When to Start

When to Start

Way in the long ago, I wrote about my writing process. I wrote a whole post before I touched on the actual writing bit. I tend to devote serious time to the planning stages because I like to have a quick-reference of pertinent details about the world and characters I’m working with before I outline. World building is a topic that gets a lot of attention, and rightfully so. There are entire novels about how to create a new world, populate it and prepare to write stories about it.

The trouble is world building can become a trap, one that’s easy to fall into. Lots of people have ideas for fantasy worlds. Some can tell you everything there is to know about their world; every mountain, cave and water fall. The history starting from the first breath of a god, or collection of hot gases in space, to the point where interesting people start popping into existence. But some of those people will never spin a tale in their world, let alone write a novel, even if they have the details down to fine art.

As important, and confusing, as the question how do I begin writing? is the question when do I start writing? The answer, as with so many aspects of writing, is different for everyone. Some people skip the planning stages all together and jump right into the idea. They let raw, untamed inspiration guide them, and sort it all out in the later drafts. Some people call this ‘pantsing’ (as in ‘writing by the seat of your pants), and if it works for you that’s fantastic. For pantsers the answer to when do I start writing? is as soon as I have an idea and time to devote to it.

For the rest of us, it’s not so easy. World building is fun. For some people, it’s the most fun and interesting part of the writing process. Which is why they never get past it. Some people really want to write interesting stories, perhaps even have the plot all planned out, but they keep going back to their world, adding new details and fleshing it out. This is why I say world building can be a trap; if you hold out for building the perfect world and determining every detail associated with it, you may never write your masterpiece.

Writing is a strange and interesting art form. Every writer wants the words on the page to match the perfect world in their head. Which is almost impossible to do, certainly impossible on the first try, and could take countless revisions. Even while we stress the importance of word choice, of structure, characterization, pacing, one of the looming truths of writing is a need to accept imperfection. Everyone wants their work to shine, to glow, to seep into the heart of a reader and never let go. Work the writer views as imperfect can do that. After all, the reader doesn’t see the imperfections.

One interesting piece of writing advice suggests that a little bit of inaccuracy can improve your writing a lot. Because sometimes the very nuances we want to convey can only be expressed in bulky, clunky chunks of words that detract more than they add. But a strong, clear verb that’s only slightly different from your intended expression will strengthen the impact of your writing. (EG: his hand shook slightly isn’t as strong as his hand quivered or even just his hand shook.) Perhaps this is one reason why we’re told to ‘kill our darlings.’ Sometimes even the most beautifully crafted sentence doesn’t add anything to the narrative. No matter how much you love it, letting it stay will only weaken the story you’re trying to tell.

So we come back to the question of when. By holding out for perfection, we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. You can build a fantastic world, but at some point you have to start using it or no one’s going to experience it. Even if your intention is to create an RPG setting, at some point you have to release it into the wild or it will sit on a shelf in your head and gather dust. The answer to the question is going to be different for everyone. Some writers are fine with a basic outline, a sketch of the world in their head. They can fill in the blanks as they go. Others may want to create more detailed notes on countries and cultures, perhaps even a map.

I think the best guideline is do I have enough information to tell my story? If you you know all the places that are going to be involved in your story, have a basic idea of what they look like, who lives there and how it’s going to impact your characters, you probably have enough information to start. Of course, you want the places your characters aren’t visiting to exist and to impact the world, because that’s how real worlds work. But you can add that flavor later. You don’t need ten pages of notes for a place your characters aren’t going to visit, which relates in no way to the plot.

Of course, you can always revisit the planning stages in between drafts. Writing may be the one form of art where, once a thing exists, it need not be written in stone. So jump into the world you’ve made, swim in its oceans, climb its mountains, and then decide if it needs more. The answer may surprise you.

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