LESSON ONE: BURN IT - BRIAN STAVELEY ON HOW TO BE CREATIVE

09 October 2014

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In my first year teaching creative writing to high school seniors, I assigned a ten-page story. I told the students that, for reasons I would explain later, the thing had to be hand-written. No computers. No USB drives. No email. Just one ten-page story written out longhand.

Three days later, they filed into the classroom holding their neatly ruled pages, eyeing one another warily in the way of workshop participants the world over. There was some nervous banter about who was going to read first, but we circumvented all that by walking outside. When we were gathered in the school courtyard, I had all the kids tear their stories into small strips and throw those strips into a metal trash bin. Then, to the consternation of the head of school, we burned the whole thing.

It was a good start to the semester. Though the students were aghast at the time, they picked up the point more quickly than I expected: if you want to write fiction, you’ve got to be willing to burn it. Three days and ten pages seemed like a lot of work to high school seniors, until I pointed out that many serious writers had entire novels that never saw the light of day. That point seemed to hit home, and for the rest of the semester I watched in amazement as students would listen to criticism, nod, then say, “I figured I’d need to burn this bit, but I thought I’d write it first.”

Of course, it’s always easier watching the flames lick at someone else’s pages than it is to torch your own. In the course of The Emperor’s Blades, I’ve stood at the metaphorical rim of the trash bin dozens of times, wringing my hands, wondering if there was some way I could salvage chapters that were clearly unsalvageable. In a way, those students of mine were a real inspiration. If they could burn their false starts, then so could I.

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The basic outline of The Emperor’s Blades never really changed. I knew I wanted to write about Kaden, Adare, and Valyn; I knew that their father had been killed and that the empire was in jeopardy; and I understood the crucial stakes before I ever started. That, however, was about all I knew, and in the process of learning the rest, a lot got cut. For instance…

  • An Indiana Jones-eque tomb raider who had been living in an ancient city plagued by living corpses. He was completely derivative. So were the corpses. I burned ‘em all.
  • The soul of an insane magic-wielding girl trapped inside a sword. I kept coming back to Eni over and over, but, as my agent pointed out, she really didn’t belong in the world. Buh-bye, Eni.
  • A young nomadic woman named Riah. She was an important POV character for a long time. I had about a hundred thousand words and an entirely separate setting devoted to her. The plot took a different turn, one that rendered her suddenly irrelevant, and she went in the trash bin.
  • A heavily tattooed palace slave named Candramohan. He was also a POV character, and a talented acrobat. He was crucial to Adare’s plot line… until he wasn’t.
  • Freeport. Ah, Freeport. I hope to go back there some day – a polar city, all underground, geothermally heated, run by a vicious merchant oligarchy. I used to have four or five chapters set there. Not any more.
  • There were some promising auditions for minor villains: Sethre Lucer, the Tailor, Baxter Pane. None of them made the cut.
  • Rassambur, the mountain fastness of the Skullsworn, where the priests of death train in their macabre arts. It was a beautiful place, really. Sort of like a castle set near the rim of the Grand Canyon. There was a whole sequence set there that’ll never see the light of day.

When I look at this list, it’s tempting to think of the time and pages wasted, but of course, they weren’t wasted. I had to write all these lines to discover they wouldn’t work, and in writing them, in trying out each scene or character, I learned a little more about the world and about those three siblings who are central to the story. Nonetheless, it’s always hard destroying something you worked hard to create, but then, I guess I had it coming.

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The Emperor's Blades (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne: Book One) by Brian Staveley is now out and here are seven free chapters courtesy of SFX Magazine. If you enjoyed his post on creative writing, you can also find other posts about or by Brian on our site here. 

 

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