Vivian Shaw: Five Things I Learned Writing Strange Practice
Meet Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead.
Dr. Greta Helsing has inherited the family’s highly specialized, and highly peculiar, medical practice. She treats the undead for a host of ills – vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights, and entropy in mummies.
It’s a quiet, supernatural-adjacent life, until a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human and undead Londoners alike. As terror takes hold of the city, Greta must use her unusual skills to stop the cult if she hopes to save her practice, and her life.
1. Your friends’ patience and feedback is worth its weight in something considerably rarer than gold.
I’ve been writing since I was about ten or eleven, and did a whole bunch of novels and novellas before the age of fifteen, bits of some of which survive to this day in dot-matrix printout form, but I’ve spent the past decade actively involved in the world of fanfiction, where beta readers are a major part of the writing process. I have at least three people to whom I send fic chapters for feedback before posting them online, and the information I get from those people is invaluable to making the fic the best it can be — but those fic chapters are generally short, i.e. 1-2K each, and there’s never more than about twenty of them to any given story. It’s a time commitment on the reader’s part, but not an enormous one. When I started writing Strange Practice in earnest, I was lucky enough to be able to have my same beta readers look over the novel as it developed, and their patience and support and advice as I struggled with various bits of it were absolutely vital to the end result.
If you can — and some writers absolutely cannot stand having people view a work in progress, but if you can — having someone else read over a scene or a chapter and tell you specifically if a thing is working, or if they are getting what it is you want the reader to be getting, is incredibly useful. For me, I pretty much want my readers to check my work day by day or chapter by chapter, because if I mess something up and continue to build on the thing that is messed up, I’ll have a lot of extra work to do in the next round of edits. If I can catch the thing when it first happens, then the edit will be less onerous and I will have done it right the first time. This feeds into #5, below: this is advice for people who feel okay with this, not blanket commandment that thou shalt do the thing.
2. Having written chunks of a book several times before is both an advantage and a considerable drawback to writing it again.
I originally wrote the book that would become Strange Practice in 2004 as a National Novel Writing Month entry, and then it sat around on various hard drives and in the back of my mind for about a decade while some of the characters in it were borrowed for various other applications (and evolved during the process). In 2014 I dusted it off, stripped it down to the skeleton, and began re-writing it almost completely. The result was a kind of patchwork Frankenbook which needed a lot of work to make it coherent and cohesive, and when in the fullness of time it actually went through the process of professional editing I found that this patchwork structure made the edits extremely difficult. In addition, I had a kind of emotional connection with the older parts of the book, the ones I had written years and years ago, and being made to cut or to change those parts felt a little bit like breaking off bits of myself, even if the end result was drastic improvement. (Thank you, Lindsey, editor par excellence, you were right about restructuring the opening.)
With the sequel, Dreadful Company, I started completely from scratch, which meant I didn’t have to put together bits of pre-existing book into a coherent whole, but it also meant I am having to write the whole thing from scratch, all the bits of it. (2.1: start a lot earlier than you think you will need to. Trust me on this.)
3. Google Street View is your friend (unless, of course, you’re independently wealthy and able to travel the world for research purposes).
I’m a little obsessive about research. Nothing annoys me more in fiction than an author who clearly has not bothered to do the research, or who has done a little bit and then proceeded either to misinterpret it or completely ignore any further evidence to the contrary. This means that when I’m writing a story set in a place that I don’t actually have the opportunity to explore in person, I need to know what my characters would be seeing/surrounded by at any given time, location by location. Enter Google Street View, which allows me to get an accurate mental picture of the streets and buildings from several thousand miles and six time-zone hours ago.
I use GSV to scout for locations before working out where to set particular scenes, and I use it to verify that I haven’t done something both hilarious and impossible with my description of the geography. Google has even done some even more extraordinarily awesome work inside particular landmarks: you can tour the British Museum and the Paris Opera House click by click, floor by floor, getting the sightlines and the layout exactly as they are in reality. Sometimes I really do love living in the future.
4. Do the kind of research where you will, afterward, be able to write an intro chapter to a textbook on your version of magic — and then cut almost every detail of that out again so as not to lose your audience.
Along with doing the goddamn research, one of the most important things to me in the process of worldbuilding is internal consistency: if you’re going to use magic, great, but you have to think quite hard about the rules that govern that magic, how it works, what happens when you do it wrong, etc., and then you have to make sure that the magic in your story adheres to those rules.
For the Greta Helsing universe I spent a long time talking to people who know physics in order to come up with some believable and coherent rules for a system of magic. Mine works along quite similar lines to physics, particles and strong/weak forces and spin and so on, and I had a fantastic time writing a scene in the book where one character gives the others a basic lecture about it — and of course, during edits, almost all of that detail got cut. You need to know how it works, but you don’t need to make sure your entire audience could score 80% or above on a pop quiz.
5. Prescriptivism is shit.
This one I knew already — but the vast and contradictory body of How To Write Properly literature is, in my opinion, largely unhelpful and sometimes actively counterproductive. Everyone’s process is different, and even an individual author’s process can differ from day to day based on God knows how many variables — their mood, the things they’ve had to do already that day, what they’d rather be doing, what the cat just knocked over, etc. Some people write better to a word count — I have to get 2K done today — and some go by page number — I have to write ten pages today — and some go by content — I have to get through this scene — and all of these are exactly as valid as the next.
With Strange Practice, because large chunks of it were already present and needed only to be rewritten, word and page count weren’t very useful to me in terms of measuring my progress. With Dreadful Company I am finding that the word count is much more effective as a motivational metric: I want to get to X number of words this week, which means I need to do at least Y number of words a day. It all depends on the situation, and the prevailing atmosphere of you must write Like This or you are doing it Wrong is not something I subscribe to. Budding writers who don’t find themselves able to stick to one classification or another can feel like they’re failing, which is one of the world’s least motivational experiences, and established writers who don’t fit into, or stay in, the classifications tend to resent being told they ought to.
The best advice I can give anyone who wants to be a writer is write, and don’t stop, even if people are nasty to you about it, even if you don’t think you’re doing it right, even if you don’t think anyone will ever want to read it: don’t stop. Because you’re making a thing that’s new, and every time you write words down you are getting better at it, and that itself is a kind of magic no pseudo-physics technobabble can describe.
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