For Writing and Life: Who are You?

In the TV show Babylon 5 there are four questions that are central to the series’ theme, and that are asked by different characters throughout the story: Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? Where are you going?

In this blog series, I want to cover each question individually – what it means to me, and what it means to you. If you’re a writer (or pursuing a creative passion of any sort), I think these questions are especially important.

As a writer (and reader) of fantasy tales, I believe that one of the strengths of the genre is to give us a new and deeper way of looking at reality. The best fantasy always points to the truth. And so, I ask this question:

     Who are you?

In the Babylon 5 episode “Comes the Inquisitor,” the character of Delenn is held prisoner by the Inquisitor who repeatedly asks “Who are you?” She quickly learns that the correct answer is not her name, her title, her family history, or her career.

Your name, your job, the different hats you must wear throughout your life – spouse, parent, leader, student – all of these help define what you are, but not who you are. If all of that were stripped away, and there was nothing left but you and your words, who would you be? This is not about what other people call you. What do you call yourself?

Your voice

As a writer, it’s important to know who you are. It is from this understanding of yourself that your best writing will come. This does not mean that you must write nothing but memoirs. Knowing who you are is what helps you to develop that indescribable yet vital aspect of writing: your voice.

I can’t give you a step by step guide to discovering your voice – if there even is such a thing. I’m still discovering my own voice. I have learned, though, that writing – as much and as often as you can – is the best way to develop your voice.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, it’s okay if your style and voice mimic that of your favorite author – that’s how we learn. Just know that even if you can spin a better tale than a famous author, if your voice is not your own, your writing will fall flat. Readers have an amazing ability – whether they can articulate it or not – to sense if a writer does not know who they are.

The right place at the right time

I believe that if a writer – or anyone – knows who they are and why they exist, then whatever they do in life will be impactful. “In the right place at the right time” is as much a matter of self-understanding and self-discipline as it is luck. A writer who has found their voice and writes from the heart will always be a powerful writer.

Every day I’m discovering more about who I am. I’m becoming more comfortable in my own skin, as a person and as a writer. I’m confident that I’m in the right place at the right time to live a fulfilled and happy life. I’m learning more and more every day that my writing matters, because I matter, and the people who read my words matter.

Who are you?

“How do you know the chosen ones? No greater love hath a man than he lay down his life for his brother. Not for millions, not for glory, not for fame. For one person. In the dark, where no one will ever know or see. … When the darkness comes, know this. You are the right people, in the right place, at the right time.” -Sebastian, “Comes the Inquisitor”

The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: The Placement of Only

“Only” is a common word, and it usually functions as an adverb or an adjective, meaning that it modifies a verb or a noun. Most people understand the basic definition of this word: alone, merely, exclusively. But it’s using “only” in the right place in a sentence that seems to trip people up.

English has parts of speech and a certain structure to its sentences which provide context and meaning to the words. Even if traditional word order is changed around – like, for example, when Yoda speaks – the words still have the same function and meaning.

The most common misuse of “only” is putting it in the wrong place in a sentence. For example:

I only want one doughnut.

Most people would understand this sentence to mean that the speaker wants one doughnut, no more. But grammatically, that’s not what this sentence says. Actually, this sentence isn’t necessarily incorrect – if the word you’re trying to modify is “want.”

When worded this way, “only” is modifying the word “want.” Adjectives and adverb usually come right before the noun or the verb that they are supposed to modify. What this sentence is actually saying is “Desire is the sole feeling I am experiencing. I do not need a doughnut, I do not wish for a doughnut, I don’t even kind of like doughnuts occasionally – my want is all that consumes me.”

Only I want one doughnut.

This wording could have two different meanings. Used this way, “only” can be replacing the word “but.” It could also be modifying “I,” thus indicating that no one else wants a doughnut. Again, technically the sentence is correct, but it may not be communicating the exact meaning that you intended.

I want only one doughnut.

Now “only” is modifying the number of doughnuts, indicating that one and no more is all that is desired.

I want one doughnut only.

Again, a correct sentence, but here the implication could be that one doughnut – and nothing else of any sort – is all that is desired. The “only” modifies the word “doughnut” more directly here, rather than modifying the word “one,” as in the previous example.

A lot of this depends on the context. If the scene is a buffet of many different foods, then “I want one doughnut only” could be appropriate if you are emphasizing your desire for a single doughnut instead of sampling the entire buffet.

Context applies to all of these examples. And context is part of why, especially when we’re talking, we frequently modify the wrong part of our sentences with “only.” Because of the context, others around know what is meant, and nobody thinks twice about it.

When writing (unless you’re writing a scene with realistic dialogue) it pays to double-check the placement of your “onlies.” Even if the reader can understand your meaning based on the context, if the work is a published story, a blog post, or a school paper, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Examine the structure of the sentence to see which word “only” is emphasizing. Turn it into Yoda-speak if you have to:

Only one doughnut, I want.

See, even Yoda knows how to let you know that he wants a single doughnut, not the whole plate of Krispy Kremes.

Revisiting a Forgotten World

Writing Updates

I’m still working on my fantasy trilogy that has been my writing project for a couple of years now. But lately I’ve been thinking a lot about some stories I wrote and a world I created many years ago. I don’t want to neglect my time spent on my current projects, but I also want to make some time to revive this older set of stories. Those stories were the ones that got me to where I am today.

Birth

This fantasy world of these old stories was my first foray into epic fantasy – I created a complex world, dozens of characters, and enough of a history and timeline to cover several novels. Initially it didn’t start out with all those elaborate details – it began as just one book, and the story was a rather obvious copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I wrote it in fifth grade, and it was probably barely 20,000 words (I don’t have a word count, since the story was hand written in pencil on notebook paper). Still, not a bad middle-grade “novel,” I suppose – and it was the longest story I had ever written and completed to that point. It spawned a two-part sequel, part one of which I wrote in middle school. Then for a while I left that world behind in favor of Star Wars fan-fiction, a lengthy story about horses on a magical island, and other assorted short stories.

Revisit

I revisited this world sometime in high school, with some fresh ideas and a slightly more mature command of writing and storytelling techniques. I wrote another novel which was intended to be a prequel to the one I’d written in elementary school, and I made plans to re-write that one.

The world was becoming more complex: I crafted different races and cultures, deities and religions, history and geography. I planned out a seven-book saga, even though one novel (and one and a half MG novelettes) is all I had written at the time.

In my college and post-college years I moved away from that world again, launching a new fantasy series, amid more short stories and some pitiful attempts at poetry. But even with all the school assignments, Shiny New Ideas, and other creative projects, I never forgot my first fantasy world that I built.

Revive

And now, even though I’m deep in the middle of something else, I’m feeling a burn to go back to this ancient world that has lain quiet and patient for so long. It requires another revamp – a bigger overhaul than just rewriting a childhood story. Change of format, change of storytelling structure, some changes to the timeline of history that I had created.

But the bones of the world are still there. I spent collectively years creating the complex societies of the centaurs, and the religion of the elves. I came up with detailed descriptions and biologies of several species of dragons, and a magical treasure that managed to make it through all the different versions of the world.

Even though I’m not fond of editing and rewriting, this revisiting is not the same thing: it’s a foundation, dusty but firm, that I can use to build on anew. Editing, revising, and rewriting will come much later, once I’ve got some new stories. But for now, I’m excited to be once again exploring a world that was my first love, in a sense. Let’s see where the stories take me this time.

Please share with me! Have you ever done a complete overhaul of a story idea, keeping it the same yet creating something new? Do you have a story or idea that’s stuck with you for years?