An Imperialist Writing Policy — What and Why

A year and a half ago I returned home for the summer break knowing that, whatever else I worked on for the next few months, by the end of the summer I wanted to have finished the rough draft of Suggest the Empire. At that point I’d already been wanting to write this play for a year or two, though I’d previously put it off because I knew it would be massive, strange, and demanding in multiple ways. How did I know this? Well here’s my short description for the play:

A history play about an invented history, exploring the theatrical nature of nationalism and empire.

So yeah. Massive strange demanding. And I had never read or seen a history play (in the Shakespearean sense of the term) back then at the beginning of summer 2016, so I decided that would be a top priority. I determined to read seven of Shakespeare’s histories—Richard IIIRichard IIHenry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V, and Julius Caesar—before beginning to write the play. I also added Stuff Happens by David Hare to my reading list, a history play about the lead up to the Iraq War. These were the works that I felt I had to read before beginning work on STE. Obviously I planned to write other stuff in the mean time, but I wouldn’t start Suggest the Empire until I’d finished those eight plays.

As I progressed into the summer I came across more and more works which I thought could in some way inform the writing of STE—youtube channels like Historia Civilis, documentaries like Secrets of Great British Castles, movies like Waterloo, games like Mount and Blade and Reigns—which I’d add to the list. Some of these I’d already been meaning to get around to, others I stumbled upon and decided to look into because of STE, and others I was already engaged with anyway, just by happenstance—the greatest example being The Absolute at Large. Just by luck, that very summer I was recording an audiobook of The Absolute at Large, a satirical novel which is heavily critical of nationalism and fanaticism. I came to think of this body of plays, movies, books, tv shows, and whatever else, as the product of an imperialist writing policy. I was not solely consuming, and working on, Suggest the Empire, though almost everything I consumed and worked on fed back to that play in some way.

SuggesttheEmpire-c-2The result was that, when it finally came time to write Suggest the Empire, it was a breeze. Over the past months I’d become fluent in the language of empire, of nationalism, of history, of historical drama, and I had no trouble plotting out the story or sketching out the world, or, as I actually wrote the thing, sprinkling in realistic military, cultural, or political details. I’m incredibly proud of Suggest the Empire, and you can now buy the play! Ha ha you fool, I tricked you, this is all just an ad, ho-ho I got you!

Just kidding. If you have no interest in reading Suggest the Empire (which you can get on Smashwords or Amazon, or read the first act of free) this post, and the “How” post which will be up next week, should still be useful to any writer (or creator of any kind, I suppose) who wants to design their own imperialist writing policy. This isn’t the Only Way, or the Correct Way, to prepare for a piece of writing, but it is a method that I’ve found useful, which may prove useful for others. Alternately, if you’ve just read, or plan on reading, Suggest the Empire, these two posts should be a good look into my process in preparing for that play. I talk about it some in the afterword, among other things, but here I’ll be breaking down just that specific, preliminary part of creating the play.

But, first things first: When is an imperialist writing policy beneficial? There are a few factors to take into consideration.

Lack of Knowledge

The principal factor in whether or not to pursue an imperialist writing policy is a lack of knowledge or familiarity. If I want to write a novella about climate change, featuring a cast of young characters who live in the Florida Panhandle, there is no reason for me to do any preparation for that. It wouldn’t hurt, but I’ve had enough personal experience with that material, and read enough similar stories, that preparations would be unnecessary. But I often want to write other things—a lot of times the newness of something, the challenge of it, is what gets me excited to write it in the first place.

Let’s say you want to write a Western. You probably have enough knowledge of the genre, or maybe the history of the American West, for you to be interested in such a project to begin with. I of course already knew a fair bit about ancient Rome, and had watched plenty of Game of Thrones, at the time that I conceived of Suggest the Empire. But you don’t want to just dive head-first into a genre, or a historical period, if you’ve only ever engaged with the most visible elements of it. For one thing, if you only have a few influences, they’ll be very clear in your writing. This was the case when I wrote We’ll Tell Happy Stories, a play set in the same world as STE (though the plays aren’t really all that connected.) When I was writing We’ll Tell, I was taking a class on the history of Japan, so the island empire in that play ended up bearing a lot of resemblance to the Japanese Empire. In this case, it wasn’t such a problem. For a start, I wasn’t engaging with just the most superficial elements of Japanese culture—I was spending a whole semester learning all of it, so I could incorporate elements that were more obscure, though still fundamental to the Japanese Empire, into my play, and not just rely on Samurais and Geishas. And Japan is not the typical prototype for medieval empires in secondary-world fiction anyway. If I had just watched a couple documentaries about ancient Rome and then written We’ll Tell, I think the result would’ve been a lot blander.

Another reason, more on the literary side, to not start writing your story with only one or two texts as inspiration is that you’re likely to stumble into clichés of the genre without even knowing it—things which seem really exciting and inventive at first, but which have actually been done to death. Seeing how these tropes have been done, and how other writers have put new twists on them to make them interesting again, will steer you clear of those pitfalls.

A third reason is that every theme, every character type, every writing style, every genre and historical period and format comes with its own troubles—troubles which, in most cases, writers have been dealing with, exploiting, solving, and refining their solutions to, for years. If you’ve only just dipped your toes in the water, those problems may seem overwhelming and difficult to solve all at once (or worse, you might not realize they’re problems, and end up with a hellishly broken first draft)—but once you start digging into the tradition of the genre or format you’re going to write in, you encounter a wealth of tricks and work-arounds, a whole toolbox that you can make use of.

This was certainly the case with Suggest the Empire. How in the world do I cram all this history into a play? How do I express these complex ideas about patriotism and imperialism in a play? How do I best utilize my main gimmick of presentational sets and costuming to explore those themes? Which leads me to the second factor in whether or not to pursue an imperialist writing policy:

Ambition

Supposing a basic understanding of genre or format or whatever, how ambitious is the project? We’ll Tell was actually fairly simple. It was just a drama, with the bulk of the action driven by people lying, or uncovering lies. Standard theatre fare. There was nothing truly ambitious about it. The world-building stuff was just what I would do with any secondary world—and the play was only about 70 pages, a 70-minute run time. Compare Suggest the Empire. From the jump, I knew it would be incredibly long. I knew it would be set in a secondary world, and therefore, I’d be spending a long time writing in a secondary world. I knew it would deal with more slippery themes than I had ever tried to deal with in a play. And I knew that it would be a genre of play which is not exactly widespread these days. Sure there’s an abundance of historical plays, but not all are in the style of Shakespearean histories, which this would be.

When I say ambitious, I’m talking about the length combined with the number of challenges that a project presents. The first half of Stuffed, a novel I’m writing, I knew would be very long, yet, because I knew the book had a cast of characters I was already familiar with, and would be set in a whimsical fantasy land, it posed essentially no challenges. I didn’t do hardly any preparations for it. Chimaera Cries ON STREAM!!!!!, a monologue/short play I wrote recently, posed a lot of challenges—it was a monologue, the main character was a speedrunner livestreaming a speedrun of Super Mario World, I needed to convey a lot of information to the audience—however it was incredibly short, so likewise, I did little prep. When great length and many challenges combine, when a piece is tall and wide, that’s when an imperialist writing policy becomes useful. If something is just big but not challenging, you probably don’t need preparation—you just need to stick to it until the thing is done. If something is just challenging but not that long, you can usually get away with quick fixes—a finger in the dyke, a cup of coffee to keep you going late at night. Readers will excuse quick throw-away lines to cover up plot holes if a story is really short—they may even excuse the plot hole entirely, as long as its not too glaring or central in the story. These solutions don’t hold up over time though. Eventually you need to just repair the dyke, eventually you need to sleep, and if you don’t, you’ll have big problems. You can face these problems on your own, or you can rely on, depending on what you’re looking into, a decades-old, or centuries-old, tradition—you can face these problems armed with an understanding of how other writers have dealt with them before you.

Language

The third factor is pretty specific—and it’s actually kind of independent of the first two. Even if you’ve got a firm grasp on the genre, even if you’ve got no challenges—even if your piece is short (though if it’s below 5000 words you’re probably still in the clear)—an imperialist writing policy will be useful if you are writing in an unfamiliar dialect or style. In such a case, it might be better called an immersive writing policy, because it operates on the same principle of immersion-based language teaching.

This is one of the curses and blessings of language—if you spend enough time immersed in a certain style of writing, or a certain speech pattern, you will end up reproducing it. It’s a curse because, if you aren’t going for that style, you have to consciously steer yourself away from writing it. I noticed this when writing Stuffed, because at the same time I was writing it I was in a Dickens class. For the most part I could stick to the brisker, lighter voice I was going for, but every now and then I had to check myself. But it’s a blessing because being in that Dickens class is the same thing that made it so easy for me to write this little gem. Mary Robinette Kowal, author of the Glamourist Histories series, talks about this on an episode of Writing Excuses. When writing those books, which are written in the style of Regency novels, she would exclusively read works from that period, and the result is that those books, and the dialogue in them, has a very consistent, distinct, and (I assume, because I haven’t actually read any of the genuine article) authentic voice.

Nothing crushes my soul like shittily written Shakespearean. It is instantly detectable as such. While I can usually excuse it in small chunks, anything extended becomes unbearable. And it’s not just unbearable for me, someone who’s fairly familiar with Shakespeare, and who’s learned how to do Early Modern English conjugation. Any voice poorly mimicked will become grating to any reader. You don’t have to have spent time in France to know when someone is doing a bad French accent (and find it annoying), and it’s the same in writing. Poorly prepared-for voices will reveal themselves because they will rely on crutches—”verily” for Shakespeare, “y’all” for Southern US dialect—or, perhaps worse, they will abruptly drop in and out of the voice. Again, if it’s a very small amount you can get away with it—you can even do it well, if you focus a lot of energy editing it. However, if it’s a greater amount of work, immersion is the way to go. It will be more authentic, and it will be more cost-effective—you’ll find you don’t even have to think about whether a word is too modern or not, or if your syntax is too American—you will just write in that style naturally.

A couple things worth noting about this third factor: First, if you’re good on the first two (project covers familiar ground, isn’t ambitious as defined above) and this is the only difficulty you’ve got, you probably don’t need a very extensive curriculum. Maybe just listening through back episodes of a few podcasts will be enough, or diving into one long book. Second, regardless of where you stand with the first two factors, this part of your writing policy should extend beyond the preparation period, especially if your piece is kind of long. You want to keep the voice fresh in your mind. For Suggest the Empire I have scenes where characters speak in “court Olisan,” a dialect which I render on the page as quasi-Shakespearean. Reading seven plays by the Bard was great for this, but I also found it necessary to read Hamlet throughout the writing process—before writing each act, I’d read one from Hamlet (or two, before I wrote Act II, since it contains a lot of Olisan.)

Time

Finally, time. The above factors may be good reason to prepare for a piece of writing, but you don’t have to cram it all into just a few months, or set out a specific list of materials you want to engage with. Maybe you’re still not sure how to go about your massive strange demanding idea. Maybe you’re busy right now, and you won’t have time to write it for another year. Maybe it’s not an idea that you’ll tackle in just one work, but multiple small works. I have a Martian colonization world that I’ve been writing in, which I wouldn’t feel prepared to write a whole novel in—though I’ve been able to find specific stories in it which require less preparation, because of their length, or because of their focus. And in the meantime, I’ve been occasionally reading books, fiction and non-fiction, that I know will help me with it. I’m in no rush to put out a collection of stories about the International Martian Program, so an imperialist writing policy would be pointless. But with Suggest the Empire, I knew what the story would be. I knew what form it would take. I knew I really, really wanted to go ahead and write it—not put it off for another year or more. And I knew that I wanted to finish it over summer break, before school started again. Actually I only finished it a month into fall semester, but my work load was still pretty light, so it was fine.

Regardless: if you’ve been putting off a project but not getting any closer to preparing for it, if you’ve got a limited period of time before work or school will interfere with your writing, if you’re just so god damn excited to write something that you can hardly wait, an imperialist writing policy is ideal.

SuggesttheEmpire-c-2-act1-1That’s all for this first post. Next post, I’ll actually be explaining how to do this.

If reading this far has piqued your interest in Suggest the Empire, you can get it on Smashwords or Amazon as an ebook, which contains an afterword that describes where the idea first came from, and the editing process, among other things. You can also read the somewhat self-contained first act for free in the following formats:

PDF — Epub — Mobi

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