“We have to believe in our work; the only thing that lightens the burden of it, sometimes, is the sense that it matters, and that we’ve committed ourselves to something valuable.”– from “Writing Fantasy Realistically” by Philip Pullman
New writers are encouraged to read, and so read I did – about the evils of misrepresentation, the cleverness of subverted tropes, the laughable Mary Sue phenomenon, fantasy clichés, fantasy subgenres, new books, classic books, books that I could have written better, books that put my prose to shame, books that irritated me for reasons I could not identify…
I didn’t want to write an irritating book. No, my book had to be aligned with values like acceptance, justice, and interdependence. Crafting a story to meet these standards has not been easy work. But the thing that stopped me from writing the NIP (novel in progress) altogether came in late 2021: I lost my belief in stories.
The publishing industry is a business first and foremost. It wants books that can be marketed to a wide audience. My interests usually stray away from the mainstream, and I’ve always worried that my NIP will be a hard sell as a result. Are my neurodivergent characters relatable? Have I omitted too many fantasy tropes? I’m a very analytical person, which also means I’m good at worrying. In case you couldn’t tell.
Along with fussing over the NIP, I have plenty of other things to worry about. Any day of the week, I can scan the news and read about war crimes, forced sterilization, hunger, rising costs of living, wildfires…
I do not have the money or influence to mobilise change. The most effective thing I can do is hit the retweet and share buttons. Aid is needed now, systemic change needs to begin now, but novels cannot be written and published in a weekend. Fiction does not feed anyone.
But I do have a book, borrowed from the library, whose author has been writing fiction much longer than I have.
I read Philip Pullman’s books when I was a teenager, but his tone always felt a little didactic and his style too separate from mine to enchant me like some other writers did. Still, I admired his intellect, so last month I dipped into his nonfiction volume Daemon Voices.
The essay titled “Writing Fantasy Realistically” drew my eye despite the fact that I’d avoided my own fantasy novel for seven months. Perhaps I wanted a reminder of what being a writer felt like, or a jumpstart for my work. I got both: Pullman describes the embarrassment and confusion he felt when his mind began insisting that he write the fantasy story that would become His Dark Materials.
The series is now considered a classic of the genre, but in its early stages, Pullman resisted it because he associated fantasy with the sort of story that prized adventure over moral nuance and subtlety of character. At the same time, however, he harboured another belief that allowed him to set his doubts aside.
“…if I know anything about writing stories, it’s this: that you have to do what your imagination wants, not what your fastidious literary taste is inclined towards, not what your finely honed judgement feels comfortable with, not what your desire for the esteem of critics advises you to. Good intentions never wrote a story worth reading: only the imagination can do that.”
I myself have been so tangled in intentions for the NIP that my imagination dwindled, and with it my enthusiasm for writing. After reading Pullman’s essay, I could finally allow myself to be a writer again and approach the NIP. I reread the last two chapters I had written in 2021, and somewhat to my surprise, I enjoyed them. The prose carried me through the rising suspense of the narrative while simultaneously filling me with the deep satisfaction of discovery and innovation I had felt when I wrote it.
I had delighted in creating this part of the story. Now I had the delight of reading it too – and a desire to read more. It looks like I’ll have to finish it after all.
However, while imagination remains the driving force behind my decision to keep writing, I’m not sure how to sustain my determination to finish the NIP. I’d like to open the discussion now and ask you, my readers, why you value fiction. Any tips you have on staying committed to a long, arduous project would be helpful too.
What are your thoughts?
Quotations from “Writing Fantasy Realistically,” featured in Daemon Voices by Philip Pullman. 2017, David Fickling Books.
9 thoughts on “All Writers Need to Believe in Stories”
I think fiction does feed people!!
Wow that’s so cool about pullman! Didn’t know he would be Embarrassed to write fantasy because it’s typically more focused on adventure than subtlety of character.
Yaaaaayy I’m so happy that you’re rereading the NIP!! It’s going to be awesome!:) it’s so hard to write or create when you have too many expectation in yourself, makes making things no more fun. Thanks for writing this awesome blog:)
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I’m not sure if I’d give super good advice on how to stay committed, because I haven’t finished anything longer than short stories but apparently short stories are practice for running the marathon of a book:) for me, I’ve stuck with my current novel for… er since 2019 so like 3 or 4 years now😂 so old…. but my other novels I sort of dropped off writing but they are still foundational to my fantasy world.
Something that helps me stay commmitted is to keep myself guessing, I still don’t know for Sure how it’s going to end, or what other weird characters will spring up in the middle (time traveller friend from the future, human eating goblins maybe,) and I often worry that my mystery parts aren’t done properly, because I too am very analytical and thusly really good at worrying about nothingness:( and I think I stay committed to this novel because I really want to see what it all looks like together and finished. It’s changed so much from what I first thought it would be and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, but I still love it. I also love incorporating other things that I love into it, like funny or dramatic writing styles, different kinds of jokes or circumstances. Sometimes the new thing doesn’t fit but it was still fun to write it and though I have over a thousand notes I might never use it’s still really fun writing them all down:) some people see their stories as their happy place and I think that keeps them committed too, – oh wow this went on wayyy longer than I thought it would lol
Oh I’m going to add something else, sorry! Anyways, not taking yourself or your writing too seriously can help but also taking yourself seriously as a professional writer does help because it allows me to give myself the time to write even if there are voices saying “your story’s stupid or silly or pointless” because I like it so there. When I was drawing recently, I would get those kind of voices just criticizing every line I drew so it was reaaally hard to make anything and it’s kind of like writer’s block but with drawing. I found a quote and it fixed it and it goes like this: Art can be so much fun when you don’t demand instant mastery from yourself. (Jane davenport) and that was my wholeeee problem and sometimes can be with writing too, so I just keep my story really loose and silly and it’s half badly half well written but I still like it. And I think I like it because it is so messy:) why do you like your NIP? Your prose is the bestest so I can see why you love it:)
Sorry for so many comments!!
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Yes that’s exactly what it feels like! Part of the joy of planning stories is not knowing how all the bits will fit together. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle, but you don’t know what the final image is supposed to be (which can be very freeing).
Thanks for all the comments 🙂 you’re my best commenteer
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I agree with the person who said fiction does feed people! It feeds their soul (or spirit, if you prefer). Stories teach us about possibility. About belonging, about how to battle obstacles, and so many other things. Good fiction also makes us think. It can approach serious topics that are too much to handle taken straight on, and get past people’s defenses when it’s “only a story”. Fiction is like any form of creativity. It’s what keeps us going when things are hard. It inspires invention, …so many other things. (There are even whole books written on the importance of fiction/fantasy/ creativity in general)
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Well said! Are there any particular books on the importance of fiction that you’d recommend?
At first I was going to say I couldn’t think of any off the top of my head, but when I went to look at my bookshelves (at least the books I can see on them), I did pull off a few. As you’ll see, they’re from various disciplines. I was reminded how much the field of Psychology likes to explore this issue. (They often use the terms “storytelling” or “mythology”). So does the academic study of Mythology. (and of course, the intersection of the two.) And then there’s the subject of the importance of seeing one’s self reflected in the media if you’re a minority of some sort or other.
So, that said, here’s the ones I found: Anything by Joseph Campbell on mythology (The Power of Myth is the one I have, but he’s so prolific and so widely respected on the subject, that you could really pick any of them); Phil Cousineau’s Once and Future Myths (which I used as a major element of my theoretical perspective when I wrote my honors thesis on the subject of the importance of changeling stories in autistic identity development. It’s on my website under “Longer, Less Personal Writing”, if you’re interested); Lewis-Mehl Medrona’s Coyote Wisdom (which I believe was another element of my theoretical framework); and Melissa Hart’s Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens.
There are a number of other ones (read and unread) on my bookshelf about the importance of storytelling, and/or mythology, but I couldn’t remember enough about them to recommend them in this context (or I haven’t read them yet). Some of them also veer into the subject of spirituality. (As the explanation many researchers have for why so many people are seeking alternatives to organized religion is the necessity of meaning in one’s life, and the importance of story/mythology, or mythological archetypes in finding meaning.)
Oh, one other thing: The field of traumatology will also reference “The Hero’s Journey” as an important metaphor for healing. I believe it was Joseph Campbell who first coined the term in reference to one of the basic archetypes, and/or a metaphor for most human lives (or something. I forget the details, but I’m sure they’re easily looked up on Google.) The wider field of Psychology in general will also use the term sometimes as well. Might be a concept worth exploring, if you haven’t already.
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Found one other one I have read, as I was putting the ones I recommended above. The Mythic Imagination: The Quest for Meaning Through Personal Mythology, by Stephen Larsen.
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Opps. Meant to say “as I was putting the others away”.