Category Archives: Writing

Back at it

Sunday, I sat down and wrote a little over a thousand words. It was the first work I had done on the current WIP since January, which neither sounds or looks great when I put it like that. In some ways, there’s a similar intimidation factor to getting back out on the road and running, now that the thaw has finally settled in. (Oh no, they said. Another running analogy.)

However, the comparison doesn’t really work because I wrote that 1,000 words in a little more than an hour, which is how it generally goes when things are flowing well. Not to say, at all, that everything was pure gold, but in terms of something-out-of-nothing, when things are going really well, I will be creating about as fast as I can type. Cardio and my running legs take, uh, a good bit longer than that to recover if I’ve been lazy for a while.

So, that was encouraging, although the next challenge is to get into a rhythm with it again, so that I’m writing consistently, instead of just as the mood strikes me on a holiday weekend. If I can do that relatively soon (and my schedule is such that I think I may be able to), then I figure I might be able to get a complete draft of this thing by the end of the summer, just in time for my schedule to get complicated by the day job again.

To the extent that I have a long term plan, it is to continue to produce some stories that are distinct from one another, rather than following my natural inclination, which is currently to write the sequel to Heretic Blood. But, there is basically no point to writing a sequel to a story I haven’t sold yet, so I’m going to (kind of) buy another lottery ticket by working on another story I can (potentially) shop around. I have no idea if this is the right approach, but it is what makes sense to me right now.

I’m also kicking around trying some short fiction for the first time in a long long while, but I’m reluctant to do that if it means putting a bigger delay on getting back to work on the WIP.

All of this is makes for a very thinking out loud, progress report-y blog this week, but there you have it. I will say that it felt awfully good to hammer out a good chunk of creative writing for the first time in a while, just like it has felt great to get back outside and run.

Hopefully more of both over the next little while.

Thanks for reading.

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Ordinary Expanse

This week I discovered that the SF series The Expanse is available on Amazon Prime video. (Yes yes I am sure this was not difficult information to come by for people who pay proper attention to the world around them. It was new intelligence to me.) Thus, conforming quite well to my usual schedule, I have started watching it roughly 5 years behind the rest of the world.

I’m not super far into it yet (a pile of grading helps with resisting the urge to binge) so I don’t have a lot to say about the story yet (aside from general ‘I enjoy this’ level stuff) but I do already have Thoughts about the setting in general. I love that a lot of the future world imagined by The Expanse is dingy, dinged-up, worn-down and knocked around. A lot of the very obviously future tech is still just as obviously tools that people have done a lot of work with, objects that have been a part of people’s lives and taken the lumps that all of our objects do. (Not uniformly so, which makes a striking and effective contrast when we step into Rich People Land and everything is pristine. I think I like this show’s politics, but that’s a ‘later’ topic.)

I’ve talked about appreciating this aesthetic before, in Star Wars, and a lot of the future world of The Expanse reminds me of that, and Blade Runner. It isn’t a vision of the future we see enough, in my opinion. Many of our futures are gleaming in their perfection (Star Trek being perhaps the exemplar of that, in my mind) in which everything looks brand new and perfectly cared for. We also commonly see dystopia, where everything has collapsed and people inhabit the ruins of the civilization that has gone.

Both of those can be effective (although I think we tend to wait for the other shoe to drop on those gleaming futures, these days), but to me the middle ground of settings like The Expanse are perhaps the most plausible. The future will be like the present, and the past: inhabited primarily by ordinary people who have work to do, lives to get about the business of, and the environments they move through will primarily reflect that.

When I did history, I was a social historian, primarily interested in the lives of ordinary people, so it’s perhaps not a surprise that I tend to enjoy this in my fiction as well. The world of supermen and chosen ones can be a fun ride, of course, but what I actually expect we would find if we could look ahead to a future civilization is one kind of like The Expanse showed us: one that looks and feels like a place where everyday people live their every days.

So, lots of ground to cover yet on this unspooling tale, but I’m very much enjoying the early steps.

Thanks for reading.


 

Shoot I should also have added that the podcast I co-host, Broadcasts from the Wasteland, officially launched yesterday!  You can find us on iTunes or Spotify or visit us at our website and download from there.  I would be delighted if you checked us out.

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St. Gertrude’s Story

So St. Patrick’s Day, I did the same silly tweet I did every year about St. Gertrude – March 17th is also the feast day of St. Gertrude of Nivelles, today seen as a patron of gardeners, sufferers of mental illness and cats. I am generally not a St. Patrick’s enthusiast, I find the curious world of lesser known saints interesting, and pointing out that you could celebrate St. Gertrude instead is at least arguably a joke.

This year the tweet kind of blew up for whatever reason, getting seen by (checks stats) 87,000 people. This provided me with the answer to a question I couldn’t help but have: ‘what happens when you have a tweet go (semi?) viral?’. The answer is ‘not much’, but it was fun to watch happen.

I honestly forget where I first read about St. Gertrude, but she’s an interesting figure. She was born in the early 7th century, refused marriage (shaving her head to try to put off potential suitors), eventually entered a convent (well, double monastery) and is supposed to have saved the faithful from both a storm and a sea monster. Regarded as a saint (although not recognized as such until the 17th century), she was invoked for help by people keeping gardens, travellers, and people suffering from fever.

The association with cats appears a very late addition, usually slotted into the 1980s. St. Gertrude was invoked against rodents earlier than that, at least in the 15th century against the Black Plague (spread, in part, by rats), and concern with rodents does make sense for a gardener. In addition, several depictions of St. Gertrude show her surrounded by mice or rats. There isn’t another patron saint of cats, a lot of people like them, and it’s not such a leap from invoking a saint against rodents to invoking her in favour of their classic nemesis (and our companion).

(I did find one article that said (correctly) that most monasteries and abbeys would have kept some cats to deal with the mice, and that Gertrude was known to be especially kind to the ones in her abbey. They didn’t cite a source, though, aside from mentioning the vita of her life in general, and I haven’t ever read it myself. So I’m not 100% confident on that one)

There’s another explanation out there for the mice – St. Gertrude apparently had special concern for souls in Purgatory. (imagine a sort of afterlife penalty box where you serve out the balance of your sins on earth) These souls were often represented in medieval art by mice or rats – so the depictions of St. Gertrude and the mice may have had nothing to do with actual animals at all, originally: they were about her interest in relieving souls from Purgatory, reinterpreted to be literal mice by the later Middle Ages and then to interest in cats even later.

We should note that she’s still not officially the patron of cats – the Vatican has never recognized the connection. But all of this demonstrates a lot of things about medieval religion that I find somewhat charming and endlessly fascinating, because a great many saints ended up getting their patronages due to popular connections first, and then later recognition by the institution. Popular practice was the driver a lot of the time, and people brought their own meanings to their devotions and found ways to get their needs served.

It is also interesting to me that St. Gertrude clearly has a great many authors to her story, and it has been continually rewritten, or at least reinterpreted, over the centuries. Unpicking what is the truth of her life is a puzzle for historians, but it probably didn’t matter to someone in 15th century Holland, looking desperately for help against a deadly disease. Their version was that St. Gertrude would help. It probably doesn’t really matter to the cat lovers who liked my tweet Sunday whether or not Gertrude of Nivelles really liked the abbey cats or not; their version is that she loved cats like we love cats.

Different people with different needs and priorities wrote the versions of St. Gertrude that they liked. I think it’s very cool that we’re still, on some level or another, working on the story of this woman from the 7th century today. It also demonstrates (I think) something else that fits more clearly into a writing blog.

Chuck Wendig wrote a blog entry last week about how, in his opinion, the people who run the Star Wars franchise should split off the movies into a separate continuity (or ‘canon’) from the books and comics, in sort of the same way that the Marvel superhero universe is similarly divided. His argument was (basically) that then writers would have more freedom to do what they wanted without worrying about whether they were fitting in with a lot of previously established (or still to come) canon. They could just write their stories, and not worry about it.

I think when you look at writing in the past, our obsession with ‘canon’ is a relatively recent development. If you look at the stories of King Arthur and his knights, it’s clear that there were a great many different writers across a great many years writing the stories they thought would be cool about these characters, and many of them do not even slightly make sense together. Even when someone tried to create a canon, like Thomas Malory, it doesn’t really work: Malory’s compilation still has two Excaliburs kicking around, and the Lady of the Lake is deeply confusing.

People at the time would have been perfectly aware of this, of course they would. This was their popular culture! But they also don’t seem to have been particular bothered about it, loved the stories anyway, and writers just wrote their tales, and didn’t worry about it.

Obviously this was a very different time, before ‘intellectual property’ was exactly a thing. And I could do a pretty deep dive into why we, as a society, might tend to gravitate towards the concept that there is a single right answer to any question (whether that be ‘what is at the centre of the Solar System’ or ‘did Han shoot first’) and are often uncomfortable with the idea that different interpretations may be equally valid for different people. Even without doing that, I think it is reasonably obvious why we tend to want at least some consistency within our stories, and to want satisfying answers to our questions about them.

However, I do think this gets carried rather too far, with expectations that each and every story set in the same universe has to fit together seamlessly and unproblematically. Heck, the stories we have about our own universe don’t even do that, so why expect it of our fictional ones? I think there’s a lot to be said for writers being able to ignore or at least greatly loosen ‘canon’ in all kinds of popular settings, write their stories, and not worry about it.

I think our stories changing depending who tells them, and who is listening, is a wonderful tradition and a great way to keep them alive. There’s centuries worth of evidence that even if there isn’t an air-tight ‘canon’, people will love them anyway.

Thanks for reading.

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I hate Chekov’s Gun

I recently finished watching the most recent season of True Detective, and I’ve seen some people annoyed about it, and I have some thoughts. They are thoughts full of spoilers, so if you haven’t watched to the end of Season 3, think you might, and care about spoilers, probably just give this entry a miss for now.

Ok, for those of you still here (skipping the question of why? for a moment) – first of all, I thought the acting this season was great and I enjoyed the Ozarks setting way more than Season 2’s LA. I thought the main character’s unreliable and fragmentary memory was an impactful and clever new wrinkle to throw into the show’s established ‘multiple time frames’ format.

Now, where I saw some people getting annoyed was with how the resolution came together, and in particular that the ending violated Chekov’s Gun. I think I hate Chekov’s Gun.

To explain: we did get plenty of hints at something occult going on in the early going, with a Lovecraft reference in the first ep, creepy Blair Witch-y dolls, and a body posed on a stone slab in a cave. That, coupled with how Season One had gone (with some strongly implied Weird stuff going on) seems to have led many people to expect that dark magic was going to be part of the resolution here. And it wasn’t. We also had reason to expect some alarming child trafficking ring, and didn’t really get that either. And at least some of the audience didn’t like it.

First of all, I think some of that reaction comes from people being proud or fond of their solution to the puzzle we were presented with, and not being happy to learn that their speculation was wrong. That’s perfectly understandable, really – no-one likes to be wrong, and most people like to feel clever. However, I’ve seen a decent number of people frame their complaints through Chekov’s Gun thing: basically, that you shouldn’t introduce hints at occult magical things and then not follow through.

I am sure that the original advice behind what became the ‘Chekov’s Gun’ rule was well meant, and it probably applies decently well as a general principle (maybe especially well to a stage production? I’m not certain), but like almost every writing rule I have seen, it shouldn’t be applied as broadly as it is. Especially if you’re presenting a story about solving a problem (which a criminal investigation essentially is) – well, almost every one of those is a story of various false starts, dead ends, and things that looked important and then weren’t. Yes, in the first couple episodes of the season, the evidence for Occult Stuff looked strong. Turned out mostly to be smoke. I don’t think you want to go to the ‘fakeout’ well too often as a writer (or your audience won’t ever believe anything you present), but some misdirection is fine, and presenting the reality of any kind of investigation as a story of all the things we got wrong before we started getting things right is perfectly solid.

There were similar Chekov’s Gun complaints with the last season of The Americans (yeah, spoilers ahead) in which Elizabeth is given a suicide pill, speculation abounds about who will end up taking it or having it used on them, and then … no-one does. It gets buried in the woods as the Jennings flee the country. Again, I thought it worked great. It served to create some tension when it was introduced, and then having it come to nothing was part and parcel of how the whole world of our favorite spies was falling away. Sometimes it really is fine to introduce something intended to fizzle out, or show a road that no-one ends up taking.

Some people also objected that the non-occult resolution wasn’t as interesting. Look, I’m a huge fan of having fantastic elements in stories generally (not a shock, I am sure), but I thought what True Detective gave us this season worked pretty nicely. We saw several grandiose explanations for the murder of one child and abduction of another, but in the end it was a story about a series of reasonably humble human frailties and failings that led to it all. To me, the mundane roots of evil are at least as interesting to me as another abyss of the human soul (such as we saw in Season One) would have been.

Now, I would agree that the two massive dumps of exposition in the final episode came across as pretty clumsy, but it’s hard to see how they could have been replaced without at least another episode’s worth of action. None of this is to say that I thought Season Three of True Detective was perfect, but I think it was pretty darn good, and some of the criticisms I’ve seen of it seem to be treating yet another general principle of writing as an absolute, must never be broken, rule.

Increasingly, I think those don’t exist.

Thanks for reading.

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Getting Stuff Out There

Since I wrote last, mostly what I’ve been working on is trying to find a home for Heretic Blood rather than creating anything new. I’ve just not been successful at finding a regular time when I have both the minutes and the energy to keep working at the new project, so I’m trying to be successful at something else. Querying is a little easier to fit into briefer windows and pick away at when I can, so hopefully I can be at least a bit productive over the next while this way.

That’s not to say it isn’t difficult, because it absolutely is. Finding the right people to query is hard. Writing a good query is devilish. Hitting send is (for me) the hardest thing of all.

It’s kind of silly, because all I’m doing is sending writing to people who want to receive writing, but I also know that they are either going to say Yes or No to my story and, of course, I’m fairly heavily invested in that Yes. I think putting your work out there for judgment is always hard, because you’ve done your best with it, woven part of your soul into it, and then people will either like it or they won’t, and if they don’t, it’s never going to feel like nothing.

It is something common to basically all art. At some point, you put the picture up on the wall, or put the pages in front of someone, or get up on the stage, and you see what they think. That act takes courage, no matter what the context may be.

And yes, absolutely, you can write just for your own enjoyment and never do anything with what you create and you’re still a writer. I take great joy and satisfaction in the act of writing and I’m pretty sure I would do it even if I knew that absolutely zero people would ever read it. On the other hand, I have always wanted to share my stories, and hope that people would like them. It has never been easy, giving my story to people, whether a single individual or sending it off to a professional that I hope will like it.

But, I believe that stories want to be told, and read.

Get your stuff out there.

It’s a little scary.

Your art is worth it.

Thanks for reading.

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Starting Points

Struggling a bit for a topic this week, so you’re going to get something from Evan’s Barrel of Random Writing Thoughts. Enjoy?

Anyway, I read some conversations talking about the starting point for a new story. A lot of very good points were made about starting with the protagonist, what they want, and how they’re going to get it. Or a character, their challenge, and how they feel about it. You establish those things, and then you can start writing. And it makes perfect sense, and is perfectly sound.

On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever followed that process. The story that became The King in Darkness started with the ending scene. I had that ending in mind, and built the rest of the story backwards from there. What characters do I need, and what circumstances can construct the path that gets us to that point? Very different process.

For the story I’m working on now (for some values of ‘working on’), my starting point was an article I read on the BBC website talking about how FTL travel is not only impossible with current technology, and current ideas about technology, but is probably just straight-out impossible, even allowing for tech we haven’t thought of yet. ‘Well that’s no fun,’ I thought, and then proceeded to think about how well, if it can’t be done with science, how could it be done? Magic, obviously. That idea, and my hard SF-writing friend’s probable reaction to it, made me smile, and I created all the rest of what I’ve got from there. There’s dragons now. Very different process. As far as I can recall, I don’t think I’ve ever started from the starting point a lot of authors I respect agreed was their baseline for being ready to write. Man, creativity is endlessly fascinating.

And look, none of this is to say that I’m doing it right, or that I’m clearly doing something wrong. The main reason I mention this is just as yet another piece of evidence in the growing case that there is no Correct process for writing, or even a Correct part of the writing process. There’s only what works for you, and what doesn’t work for you, and even that may change from project to project. There’s certainly something to be said for modelling what other artists do, especially if you admire their work or if you feel like you don’t know how to proceed. At the same time, there’s no need to feel constrained by what other artists do, or to feel bad about your own process if it’s different. In the end, all that matters is that the creation happens.

God, that’s perilously close to advice. We’ll stop here. Thanks for reading.

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Stormy Night

As I write this, a pretty big winter storm is just getting started outside my window. It seems as though it’s going to lay a pretty big sock of snow, ice, and wind on us before it finishes up sometime tomorrow. I’m fortunate to be home and safe inside, writing this with my stupid cats. And tomorrow, I’ll shovel out from what the storm threw down on me, and everything will continue on.

It kind of fits nicely with how I’ve been feeling, writing-wise, the last while. I haven’t really figured out how to fit regular writing into my schedule this term, so I haven’t been real productive, which is always a bit of a downer, especially when I had a nice stretch of momentum for a while.

And if I allow myself to compare to the things I can observe other writers are doing, with publications coming out, awards being won, and new deals being signed, it’s easy to think that I can’t possibly get there. It’s easy to think that I could just stop, and that maybe that would be kind of a relief, to not be worrying about my writing, any more.

However, if I follow that trail of thought along, I always reach the point where I remember that I absolutely don’t want to stop, because I love to write. I love to create imaginary people and places, and I feel a kind of joy I don’t get anywhere else when I’m doing it. So, no matter how the rest of it works out, if it ever does, it doesn’t matter because I still love to write. Things will either flow from that, or they won’t, and it’s ok because the joy is still going to be there.

So, yeah, kind of like the weather today. When the storm of a busy schedule and rest-of-life stress blows out for a while, I’ll dig out and get back at the writing, just like I always do. It’s important to remember that I’m not writing *because* I want the publication deal or whatever else (although: clearly won’t say no, heh), I write because I love to write. That’s mine. It’s what is always going to be left, no matter how the rest of it breaks.

Tonight I’ll enjoy watching the storm from a safe place, and think about how to get back to crafting something new out of nothing at all in the morning.

Thanks for reading.

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Back At It

Not too sure what to write about, this week … my holiday break is winding down (I have various disadvantages coming from the work I do, but the amount of time off I get in December is an undoubted plus) and I am gradually getting back to things. I’m preparing for a new term of teaching new groups of students. I saw my first class Monday and it seemed to go pretty well. Things start in earnest next week.

Having taken some time to rest and recharge, I’m also looking to get back to work on the writing stuff, as well. As usual, I had grand ideas about how much I was going to accomplish with my time off, and, well, it didn’t work out like that. Sometimes it really is important to just pause for a while, let yourself have some space and time where you’re not trying to accomplish anything.

This afternoon I took a long walk in the woodlot near where I live. I watched the birds, fed a riotous mob of chickadees, and enjoyed the peace of a snowy forest. I came out feeling quieter inside than I have for a little while. In terms of stuff that Got Done today, the list is not impressive. However, that time to pause has its own kind of value.

Now, I may have somewhat over-indulged over the past few weeks, but I may also have done just what I needed to do. Now, it’s time to get back to work. I want to continue my progress with the new WIP, and I need to finally write that query letter for Heretic Blood, so I can start looking for a home for it seriously. And I need to do the work that more directly pays the bills.

I genuinely believe that I will do all of these things at least a little better because of my quiet time, though. The chickadees are likely to agree.

Thanks for reading.

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Theme Music

Work continues – in between end of term stuff at the day job – on the new WIP; I crested past 10,000 words last week, which is not a huge amount but is enough of a Hunk of Stuff to make me feel like this thing has some momentum behind it, especially when I can get a little more time devoted to it. It’s a neat feeling, although I do have the odd twinge of doubt that this is really a good idea. If Heretic Blood was the most difficult thing I have written to date, this new thing is the craziest idea I’ve ever seriously tried to work on. Apparently the crazy ones are the good ones. We’ll see.

I am also encouraged because I’ve started to figure out the new project’s theme music. No, really. I don’t write my stuff imagining it as a movie or TV show (or a comic), but I do sometimes ‘cast’ the characters I’m writing. That’s mostly just a fun mental exercise for in the middle of a 10k or something. But, I always have theme music.

This isn’t necessarily the same as music I play while writing, although I usually do have that going on. I play all sorts of different things almost every time I write, and it isn’t necessarily connected to what’s going on on the page at all. Mostly I just choose something that’s either going to relax me or otherwise get me into a pleasant headspace where I can focus on making the words happen.

Every story I’ve written, though, has at least a couple pieces of ‘theme music’ that are basically connected to the mood and feel of the piece I’m working on. I don’t honestly know why I do this, because I’m not at all a musical person in the sense of writing it or performing it in any way. I guess some part of my creative brain reacts to it, though, because forming that link between the story ideas and the right piece of music seems to be an important step.

Once I have the theme music (which I usually will hear and just go ‘oh yeah, that’s it, isn’t it.’) it tells me a lot about what the tone of the story is likely to be and the direction I want to take it in. In the past, at least, figuring out the theme music makes it much easier to get to work on the writing. I’m not entirely sure why. I find it genuinely fascinating that there are these parts of my creative process that appear to be important, but I don’t (apparently) consciously understand why or how. Most of the time, I also feel that it’s one of those things that’s best not to ask too many questions about.

This all sounds, I am sure, slightly(?) overly-mysticized, and no doubt it is. I expect there’s some reasonably straightforward neuropsychological reason for why things work the way they do. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got the theme music.

That means it’s time to keep on with the writing.

I probably won’t blog next week, what with it being the holiday season, and all. See you in a couple weeks. Thanks for reading.

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On Sabine

I really don’t have a good idea to write about this week, but I have been thinking a lot about Star Wars (in part because of the RPG I game master, and in part because I’m doing the Star Wars Lego advent calendar), and so I think I’m going to do my thoughts on Sabine Wren. For those who have maybe missed it, Sabine is one of the characters from the Rebels animated series that I’ve talked about on here before.

I really enjoyed the series overall, and I think all the characters were written quite well. Sabine was the one that really surprised me, though. I kind of cringed a bit when I first saw her because she’s a young girl in Mandalorian armour – the stuff Boba Fett wears. I think I’ve also said several times before on here that I think the Star Wars writers have fumbled the ball pretty badly where Boba Fett is concerned.

They had a character with a neat visual design who people thought was cool in part because of the look and in part because he was an enigma. Boba Fett had fan support far beyond what his actual role in the movies really justified. The response to this was to not only do more and more with that specific character, but also to recycle that visual design into seemingly as many places as possible. A copycat bounty hunter in basically the same suit. Another identical looking guy for the prequel trilogy. Mandalorians everywhere. Everything they’ve added has, to me, undermined where the appeal of the Boba Fett character came from so that by the time I saw Sabine show up on Rebels, I was like ‘oh noooo’.

But then, she turned out to be far from just a retread of the ‘bounty hunter in cool armour’ concept. I mean, yes, Sabine is good in a fight and enjoys explosives, but there’s a more interesting layer. She’s an artist. That (to me, now) overdone armour is brightly painted and stylized. She bombs things with paint, and wants to leave a her symbol behind to let the Empire know who just kicked their ass. When she’s gonna take a stolen TIE Fighter into battle, well, she’s not gonna do it until she’s given the thing a custom paint job. I’m still sorry we never saw that thing again.

I guess it’s maybe not a surprise that I’d dig a character who is, on some level, another creative, but I also think this was just not a character we’d seen in the Star Wars world before. Knights, space pirates, royalty, con men, yes … but not really an artist. So that was cool, and it got me to buy into the Sabine character long enough for the writers to give me the rest of her story. Which did, in the end, involve a whole bunch more dudes in that goddamned armour, but by then I didn’t care because it was Sabine’s story and they found a way to make me care about that.

So well done, but also something to think about regarding characters in general. It gets me back to the idea that I keep running into from writers I respect that it doesn’t necessarily matter if the bare bones of your idea (plot, setting, characters, whatever) are brand new, because you’ve never told their story before. Sure, a particular character concept (Mandalorian warrior!) might have been so chewed over that people are sure they’ve seen it all before – but they haven’t seen you do it yet.

I mean, I still don’t think I ever want to see another Mandalorian armour bounty hunter in my Star Wars, but maybe I do, and I just don’t know it yet, because it’s gonna come from a writer that I haven’t seen use that particular brush to paint with. I think it may be the hardest thing to learn as a writer, and I’m sure still working on it: believing that the story I have to tell could not be done by anyone else, alive or dead, and that means it has an audience that wants to hear it.

Tell that story with confidence. Paint brightly.

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