Introducing indie author Shane Hall – thank you so much for your comments here today.
Deprivation and Innovation: Why Limits Can Make You Write Better
This is a guest post by me: Shane Hall I’d like to thank Melanie for letting me share my perspectives on her blog. Let’s get going!
Most authors know the value of sensory detail. When in doubt, a quick go-to for making a scene more real is to describe something a character sees, feels, smells, tastes, hears, and so on with more subtle or fantastical senses. This is one of the most crucial things I learned in creative writing class in high school, the point where I started taking fiction writing seriously as a career option.
It was in those classes that I came up with a story idea: a dark, silent future, and a long, twisting mystery over the nature of the world and its silence.
Eight years later, my chief project at the moment, the Feedback Serial, can in ways contradict the importance of sensory detail. Feedback is a series of novella-length episodes of a dark, violent, dystopian mystery about a future postapocalypic world where music, singing, and noise are outlawed, out of the belief that it reduces the risk of violent uprising.
Primarily, the story is a long mystery, where the nature of silence, whether the world actually should be silent, and other things are all unveiled at high cost to the characters involved.
(To the left: Covers for Feedback Season One and Two)
It’s easy to imagine how in that kind of setting, the sense of sound is significantly muted, and therefore akin to throwing the vice grips out of my toolbox. But I’d like to explain how tossing out a tool when writing fiction can actually be very helpful at focusing a work’s individual voice and style, and greatly expand your skill as a writer.
The Benefit of Limitations
I first started writing the stories that would become Feedback in those creative writing classes I mentioned. It’s a project I’ve focused on for almost a decade, and in ruthless rewrites and countless experimental drafts, I discovered the following benefits of the silent world motif:
1: I realized that a muted world would likely attempt to compensate and placate its citizens by satisfying the other senses. Feedback’s world has a creepy amount of color and energy, especially in the nation’s capital, Coltra. In that clustered, blinding metropolis, the colorful lights and outrageous visuals are so intense that no one can tell the difference between day and night at times.
Other senses are placated as well. Physical closeness, food quality, and soft-touch materials are all emphasized, and each play a role in building the world.
2: With deprivation comes gorging, and in the moments that are loud, I put it all on the line and have some of the most dramatic events. There are a lot of brutal fights, cathartic singing and music, and sadly irrational moments that show just how broken the society’s logic is. These moments hit all the harder when in between them, the reader feels the lack of significant audio-based sensory detail.
3: One of the most bendable rules in fiction is “show, don’t tell”, and I break rules when it’s required for a new idea. In a world where people are more likely to have an internal monologue rather than speak their thoughts aloud, I’ve given myself more leeway to tell than other authors might have.
4: The urge to write sensory detail was so strong, the story found many exciting places to draw it out, further enhancing the world. These include distant farmland where cicadas and other loud wildlife are allowed to live, a set of underground tunnels where inevitable loud industries are forced to operate, hidden singer camps on the outskirts of the irradiated wastelend, and a secret, illegal hotel that plays music every night.
So it may seem strange or downright wrongheaded to write a story where the writer can’t always rely on audio sensory details, but with enough creative wrestling it’s possible to turn a limit into one of your story’s greatest assets. Feedback would not have the kind of bizarre qualities and deep worldbuilding detail without that innate limitation.
More Direct Limits
Before I go, there’s one other type of limitation in Feedback that has GREATLY improved my writing: the choice to serialise it in novella length episodes.
Feedback is divided into seasons of four roughly 35,000-word episodes. This means that each season adds up to about 140,000 words, about the size of a beefy novel. This means that in 35,000 words I have to have a contained episodic arc that moves the major characters physically, mentally, and socially, all while solving more of the story’s questions, likely raising some more, and injecting naturally paced moments of action, horror, and quiet contemplation.
That’s a lot to shove into 35,000 words, or at least, it seemed like a lot over writing this first season (which is nearly complete, yay!). Now I have no concern over the short length. I’ve gotten a true sense of powerful brevity, and keeping things short without getting hasty or half-baked.
I’m not saying you should go out and start writing a serial. Serials pose a lot of flat out annoying disadvantages that don’t strengthen you as a writer, such as dividing an otherwise profitable product into four pieces. But working with hard word limits will force you to self-edit your story, to look very closely at the heart of what you’re writing and see what resonates with it the most.
I initially wrote the Feedback story as novels with no clear wordcount limit. The books were okay, nothing special, but it’s only when I decided to start over with more experience and with a firm wordcount that the story made an explosive transformation from gross caterpillar to mutedly beautiful moth.
Thanks again, Melanie! If anyone else has experience working with firm, imposed limitations of any kind in their writing, please let me know how it affected your work and skill. Happy writing!
Shane Hall is the author of the Feedback Serial, a collection of horror short stories, a to-your-inbox free dark fantasy series called The Tragedy of Veminox, and other speculative fiction projects. He also keeps the lights on by working as a copywriter. Reach out directly on Twitter @Shane1Hall