The Well Loved World
Imagine you were born with a suit of clothes attached to you. It grew with you. it never needed washing. And in such a way, you imagined it a part of you, part of who you were. “I’m so and so, and my suit is yellow with a frill around the middle.”
It wouldn’t be so much that you loved the suit, as that it was a part of you. People who decided to buy new suits were just enough to keep a garment industry growing, and people would gossip “Look at Jane, that’s her THIRD suit. Why does she keep changing?”
Okay, you’re saying, that’s silly.
But the truth is there is a strong temptation among writers to stay with the first world they create.
Granted, the analogy is not perfect. You’re not born with the world, as such.
But many of us do create our world so early one we might as well have. Most of us — me included — created the world before the idea of writing and writers was very clear, and when we were mostly making up stories to amuse ourselves. Then it grew with us, and our first, (second, third, up to eighth with me) books are set in it.
First worlds have an undeniable charm. I have read books written in them by authors who were lucky enough to sell their first world. They have odd spaces, odd assumptions, inflect at strange points, all of it due to the fact that they were created by children with very little idea of the world as such.
BUT not all of us were so lucky. In fact, in the old, not so great days of traditional publishing as the only outlet, most of us learned to create world after world.
Actually, forget that lucky. I think it was unlucky to sell your first book, your first world (or in indie terms, to go huge with it.) Yes, the world had a certain and peculiar charm, but the writer never learned her job properly.
In 2003, many publishing houses gave most of their writers their marching papers (yes, 9-11 crashing printruns and their stupid decision that this was due to the writers doing a poor job, and therefore the next book would have a lower printrun was, of course, the writers’ fault, and the writers had to be gone, and new blood brought in. It was around this time, when I was 41 that after years of telling in interviews and talks that no one was mature enough to write a proper world/book/novel before 40 (which btw, I also thought was bullshit) the publishing establishment turned on a dime and decided they needed new blood and only 20 somethings would be bought. (Apparently missing that writers are not actors, no one sees you or your age, and in the long history of literature the big names of YA were never under 20.) In retrospect this was part of their illusion that readers want to see themselves reflected back at them exactly, race, size, looks and of course age. This is completely insane in any gennre — I really don’t read romances with dumpy middle aged Portuguese-born women. Though it would be hilarious to give one of those a very miopic suitor. Never mind — but particularly in science fiction. If it were a thing, then we’d have no aliens, since some of us might be alienated, but we’re not aliens.)
Anyway, when houses let writers go by the score, I was in a writers-only email list, and oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth coming over the screen. “My agent says I have to create, not just a different character, but a whole other world. She wants three proposals, each with a world of its own. How am I to do that? What does she think I am? A machine.
And I’d look and sigh, and think “thank heavens my first world was unpublishable” (by old standards. I’m actually reworking a novel set in it for other reasons. Sometime next year, unless I start writing “like a machine” which might very well happen after the middle of the year, mind) because otherwise I’d be stuck there, and not have any idea how to move sideways, upwards, or downwards at need.
While people whined I wrote seventeen proposals, each in its own world. And while that might be too much and just a symptom of how I’m broken, it did get me working again.
It has served me well ever since. For instance, (say, totally randomly) if your publisher decides the series aren’t selling, but they’re not giving you your IP back, no way no how, because the non-selling books make them too much money to give up, (Yeah. I believe that with my whole heart. Don’t you?) you might want to abandon those worlds and series utterly, rather than risk the continuing series making them more money as people buy the previous books in the world. (Look, writers aren’t precisely the least petty or sanest people around. As I told DIL, “neurotic goes with the territory. And if you weren’t before, you will after doing this professionally for a while.”) And then you’ll be glad you can write new worlds out of whole cloth.
I suppose the same thing applies, if you have a well-selling indie series which suddenly, inexplicably stop selling. I’ve heard to it happening. If you don’t know how to create a new world, you’ll be stuck forever.
But it goes well beyond that.
Building new worlds. Knowing how to do it, and how to invest yourself in them, will not only free you to continue writing and making money when a world fails.
It will also develop your abilities as never before. Rather than uncritically wearing the same suit of clothes and believing it’s the only one, you start analyzing cut, fit, color, and perhaps you’ll choose to wear jeans. Or a ball gown.
And if your first world was fatally flawed, maybe it will allow you to go back and fix the issues, and rewrite it so it really sells.
Writing is an art. Like all other arts, it benefits from practicing. Practice enhances everything related to writing, including the exercise of your imagination. Until you know how you created that world, how to make more at will, you’re a baby who’s learned some sounds get a reactioon, but not what they mean.
I know you love your first world. It’s fascinating. it’s familiar. It’s like going home.
But sometimes, as Dave Freer puts it, you have to walk past where the street lamps end.
Don’t worry. That world won’t die. It will always be there to come back to. And when you come back, it will be richer, stronger, more beautiful, for your having been away a while.
Now pack your metaphoric bags, bank the fire in the fireplace.
Leave your home world behind and go create a few more. Trust me, you — and that world — will be better for it.