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Set The Rules, And Set Yourself Free
Welcome to another edition of Fiction Notes. You can find previous essays here—topics range from idea generation to the importance of talent, to outlining a novel. If you like what you read, please hit reply or shoot me an email. And if you haven’t, please sign up!
Today I bring you a short (and somewhat different) edition of Fiction Notes. The topic: Creative Constraints. See, Creativity can be narrowed down to a two-step process. Step 1: Have chaos. Step 2: Bring that chaos into order to create something new.
But most-times people forget that step 2 is just as important as step 1. They think: I'm being creative, I can imagine, invent, ideate anything—I am free. But there is no such thing as absolute freedom. Even birds have the sky to thank for their flying.
There Is No Path, At First
Imagine you're a sculptor working in 15th-century Italy. There's a knock on the door. A brand-new block of marble arrived at your studio, it is being carted inside as you watch. You can smell its polish, and see its shine, feel the chisel tremble in your hand. It is time to get to work but—what now? you ask yourself. What now? indeed...
Whenever a writer starts a new project—be it an essay, or a novel, or a short story, or an email—they are faced with an infinite landscape of possibilities. Ideas are endless, and cheap, or too many too count. There is no path to follow, not even a destination, not yet. They are faced with two options: Either stumble in the dark, hoping to find their way to a place they do not yet know they are aiming for. Or they can stop, and think, and invent a path and a destination, and a few resting spots before embarking on their journey.
You might guess this is an essay arguing for the value of outlining your piece before writing. But it is not. Not entirely, at least. This essay argues a deeper point: Constraints are vital to any creative endeavour. Set up your initial constraints correctly, and set yourself free by doing so.
See, one of the reasons why writing a novel is so hard is the lack of constraints in the medium. There's only three, to begin with: 1) You have to write in a language, which means your words need to make sense. 2)You need to tell a story, however you decide to define that. 3) It has to be longer than 50.000 words. That is not enough, isn't it? That leaves too many possibilities to choose from.
Set The Constraints, Set Yourself Free
So you need to narrow things down. You need to reduce the landscape of possibilities as much as you can. You need to set up some other constraints. We usually do this in the form of questions:
Which is it going to be? First-person narration? Third-person omniscient or limited? Feeling daring? Maybe you could even try to write in the second person.
How many viewpoint characters are there going to be? One? Five?
What genre are you writing in?
Is your story set in the real-world?
I'm sure you've heard (if you've taken any Creative Writing classes at least) that you should ask yourself these questions, and many more, before starting to work on your book. But professors get this wrong—the point of the questions is not to trigger ideas but to create the constraints within which the ideas you already have might flourish. And you can get even more specific, if you wish, and do it to great effect. You can, for example:
Choose that your chapters have a maximum of 1500 words.
Or your novel be no longer than 65000 words
Or to write using index cards instead of paper or computer, with the goal of having something happen on each note-card.
Those are arbitrary decisions, I know. Completely arbitrary, and when considered by themselves, seemingly pointless. But that is the beauty of creative constraints: Their arbitrary nature removes all decision fatigue and incites action. They are rules, ones you create for yourself—which are the only ones not worth breaking (note that by 'rule' I don't mean 'law'.)
Constraints have immediate repercussions. They reduce the pressure that comes with writing, for one, since you know what you can do, and what you can’t. They also add a special flavor to whatever you create, one tailor-made to fit your chosen constraints.
If your chapters can't be longer than 1500 words, that creates a very specific rhythm to your story. And so does having a novel that is no longer than 65000 words. If you choose to go with the third constraint, then you would be following on Raymond Chandler's steps—and if there is one thing we can say about his books, is that they are not boring.
And if you need a more visual example of the importance of creative constraints—close your eyes. Remember. Bring yourself back to your primary (or elementary) school days. Picture the playground, and picture yourself playing.
What do you see? Was your school's playground an empty land, a near-infinite space with no trees, just grass? Or did you have a sand-pit, and swings, and climbing stations? When you think back on the games you played with your friends—there were rules even if you don't remember them now. Because that is what kids do. They set up arbitrary rules that bind them, and use those constraints to create the fantastic worlds in which they can play and explore.
That is it for today! Have a great weekend!
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