Graduate’s Corner: World-Beginning Rust and Confidence, by Rhiannon Held

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Author Rhiannon Held graduated from Odyssey in 2006.  She is the author of the urban fantasy Silver (Silver, Tarnished and Reflected) series from Tor.  She lives in Seattle, where she works as an archaeologist for an environmental compliance firm.  Working in both archaeology and writing, she’s “lucky” enough to have two sexy careers that don’t make her much money.  Visit her author website at www.rhiannonheld.com.


I’ve recently started writing a new novel series, after spending nearly five years completely focused on my first series to be published, the Silver series. Now, I know some writers love bouncing among a variety of different worlds when choosing the setting of their next project. I’m not one of them—when I say focused, I mean focused. Having finally stepped out of that series’ world to write in a new one, I learned a couple things: without practice, skills get rusty, but you shouldn’t let that chip away at your confidence in striking out into new territory.

When you think about it, rust makes sense: some writing skills you use only at the very beginning of the process of building a world.  If you continue to write in that same world, your world-beginning skills decay through simple disuse.  For me, my rustiest skill was pinning down character voice.

I’ve discovered that in my process, developing character voice has two parts: developing the voice in my head, and developing the voice on the page. The voice in my head settles out naturally—the more I toss the character into different situations as I write, the more the character fleshes out and becomes interesting.  The real trouble is translating that into a voice that comes through properly on the page. Inevitably, when I give a new character’s section to a reader, what I thought was sympathetically self-conscious comes across as whiny, what I thought was assertive comes across as aggressive, or whatever the heck I thought I was doing isn’t there and the character is simply bland.

While writing in an existing series, I had a set of character voices I was comfortable with, and I was aware how to make them read right on the page. Even if I added a new character or two to every book, the existing voices provided a firm foundation. In a new series, you’re starting over on everyone at once. I actually stalled out for a day or two because I was worried about getting one of the protagonists right. In the end, I had to take a deep breath and admit to myself that the characters probably would be whiny, aggressive, bland, etc., and to fix that was simply the purpose of a revision.

The other area I noticed rust in was my large-scale plotting skills. These were a little less rusty, because obviously each new novel in an existing world needs a plot. But for me, those plots were often driven by the tensions among existing characters, or between existing characters and aspects of the world. I’d notice the tension as I wrote elsewhere, then for a new book I’d circle back and take two tense elements and bounce them off each other like a toddler with cymbals. In the new series, not only I was cymbal-less, but I only had a very basic seed for my new plot. There’s a character with a certain type of magic that highlights her personality weaknesses and she… does some stuff… that needs the magic…

The solution I found for that was to rely briefly on a much more structured plot—Act I, Act II, etc. I’d found that too constraining when I was cymbal crashing, because it was smoother to take the crashings and apply the structure to them afterward. This time, I built the structure first, and then let the excitement grow around it organically. Realizing I wasn’t changing the process, only swapping the order, helped a lot.

In the end, I think that it’s good to remember that you did do all those world-beginning things once, so that means you can do them again. I’ve seen plenty of writers who cling to the first world they ever wrote for a number of reasons, but not trying something new because you’re afraid you can’t find the inspiration twice is foolish. You can do it again, so go ahead and write something completely new. The more you write, the more you’re growing as a writer, after all, so your newest world could well be the best one yet. Personally, having passed the rough beginning, I’m having the time of my life writing in my own new world.

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