World of Word Craft: Ari Marmell

World of Word Craft

Hello! Welcome to our new feature World of Word Craft, our resource for writers and aspiring writers! This week, the spotlight shines on Ari Marmell!
bio

Ari Marmell was born in New York, moved to Houston when he was a year old, moved to Austin when he was 27, but has spent most of his life living in other worlds through a combination of writing and roleplaying games. He has been writing more or less constantly for the last dozen years, though he has only been paid for it the past five. He is the author of multiple roleplaying game supplements including work on Dungeons & Dragons. Ari lives in Austin with his wife, George, and two cats. More here.
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1. Do you find yourself writing chronologically (in terms of your story) or bits and pieces as they come to you? Any advice in this regard?

I absolutely write chronologically. I know some people who bounce around the novel, and I guess it works for them, but I can barely even imagine doing that. The closest I come to that is, on occasion, where a description or a piece of dialogue pops to mind and I’ll jot it down for future reference.

Note, though, that I’m using “chronological” in terms of how the novel is structured, not in terms of when the events happen. Usually, that’s the same thing, of course; things at the beginning of the book happen earlier than things later in the book, obviously. As you may remember, however, THIEF’S COVENANT–the first Widdershins book–is structured as two parallel lines of story. Every other chapter is a flashback. (For readers who aren’t familiar with that book, it’s kind of like the storylines in the Arrow TV series; you have one storyline happening “now,” the other happening five years ago on the island.) I still wrote that novel straight through, from beginning to end; I didn’t, for instance, write one storyline first and then go back and write the later one. So, chronological in terms of how it appears in the book–chapter one through chapter (whatever the last one was).

As far as advice? I guess all I can say is try writing straight-through first, make sure you can finish a novel. Beyond that, though, if you really feel the urge to jump around, give it a try. Just make sure it doesn’t prevent you from going back and filling in the “less fun” parts.

2. When worldbuilding, how do you decide how much detail is enough?

Hmm. That’s trickier than it sounds, because I tend to do a lot of my worldbuilding during the writing process, rather than in advance. Not all of it, certainly. I’ll usually try to build up enough of a world that I have a sense of what it looks like, how the basics work. And I’ll come up with some specific details; a religious belief here, a cultural tradition there, a general idea of what the style looks like, etc. For the most part, though, I stick with broad strokes, and fill in as I go. With Widdershins it was particularly easy, because I knew I wanted the world to look like a stylized/fantasy version of Renaissance-era France, except with a large pantheon of regionally flexible deities. Once I had that much, I didn’t need to do a whole lot more pre-planning. Specific details–how the Hallowed Pact worked, the Guild structure, etc.–I made up as I wrote, and just made notes ensure I stayed consistent. A writer has to be careful doing that, to make sure the world that comes together makes sense, but it’s quite doable if you pay attention and are willing to go back and tweak if you accidentally introduce contradictions.

For others of my books, where the worlds are less heavily based on a specific historical region, I have to do more planning in advance, to establish the general rules of society, but it’s still only enough to get going. A skeleton, if you will, that I can not only hang the flesh and muscle on later, but even add more bones to as and when I need to.

As for how I know I have enough? When I feel like I can start writing without having to constantly stop and answer questions as to how the world works, that’s when I feel I have enough. Some people prefer having a much more intricate world set up in advance, and that’s fine, but this is what generally works for me.

3. At which point in your writing process do you start giving attention to the overall structure of your novel?

Very early. I’m a die-hard outliner, and I tend to work out story beats and details in the outlining process, so I pretty much have to know how it’s structures from the earliest stages. That said, I don’t tend to make too many deliberate structural choices; rather, I’ll see how the developing story shapes the outline, rather than trying to figure out how I want the book structures and shape the story to match.

4. Do you plot ahead or do you let your characters guide you where they want to go?

Heh. I guess I sort of just answered this, but… Definitely plot ahead. I’m willing to change the outline as I go if better ideas come to me, but for the most part, I have the plot worked out before I write the first word of Chapter One. I’ve tried “pantsing,” as they call it, and I absolutely can’t do it. I need the outline. I don’t just outline novels. I outline short stories. I have occasionally outlined individual novel chapters, if they were particularly complex. I once, and I wish I was kidding but I’m not, had so much trouble getting a story to come together that I wound up outlining a longer outline. I know some people much prefer to make it up as they go, and more power to them, but I can’t.

5. Is there a specific way you individuate your characters?

No one specific way. I make use of some basic tricks, at times: give characters different speech patterns, or a specific personality trait that shows up in dialogue (such as one character being particularly sarcastic, or another being particularly formal). Widdershins, for instance, has her peculiar leaps and twists of “logic,” her propensity to end sentences with “Yes?” a lot, and her unwillingness to use normal curses and profanity. Not all characters need that many quirks; Shins just sort of happened to fall into place with a lot of them.

Beyond that, you get into the more nebulous “just know the character and speak as they do,” which isn’t really helpful advice but just something an author learns as he or she goes–and often has to relearn with each new group of characters.

6. Do you have tricks for increasing or slowing down the narrative pace? Is there a way to make the story flow faster or conversely slower?

Shorter sentences. Short paragraphs. Even shorter scenes and chapters can all make the writing flow a lot faster.

Beyond that, alter how much detail you include in the narrative, and change which details you focus on. In a fast-paced scene, offer up less nonessential description, and focus primarily on the obvious or even overwhelming. In a fight, for instance, mention the sounds of battle or the flash of movement, but don’t worry about parts of the environment that aren’t immediately relevant.

7. Do you hold off on writing until your characters emerge, fully (or almost fully) formed? or do they develop over successive drafts as you discover who they really are and what is going on? (This question is way too wordy but you get what I’m asking.)

You know, I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. I always have a fairly strong idea of who my protagonists are when I start writing: who they are, what they want, a sense of personality. I wouldn’t have said I wait until they’re completely formed; I tend to add to it and tweak it as I go. And yet, I also wouldn’t say I change it much in later drafts; my later drafts, at least until and unless I have editor feedback, tend to be about cleaning up rather than making dramatic changes. It’d be more accurate to say that it develops over the course of the rough draft, with me discovering more about the characters at the same rate the reader does. So… I suppose I have a decently strong sense of who they are, but they grow deeper and broader as I write.

8. Most useful writing habit or practice?

Consistency. Writing almost every day, with a minimum acceptable word count. Also being willing to listen to and analyze feedback without also assuming I was right the first time, and making changes accordingly. Which I guess is two practices, but call it a bonus.

9. How do you get past the midpoint – when the story suddenly seems to lose direction/you lose interest in the story/you don’t know what other characters need to be introduced?

Well, part of it is via the intensive outlining as I described above. By doing that, I’ve already solved the questions of what direction the story’s going to take, what characters have yet to be introduced, and so forth.

Beyond that? Once I’ve gotten half a book written, it’s too much work to just put aside. I know that, even if I’m having a miserable slog trying to get through it, I’m going to feel even worse if I don’t.

Also? The fact that I do this for a living, often have deadlines, and can’t sell a half-completed book is pretty good motivation. That, and my beta-readers would kill me.

10. How do you silence the censor/critic in your head?

I’m going to answer this with raw, brutal honesty: I don’t. I desperately wish I knew how, but even though I’ve been doing this for years, I still can’t get the jerk to shut up. I write even though I’m often convinced that what I’ve produced is awful, because I know I need to have a finished draft to correct. Then it’s off to my beta-readers, and–this more of that brutal honesty–I rely on them to talk louder than the internal critic. Yes, I need them to find problems and flaws, and they do that, but I also need them to tell me the book doesn’t just suck. Thankfully, they usually tell me just that (or at least help me find ways to change it so it doesn’t). But it’s the same battle every time. Some books it’s an easier battle than others, but I never escape having to fight it.

Thanks for your wonderful answers, Ari.

  • I just finished the last Widdershins Adventure book – which I started after the series was featured here on The Book Wars. Very nice interview and good timing with the post from my perspective!

    • How did you enjoy Widdershins?

      • Immensely! The wordplay/dialog drew me in and the unique characters and relationships really make the series shine. My library system only had the first three, so I had to get the last one from outside the system and it was definitely worth the wait.