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Escaping from planning and world building

Guest post by Ian McHugh

I didn’t start writing stories – at least, not with the serious intention of having them published – until the year I turned thirty. Prior to that I’d fiddled about with ideas and worlds, maps, creatures and characters, even plots and actual scenes without ever progressing so far as actually writing and finishing a story. My world building and planning had become part of my procrastination, and remained that way for twelve or fifteen years.

I found my way out of it almost by accident, after a couple of writers separately made the suggestion to me that short stories are a good way to learn the craft of storytelling, because they’re of a more manageable size than novels, and you can write twelve of them, and explore twelve different plots, narrative styles, worlds and character sets, in the time it takes to write one novel.

I put these two things together and decided to start writing short stories set in the worlds of my notional novels as a way out of my endless cycle of procrastination. One of the first stories I wrote (and finished), in 2003, was “The Last Day of Rea”, published in the All Star Stories: Twenty Epics anthology in 2006. This story was set in the far distant past of my putative novel, and both contained the origin story of the world and set in motion the chain of historical events that led to the setting for the novel. The next story I wrote, “The Alchemical Automaton Blues”, was published much faster, in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine in 2004 (my first fiction sale), and was built around a minor domestic incident for one of the peripheral characters in the novel.

In this particular case, the novel idea fell by the wayside, and the short stories took on a life of their own, with three more stories published in an evolving version of the world (“The Gifts of Avalae”, “From Sorrow’s Gate” and “Angel Dust”) and a couple more still in progress. But this world and its history, built over several stories, is right there ready to use if I ever do want to go back to that world. And I’ve done the same thing more recently in the world building for my current novel project. The whole idea for the novel’s magical alternate Australia started with my story “Bitter Dreams”, which won the Writers of the Future contest in 2008. I then consciously set out to explore that world through more short stories (“Once a month, on a Sunday”, “Red Dirt”, “Dancing the Labyrinth” and “Vandiemensland” are published to date) while I worked out what I might do for a novel in the same world. (Links to read most of these stories can be found through my website.)

The advantages of this approach are, I think, several:

  • You practice your storytelling. Particularly if you’re a new writer, you need to learn and hone your craft. Short stories provide an excellent vehicle for doing so.
  • You invest more in the characters you create and the world they inhabit. If you’re going to keep coming back to a world and/or a set of characters, chances are you’ll put more depth into their creation, which enriches your storytelling and makes your stories stronger – particularly as your craft develops and you learn how to deliver richness without overloading.
  • Stories lead to more stories. I wrote my story “Interloper” as a stand-alone, inspired by a conversation with a workmate at a really boring business planning day. Almost immediately, I started thinking about the further adventures of the characters I had created and wrote another story, “Driving the Nail”. Then from that story: an idea for a novel. And this is not an isolated example. Writing stories gives you ideas.
  • You create a body of work. I’ll go into the process of trying to sell my novel with a record of thirty-something publications (about fifty, counting reprints) to professional and quality “semi-pro” markets in Australia, North America, Europe and India, and with a single-author collection due out in 2014. By writing and selling short stories you create a track record of (a) working successfully with editors and (b) writing stuff people want to read.

Writing short stories won’t get you all the way to having the skills you need to write novels but, all in all, I think that planning and inventing your novel through storytelling is a fantastic way of preparing for the business of actually writing it – and then (fingers crossed) selling it.

One Thought on “Escaping from planning and world building

  1. Joanne McCarron on June 25, 2014 at 8:23 am said:

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for this. I have always liked the idea of writing short stories and putting them into anthologies, especially an author anthology! So congratulations on signing with Ticonderoga Publications, I shall be very interested to read Angel Dust. I hope to have published an author anthology myself one day but first I will have to write a fair few short stories. Writing short stories has been on my list of ‘writing projects’ for a long while but I seem to write novels by natural inclination so that is where I have started off with my writing endeavours. But I really like short stories for the reasons you mention. I especially like that you can write lots of different stories and explore different plots and narrative styles and worlds and characters and for me that is where the appeal lies, both as a writer and a reader. And also that you can write or read them quickly, so you can escape into a particular world or story for a while without being in the position of not wanting to put the story down but having to come back to it later.

    I agree with you about short stories being a good way of practising your storytelling and honing your craft, which is why for me at this stage I’m endeavouring to develop a regular habit of writing short stories. I know you are right when you say writing stories leads to other stories; the physical act of writing always leads to something else I find. I don’t know about your second point i.e. investing more in your characters/world, because I don’t have that experience as a writer from a short story perspective so I will be interested to see what I find. But the idea of creating richness without overloading as you become more experienced with storytelling is very appealing. It is something I keep in mind though I like the way you express it. As for a body of work, it is something I have been considering more lately from the perspective of what stories do I really want to put out there. In the end you have to choose a bit, because there are so many things that could be written, but what do you really want to write? that’s what I think anyway. But from the practical perspective of having a track record of writing stories people want to read and working with editors it must be very nice to have a body of work you can point to.

    By the way, I like the titles of your stories, they are a lovely combination of intrigue and/or beautiful imagery. I personally find titles the most difficult thing about writing (chapter headings are easy but book titles are different).

    Thanks again for this post. Very interesting and helpful.
    Kind regards,
    Joanne

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