A few months ago, I started writing a novel in the genre called speculative fiction. The characters for this project have been calling to me for years, but I’m finally ready to listen. Listening is one way to make perseverance fun.
If you’re wondering what speculative fiction is, let me fill you in. According to L.D. Lewis, Mark Oshiro, and Fran Wilde, who served on the James River Writers Conference panel, “Speculative Fiction, Putting the Real in Unreal,” it’s a catchall term that covers science fiction, fantasy, horror, some historical fiction, and as they put it, the weird shit that has no other category, like The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.
Novel writing sometimes feels like a breath of fresh air, because I can scrap anything I don’t like, rewrite my characters’ pasts, exaggerate, and be as mean to my characters as I want without guilt. That doesn’t mean the experience is free of challenges.
Writing anything is an act of perseverance. You must have faith in your capacity to show up, remain open hearted, have the courage to listen, and, most importantly, believe in what you’re doing, no matter what. Listening to these panelists banter back and forth taught me something else about perseverance—it can be fun.
Fran, Mark, and L.D. joked like old friends as they shared the wisdom they’ve earned after publishing so many books. Their biggest piece of advice: Stop giving so many fucks.
“I don’t care,” was the most popular response to the moderator’s questions. L.D. wrote to please herself, and when she did, it not only delighted her, it expanded her understanding of what was possible.The others concurred.
Here are my three big takeaways from their session.
Make Perseverance Fun Strategy One: Find Your Story, Then Build Your World
World building is the work you do to establish your story’s setting and the rules around how things work. It plays a big role in sci-fi and fantasy, but memoirists build worlds too. Often this world building includes scene setting, capturing the milieu of a specific period, and deep dives into childhood events, especially the ones we found most painful. While there are reasons you might feel called to do this work, writing about twenty, thirty, or more years, can feel both endless and overwhelming.
All three authors focus first on their story, then they build their worlds. As a memoirist, that means limiting your timeline to the moment when your adventure begins, then working toward its end without spending much time on the past that shaped your narrator.
In my current hot mess of a draft, each character carries a deep wound. Twelve chapters in, they’ve been referred to in glancing ways, but not named or developed. In at least one case, I might follow Bret Anthony Johnston’s advice and not mention the wound at all. There are also things I need to research to make my characters’ actions believable, but if I fall down that rabbit hole without first proving my story has a beginning, middle, and end, and characters that change, that research could be nothing but a time suck.
If you feel a “yes, but” crossing your lips, because how in the world will your reader understand you, Mark Oshiro has some great advice. Create a strong voice from the very first line. That voice can convey a lot about your character.
Make Perseverance Fun Strategy Two: Set Research Time Limits
Research is essential to great storytelling, whether it’s everything you need to know about sharks so you can write the new Jaws, popular clothing styles, or all the causes of anxious nail biting. But research can also become a wormhole that takes you into what they called productive procrastination. (Productive because you’re doing stuff + procrastination because you’re not getting your actual work done.)
Here’s the fix. Set a research time limit. Fran limits herself to a month for a novel and six weeks for a short story. Put it in your calendar. When you’re in a research period, research. When time’s up, stop. Then get back to writing. If you run into something that needs to be researched during a drafting or non-research-related revising period, bracket your questions or research notes, then keep going.
Example: We ate [research family recipes] every day that year.
Make Perseverance Fun Strategy Three: Put Your Ghost Pigs Up Front
Ghost pigs are these confusing, mysterious characters in the video game Garry’s Mod Sandbox. Fran used them as a metaphor for giving yourself permission to include things that create minor confusions in your early pages, then trusting readers will follow along.
We often run away from our story’s ghost pigs (or over-explain them), but what if we used them to bring more joy to our work, even when that work is hard?
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