Hey! Welcome back. This post is part 2 of 2 where I’m discussing some writing advice from English author Neil Gaiman. To recap, Gaiman is well known for his fantasy novels, comic books, graphic novels and short stories. His novels have received many prestigious awards and several have screen adaptations. I recently took Gaiman’s course Neil Gaiman Teaches The Art Of Storytelling which is available on Masterclass at www.masterclass.com (this is not an affiliate link). The course is incredibly well-structured and filled with excellent advice on topics including world building, writing descriptions, genre writing, dealing with writer’s block and editing. Let’s take a look at the rest of his teachings.
World Building and Descriptions
World building refers not just to the physical environment in your story but also to the tone, theme, and the overall morality. Research is important but you should also draw from your compost heap and borrow details from your real life. Leaning on personal experience and knowledge is key to crafting a believable world and revealing the world through your characters’ observations and responses is a great way to bring it to life.
“Look at the world outside your window. Look at places. Think about the places that you’ve been, and then change them. Every little detail that you can steal from the world and smuggle with you into your fiction is something that makes your world more real for your reader (and for you).”
It is important for you to know the rules of your world. You don’t necessarily have to tell the reader what the rules are, but you should have your characters discover the rules as they go, as they would in the real world. Let them learn through trial and error.
You should also get out into the real world and explore. For his novel ‘The Graveyard Book’, Gaiman conducted research by visiting graveyards (he did this over a period of 20 years, from the time he thought of the idea for the book to the time he was ready to write it).
Gaiman’s tools for enhancing your world building include creating maps of your world, avoiding ripping off other worlds (Wonderland, Middle Earth or Westeros for example), using details from your own life and doing your research.
Sometimes the physical setting of your novel isn’t as important as your characters. Consider locked room mysteries for example. All the action occurs in one place (a room, a train or an island are some examples). In these cases it is even more important to know your characters – investigate their psychology the way you would research a physical place.
“When you’re writing a description the most important thing is to find something, find one thing that is memorable, one thing that’s important, one thing that’s different. And then look at that using a sense.”
When writing there are two types of exposition (consider these ‘showing’ versus ‘telling’). ‘Showing’ speeds up the pace (this is where you write a scene and show the characters in real time) while ‘telling’ slows down the pace (it’s where you describe what the characters did).
To make a detail concrete, appeal to the reader’s senses. Invoke whatever detail is going to make the biggest impact. Gaiman suggests focusing on your character’s sensory experience, choosing memorable detail, finding emotion in the scene and following your character’s natural attention.
Humour involves subverting reader expectations and leans heavily on surprise and the unexpected. Take clichés for example. You set up the reader’s expectations for a particular outcome, then you twist the cliché, transform or undermine it, and provide the reader with a surprising outcome. It is important to note that tropes are different to clichés – a cliché is an element that has become overdone, while a trope is something that a reader will easily recognise. One example of a trope is the damaged/flawed detective and the psychotic serial killer in the thriller genre, and another is the group of young travellers taking a wrong turn while hiking in the horror genre. All stories will contain similarities to others (storytelling has been going on for as long as humans have existed) but the challenge is to tell your story in a new and compelling way – this links back to finding your voice.
Gaiman’s techniques for humour within writing include:
- Twisting clichés and surprising the reader
- Putting funny expressions at the end of a sentence
- Using contrast – adding something lighthearted whilst your characters are in the midst of a dangerous situation for example
- Finding funny words
- Sherbet lemons (a technique Gaiman borrowed from Terry Pratchett) – a minor detail you put into your text to make the reader smile
“If you don’t understand [genre] you will wind up disappointing your readers, confusing your publishers, and making a general mess of things.”
If you are genre writing you need to be aware that there are certain expectations your reader will have and that if they are not met your reader will be disappointed. You need to understand where your story belongs and what is expected from the genre you are writing in. What is the reader coming to your story for? What will they feel cheated if they do not get?
“You can always turn things around. You don’t actually have to give people the thing they want in the way they’re expecting. Actually, they always like it if you give them what they want, in a way that they’re not expecting.”
Every genre has conventions, specific characters, events, setting or outcomes that define the type of story you are telling and that are expected. You must consider the characters, the tone of the story, the set-up, the catalyst and the resolution. One example of a convention is a ‘happily ever after’ in the romance genre. You can break the rules of genre writing, but be wary of altering the resolution as you risk disappointing (or even angering) your readers.
You should expect that your reader knows your genre so you must know it even better. It’s not enough to read novels in your genre – you should study them, take notes on story elements and story arcs and analyse their structure.
Dealing with writer’s block
Gaiman’s advice for dealing with writer’s block is twofold. First, take a step away from your work (for a few days, weeks, or months if necessary), then come back to it pretending you haven’t read it before and read it through. Usually your problem will have occurred earlier on in your writing to where you are stuck, so the re-read should help you pick up where that point is.
Like many other authors, Gaiman advises to always listen to your characters. You may be stuck because you are trying to get them to do something they don’t want to do (or react in a certain way that doesn’t fit them). When this happens, write what you know happens next – go from the last thing you know to the next thing you know – you don’t need to write chronologically.
Gaiman also addresses the two types of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters are those who outline their novels before they start writing while pantsers are those who start without a clear map on where they are going to go. These two types of writers face two different problems. Plotters get stuck when their characters decide the plot isn’t working and they want to do something different. This throws a spanner in the works and may allow self-doubt to creep in. Pantsers sometimes get lost because they haven’t got a clear idea of where they’re going. To overcome these hurdles, plotters should consider re-evaluating their story structure while pantsers could benefit from building some structure.
“Whether or not you write an outline or you don’t write an outline, you are still going to be moving from point to point with a lot of things that you don’t know happening on the way.”
“The first thing you do as a writer is you explode. Once [the story is] done, then you get to walk around it.”
Once you finish a piece, walk away for a time, then later come back to it and pretend that you’ve never read it. If you can’t be objective then give the draft to someone you trust and/or who will appreciate the work. Ask them for advice and remember that when someone tells you something doesn’t work for them, they’re right, but when they tell you what they think is wrong and how you should fix it, they’re almost always wrong. It’s your story not theirs; take their feedback into consideration and then make any changes you feel are needed in the way you think is best. The most important question to ask yourself when you finish reading is ‘what was that about?’
“Perfect does not happen in this universe. Perfection is the goal. But we also have to know that anything we do is going to contain its share of errors and mistakes. We cannot be crippled by that.”
“If you write something it can be improved. The problem is you cannot fix a blank piece of paper.”
As a writer, rejection is the norm for most and it can be extremely hard to get published, but you have to learn to cope and keep trying. You need a balance between humility to know that you don’t know it all, and confidence that you have what it takes – that is the engine that will keep you going.
“As a writer, you’re always going to be rejected, and that’s basically healthy.”
And that’s a wrap! Gaiman’s course is really quite inspiring; I was in a writing slump at the time I took it and it helped me get back into my work in progress. His advice speaks to writers at all stages in their careers and embodies the growth mindset which I promote regularly! Have you read Gaiman’s work? Which of his novels/short stories is your favourite and why? If you have taken this course or know any advice from Gaiman that I have missed please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,