I was thinking today about a problem I have sometimes. It’s come up in pretty much everything I’ve ever written, throwing wrenches around when I’m least expecting it: I’ve got this interesting scene going on, with characters I’m interested in and a plot that’s going somewhere nifty, and all of a sudden I look at what I’ve been producing and realize that it’s terrible.
Which, all right, there are a lot of things that can result in bad writing. Most of the time, it probably has something to do with the fact that I’m tired, or I haven’t planned things out very well, but a lot of the time I think it has something to do with specificity. The thing is, it’s fairly easy to come up with an interesting protagonist, home base, sidekick, fortress of solitude, whatever. The A plot and the B plot are usually fine too – that’s why I’m writing the novel.
But I find that no matter what story I’m telling, I ultimately end up at a point where I have to have characters going somewhere I wasn’t explicitly expecting, moving around in a large social setting, referencing past events, and all of a sudden, things start getting generic. A tavern with a bartender and wenches and ale, a manor with fastidious servants, uptight noblewomen who’d rather die than step in mud – or if you’re not in fantasy, maybe a girlfriend who assumes her guy’s cheating on her every time he looks at another woman. Whatever, it’s all the same thing, the kind of character tropes that show up everywhere, the kind of backdrops that get rolled in and out any time someone gets lazy. All of a sudden I’ve got my characters hanging out at Ye Olde Random Bar, talking with That Old Man With The Sword and the Wench With The Sad Brown Eyes, and there’s a reason I didn’t design those two in the first place. And then “the two of them bond” turns into “the two of them have the same conversation everyone has”, and again, there’s a reason I didn’t set out to write that when I was planning it at the beginning.
I think part of getting over that is just getting better at writing … but I’ve also developed a new rule to work with. Every time I’m setting out a scene, I’m now trying to explicitly say what makes my version of it different than the versions I’ve seen before. What about this bar’s design makes it My Bar as opposed to Anybody’s Bar? What makes this person distinct? What does that street smell like? The books that make the biggest impression on me – I’m thinking right now of Mistborn and The Lies of Locke Lamora – are the ones that take me somewhere I hadn’t been before. They’re the books that hand-paint each detail, the ones that put something surprising around every corner, even the corners that aren’t plot points.
If I’m going to make an evil empire, I’d probably better not give it a name that has lots of Vs and Ks and Js in it, because those are the letters everyone seems to throw around when they’re trying to make something kind of evil sounding, and I don’t want to get lost in the crowd. Meetings should maybe start happening in factories or warehouses or quays, instead of in the same five taverns. Not every town needs to have a square with four folksy buildings and a fountain. There’re probably a dozen more things I should start paying attention to, that I won’t notice until I realize I’ve gotten it wrong. In the meanwhile, I’ve got some noblemen to redesign.