I’ve got a little anniversary coming up this spring, it has been two years since I decided to step up my writing, and it is perhaps time to talk about that. It may even be overdue. It’s time to get personal. Fan-gushing and self-loathing. Dealing with the elephant in the living room. This is about my writing.
I’ve been writing fantasy 20-25 years, and by “writing” is mean keeping a journal, setting, and adventures for my tabletop fantasy roleplaying games. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve grown to love creating stories, characters and the world for the games. Now I want to turn it into fiction. How cliche is that? Yeah, I know.
I always wanted to share the stuff I’m writing, but being both an introvert and a control freak regarding the things I create, my creations never left my gaming table and the inboxes of the suffering players in my game.
This changed about two years ago in a moment of clarity when I realized two things. First, the tools I always wanted was now available, and in fact, had been readily available close to a decade. Self-publishing and self-hosted blogs are now both super easy to set up and manage. I had not paid attention. Second, I realized I had already spent too much time on this to not try to push it further.
I was out of excuses. It was time to get serious, and I had only one hard rule: I swore to enjoy this as I set out, everything else would be a bonus.
So what have I produced in this period? I have written about 40 blog posts for the mudworldblog, with perhaps ten more outlined. Some are alright, while others need revising, more content, and editing. The posts can be edited into one or two short ebooks on gaming and world-building, and someday I hope to recoup by hosting costs in this way.
The main project, however, is writing humorous and violent tales of magic and intrigue in an earth-like fantasy world. This is a crowded market for sure, including authors like George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, and Glen Cook, all which I deeply admire. Conventional wisdom would surely say try a different niche. However, write what you love they also say, and that is what I do. I have written a half-dozen stories, perhaps 150 000 words, in varying states for the first draft, and a massive outline with three families spanning four decades and no less than three wars, which is madness, surely. My ambitions do not match my current skill. Worse, perhaps, I write damned slow. I am inviting a burnout, no doubt about that.
How do I feel about this? Not bad, actually, although I hoped to have written more. I am enjoying this, so my one and only clear goal has been achieved. So, not bad. Just less than I expected.
Learning the Tools
I have learned a bunch of new tools in these two years. WordPress, Grammarly, and Canva are my primary tools for the blog, and I wrote a short post on my experiences from the first month of blogging, in which most is still true. Secondary tools include paint.net and GIMP.
I do the actual writing using Google docs so I can easily switch between computers and my phone. I eventually also begun using Moleskine journals (paper!) as flipping through paper media spurs my creativity. I’ve been holding out on Scrivener as I disliked the GUI and decided to wait for the next update. Literature and Latte keep delaying the release, so now I’ve decided to not wait any longer. This blog post is my first shot at actually writing something new in Scrivener, as opposed to just playing around in the menus. The text on my screen as I write this actually looks like something in a book, which makes me all giddy.
The blog was intended to be a side-gig to learn tools and force me to put my writing out there. The idea was to put out a mix of “evergreen” content that could be interesting for a long time. Hence I do not need to write that many posts and the material I wrote would have created for my game regardless of my attempts to write fiction. Multitasking as it were.
It turned out that hashing out 5000 remotely interesting words on rising demons or dungeon design was more time consuming than anticipated. I also diverged from my plan. The good news was that I finally learned what “passive voice” is (WordPress saw to that). I have also learned about the Oxford comma. I think.
I’ve explored social media platforms I previously did not use. I used Facebook before this writing thing, but now I have explored Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest as well.
The Facebook page for the blog seems to gain no traction at all unless I pay for adds, and the manager page is incredibly slow and frustrating, even for a tiny page like mine. Facebook seems like a waste of time for everybody concerned, or at least for me. Maybe that would change if I had a budget, which annoys me to no end, and is pointless at this stage.
Tumblr is another dud. I finally joined about the same time as everybody else left. There is some dark irony here somewhere, but I’m not gonna explore that.
Twitter and Instagram is a lot more fun, both as a user and as a tool as a writer. People say Twitter is broken, and it probably is, but I suppose it all about who you follow and who you block. I’m also wary about the “follow me, and I’ll follow back” game (wary, not immune). Which makes it even more enjoyable. My twitter feed is actually fun with lot mostly nerd sharing their creative side and discussing games, which is excellent. I eventually started a second Twitter account for the blog as my first account grew increasingly personal.
Instagram is pure fun. I get to post my horrible maps and pictures of books I love, and I get to admire lots of brilliant art. That said, it has done nothing in terms of traceable traffic.
Pinterest appears to be the only critical social media for a new blog. Half the mudworldblog traffic comes from Pinterest, with Google as a distant second. Facebook accounts for about 1%.
So check out my social media! They are awesome.
Learning to Write
The actual writing is supposed to be the whole point of this project. Well!
So, fiction. I gleefully bought Writing Fiction for Dummies and got to work. I quickly drafted a time frame and setting pulled from my old D&D game, and began looking for my story. The story was based on a long-running game from the 90s. I hashed down five ideas for short stories and set to work. Good times all around.
The biggest realization is that writing game notes and journals are different than writing prose. “Show, not tell,” they say, and it proved harder than I thought. Anyone who has read summaries of other people’s roleplaying game sessions knows that reading about it is not nearly as fun as playing. Writing for someone else to read and enjoy is entirely different.
People say beta-readers is vital, and they are right. I was lucky enough to have a couple of friends who gave me semi-honest opinions on the early blog posts, which is an eye-opener (”this is a bit dry”) and pure gold (“this does not make sense”). Very, very useful. The thought of eventually sharing my fiction is both terrifying and exciting. It will be horrible, but I will learn from it. I can’t wait to get to that stage, but I have been postponing to not waste the potential readers’ attention span on utter garbage.
My third lesson is that I cannot start small enough with a story. The scope and number of characters multiply when I start spinning the story, and I may burn out or be overwhelmed. I kind of knew this from my games, and the fiction turned out to no different. I need to break up the story into small bits so I can actually finish something.
Finally, it is the prose. Consider the short stories of, say, Jim Butcher or Joe Abercrombie. Elegant, clever, funny, exciting. It can make anyone give up. I’m not gonna say anything more on this.
The Best Advice
The Internet is full of advice on how to do this. Angela Booth, Joanna Penn, and Kristen Kieffer have lots of useful content, and I always keep an eye on what they post. They have given much-needed advice on story arcs, character arcs, plot points, story structure – all covered the Dummies book but needs refreshing every now and then.
However, the two pieces of advice that really stuck with me is the following:
- Stop at 80% and go no further. Best is subjective, as explained in the youtube video by the vlogbrothers.
- Finish your work, as quoted by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon.
They are right, and it is related. This is the recipe get something done, actually get it out into the world, and improve. This has improved my blog and will improve my fiction. This is how I can crack this thing.
The Road Ahead
I will continue as long as I enjoy this. I want to increase my output, improve my work, and still enjoy the process, which will be a balancing act. I like the story, but it is not yet good. The characters have promise but lack depth. The prose moves the story forward but is dry. There is plenty of dialogue, but the voices are indistinct. There is work to be done.
“You never fail until you stop trying.”
– Albert Einstein
So striking a balance is critical as I move ahead. This should be interesting.