Raft vs Iceberg

A little earlier this year, I discovered that I had two stories on the 2019 Aurealis shortlist (“CurioQueens” and “The Orchard”), and that my mother had joined a book club.

As I now occasionally encounter people who are familiar with my writing before they meet me, this made me think about what would happen if I was ever invited to a book club session (to potentially mixed results). I’m always excited to talk about my writing craft and my stories, but if anyone asked a question about a character or world that wasn’t already explictly in one of my pieces, there’s a good chance I would have to reply with, “I don’t know.”

There’s an established metaphor in the writing community about icebergs: that the reader only sees the tip of the iceberg, but in fact there’s a huge amount of additional knowledge about a story in the writer’s brain that never gets written into the text. This part ‘under the surface’ could be backstory, research, additional ‘scenes’, extra details – anything that the writer knows but doesn’t share in the finished piece.

Personally, I don’t write icebergs: I write rafts.

When I say ‘raft’, there might be a couple of metaphorical barnacles clinging to the underside of that raft that a reader doesn’t see, but usually 99.9% of my knowledge about my story the reader is already privy to.

This wasn’t always the case. Back before I started publishing professionally I would take the ever-popular character quizzes with questions ranging from ‘occupation’ to ‘eye colour’ to ‘most important childhood memory’ to ‘grandmother’s nationality’. These quizzes and questions never helped me. Instead of helping me flesh out a story, they bogged it down and sucked out all of the oxygen. 99% of these questions are irrelevant to my pieces, and not only do I not know the answers, I don’t usually want to know an answer until I reach a point in the story where that answer is important. This allows me the space and freedom to focus on the parts of the story that truly matter, and means I’m not hemmed in and weighed down by the parts that don’t.

This isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you asked me if the creatures in ‘Morning Sickness’ were aliens or monsters (or both), I would tell you honestly, “I don’t know; I don’t find it relevant to the story.” I would have the same response if you asked me the gender of the main character in ‘One More Time’. I understand that some people don’t appreciate this kind of ambiguity. But these answers aren’t already in those stories because I didn’t find them important; having an answer either way wouldn’t change those stories at all.

When I start writing a character I usually (but not always) know their name, approximate age, and gender. I might know one or two additional things about them that are relevant to the story, and that character will probably accumulate more traits as that story continues. But there are plenty of stories that I finish without knowing the main character’s occupation, eye colour, or many other bits of information that some writers consider essential.

This is definitely a preference towards a ‘leaner’ story; if I get the sense that a writer has written a story with character quizzes or a worldbuilding binder beside them, that does often detract from my enjoyment of the story itself. The story feels heavier, and less interesting and fresh, because of the iceberg lurking below the surface of the text.

This is something I almost never hear discussed in writing circles, but my writing got exponentially better when I stopped building icebergs and started to build rafts. If you’re a writer who hasn’t tried this yet, it could be something you might want to experiment with. (And if you’re not expecting icebergs, feel free to invite me to your book club!)

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