that Willa Cather did not set out to make you like her characters. She seemed to care less really. It was more like she was focusing on showing you her characters in all of their glorious mistakes. Did it matter that they were all people with blind spots and foibles? No, it didn’t. Despite every failing, I loved them anyway.

The character that the entire story is woven around is Alexandra Bergson. She inherits the farm from her father because he knows that she can run it better than her brothers. And she does. Her farm becomes the most well off in the entire county. She is hard working, diligent, cool headed, and smart. But in the novel what characterizes her most is her love for the land. She loves this Nebraska land that is so hard to farm, and after a while, you wonder if the land knows it, and so blesses her in return. She loves it, and so it loves her.

The other characters in this novel act out a play of love and loss on the backdrop of her steadfastness. She has one love, the land, and one goal, to live on the land. The rest are action to her stillness, the passion to her calmness.

Plot wise, I would not recommend this book to anyone who must have an action plot where things are happening all the time. For one thing, this small book reaches through decades of living to tell its story. For another thing, there is much introspection allowed to the characters. Things happen, and sometimes things happen quickly, but there is always ample time for the characters to think about, and react to, that particular action.

Inside the book events build and become more intense, everything is straining at the seams, until the world snaps in a single moment, and everyone is left stunned.

I will let you read the book to figure out what that event is *evil laugh*

On the whole, I would recommend this book to anyone who liked ‘My Antonia’, and to those who enjoy slower stories with rich characters. Though I would hesitate to recommend to anyone younger than thirteen, because while nothing is explicit, a couple of the things the book deals with are not for the young.

Enjoy!

Shaina Merrick

Favorite Reads of 2019

Fine. Since everyone else is doing it, I will to.

I have been keeping track of what I read, and how much I liked it, since I was… In Middle School? And all of those lists are around here somewhere. Heh. Thankfully, the list for this year is not in the depths of some journal, and easy to get to and finally organized according to month and year. (don’t ask)

I read a bunch of good books this year, so this list is not going to be short. Sorry not sorry.

The Chestnut King by N. D. Wilson

The Chestnut King (100 Cupboards, #3)

The only reason the rest of the 100 cupboards series isn’t on here is because I didn’t read them in 2019, and I had to cut myself off somewhere. This was the finale to end all finales. The perfect wrap up to the series, and a scene at the end that left me crying happy tears. You must read this series. I don’t think I can put into words how much I love all of these characters and the relationships between them. Also, this series is the reason I now like baseball. Thanks Henry.

A Thousand Perfect Notes by C. G. Drews

A Thousand Perfect Notes

This, this is the book that I will fangirl over with anyone, anywhere. I was not expecting this book to bowl me over, but it did. Every scene left an ache in my heart, every word made me fall in love with the main character even more. Beck was so, so wonderful, all I wanted to do was hug him and give him a cookie. Also, there was piano. My other great love in life. This book combined my two favorite things. The way the author explained playing piano was something I knew. This was an experience I could share with Beck because I have done that. Played the song, had the nerves, hoped the soul I was bleeding over the keys would be liked by others. So yeah. It was great.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater

The Scorpio Races

I will shove this book at almost everyone in existence. I will admit, I avoided it for years because it seemed to be a combination of things I didn’t like. Ha! I was wrong, and I have never been so happy about it in my life. Scorpio Races has the most beautiful prose, and her way of describing left me in awe. All I wanted was to learn how to write like that. Well, I also wanted to figure out what happened next. But ya know, priorities.

Romanov by Nadine Brandes

Romanov

I know I have done a review on this book somewhere on this blog. But I am too lazy to look it up and link to it. Anyway. This is one of the few historical fiction I read this year, and it was also a fantasy. Two of my favorite genres! What I really loved about this book was the way she handled the Romanov family itself. I loved the relationships between them all, and how they were compassionate even in the midst of cruelty. The father showed forgiveness in the face of men who hated him, and even though in the terms of the world he ‘failed’. I think the story showed how such acts of compassion and forgiveness change people, and the world. Go read it! And bring a box of tissues with you.

Fireborne by Rosaria Munda

Fireborne (The Aurelian Cycle, #1)

Enter tears, chills of awe, and a stupid grin. I don’t think my heart will ever recover from the emotions of this book. Up and down, and down some more, and then back up we went as I followed the characters around. I literally stopped in the middle of an intense scene and started trying to figure out why I was feeling so much emotion. (yay logic) I might have figured it out. Sorta. I couldn’t believe all the things this book covered when I stepped back and looked at it. Love, friendship, politics, family, this book covers it all. Yet never feels overly full or preachy or that things are going at a breakneck pace. I adored it.

Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

Taran Wanderer (The Chronicles of Prydain, #4)

The best word I would give this book is melancholy. The whole book was melancholy. But I loved it. Every melancholic word of it. Somehow, Taran’s journey became a rippled reflection of mine this year. Trying different things and hoping that one of them will work out. Only to realize that the one skill I ache to have may not be within my grasp at all. Can we discuss the ending for a moment? Where everything is answered and yet nothing is at all? There is inward screaming right now. I wish more books could pull off that kind of ending.

The High King by Lloyd Alexander

The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain, #5)

Yes, I am allowed to have a two books by the same author, and both in the same series, in my list. It’s my blog. Anyway, what would a list of 2019 favorites be without the last/best book of the series that made me rethink everything I thought I knew about fantasy? It wouldn’t be a list, that’s what! This book perfectly wrapped up every loose end in the whole entire series, yet still reminding you that there are more adventures to come. Every question was answered, yet there were still questions. But good questions, the ones that make you think about the book long after it has finished. The characters all came to their poetic justice, though mercy was shown to those who didn’t deserve it, yet you were glad they got it anyway. I better stop while I am ahead.

There you have it folks! A by no means complete list of my favorite reads of 2019! What did you read, and love, this year?

Shaina Merrick