Each canvas a world

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“Just let me finish this scene…”
My friend, Barb, who can write circles around me, more than occasionally writes about the process of writing. She’s doing a meme this month answering questions from her followers, and she recently posted a combined answer to a question from me and one from Lyrstzha. Her explanations are great, as always, but as I read her response to the question, “The difference in process between writing a stand-alone fic and writing a whole universe?” I realized that my answer would be a lot different.

For me, there is no difference between how I write a stand-alone story or a long series of stories set in a single universe. That’s because in one sense, I never see any story as a stand-alone, even if I never write any sequels, prequels, or stories otherwise set in the same universe…

I can’t write a character convincingly without at least some backstory in my mind. Even really minor characters that I stick in just to get a scene moving along. For instance, there’s a story I wrote many years ago that, so far, has remained a stand-alone story. It features primarily two characters, the protagonist and her elderly great-aunt who suffers from some form of dementia. In the second scene, they stop at a grocery store on Christmas Eve, and among the bustle of the store they have a brief encounter with another customer.

For various purposes I needed the other customer to be male and of an appearance that would cause the elderly aunt to refer to him as a ‘nice young man’ and to comment on his looks. That’s all I knew before I got to the scene. But as soon as I started writing it, a description kicked in. I knew his occupation, I knew why he was at the store at that time, I knew the people who accompanied him on the shopping trip, I knew where he was going after leaving the store, and how he was spending the holiday. The reader didn’t need to know all of that. Only his appearance and how he spoke actually made it into the story, along with a very brief mention of the two people he walks away with, but all those other details came to mind as soon as I needed to write his first line of dialog.

He doesn’t appear in the story again. He served his entire purpose in that story after only 259 words (and that includes dialog from the protagonist and her great-aunt). But if you asked me to write the scene of the conversation he and the people he left the store with afterword, I could write it. I don’t know what it would be, but I know that if I opened a file and said to myself, “Okay, write the scene,” dialog would come out.

Whether the dialog serves any purpose, whether it’s even entertaining is going to depend on a lot of factors that aren’t entirely under my control. I don’t know what the scene would have been like if, for whatever reason, I had tried to use it as the starting point to a sequel shortly after I wrote the original story. I don’t even know what the scene would be like if I stopped working on this blog post and went to write it. I’m pretty sure they would be different, because I’ve had a lot of experiences and have written a lot of other stories in the sixteen years since that original.

But the character has been lurking in the back of my mind all this time. Just as the protagonist of the tale has been lurking back there, along with several other minor characters who appear or are at least mentioned in the story.

Which isn’t to say that if you put a gun to my head and told me to write a sequel focused on those other characters without going back to re-read the original story that I could write one that was consistent. Until I opened up the file the other day while going through my folder of published stories looking for something else, the only name of any character in that story I could tell you from memory was the great-aunt. So I could have written a sequel, I would have almost certainly got some details wrong.

Which often happens during first drafts of stories that are sequels or prequels or otherwise related to other stories I’ve already published. In that stage, my process is very much like the one Barb describes. If I have already published something in the same universe, I do have to go through and cross check the story against the others.

One of the reasons that I often wind up writing stories that feature a cast of thousands is because whenever I’m working on a tale, I see all of the characters in it in the way I described above. If I need a character for a scene, she isn’t just generic character #6, I will imagine several supporting details about her, including a little something about other people in her life who (at the time) I have no intention of including in the story.

The novel whose first draft I’m currently wrapping up has a few more subplots than it needs at the moment, because I can’t help but think about what other characters I know of in the universe are doing while this main plot is happening. The next stage of revision is going to be to axe some of those sub-plots, which will require deleting some entire scenes,
but will also involve rewriting many scenes I will be keeping.

Which, as I describe it, sounds not unlike the process Barb described. Maybe I just do it at a different stage than she does.

Or maybe what I really mean is that I don’t perceive a difference in the way I write a stand-alone story from an entire fictional universe, because in either case, I write one scene at a time, but I imagine all sorts of things happening off stage throughout. Where the difference comes in is as I revise and refine, which feels like a different task than writing, even if it really isn’t.

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