Earlier in the current draft of Flight of the Vajra (the project whose creation inspired this series of articles), my story broke.
I was in the middle of a scene when I stopped to look something up in the project wiki. And entirely by accident, I noticed—in an article one slot down from the one I was reading—a salient fact about the scene I was currently writing that made it impossible for me to continue.
The story was broken. I’d painted myself into a corner.
And what’s more, the details that I could have used to keep this from happening had been right in front of me all along.
One of the ways you can tell your wiki is working, as deranged as this may sound, is when your story breaks because of it. Not in spite of it, because of it. If your wiki allows you to see that your story is inconsistent in some way, that you have ignored some things at the expense of others (but recorded both of them for your own sake), or that you have painted yourself into a corner from which there is no way out except by knocking out a wall or getting paint on your feet … your wiki is doing its job.
I know of no one who can produce a perfect first draft of anything. I’ve heard stories about such wunderkinds from time to time—Yukio Mishima, for instance, allegedly did not revise a single manuscript he handed in during his entire professional career—but I can’t consider them anything but the extreme exception to the rule. People write so they can rewrite, and they rewrite so they can polish. I’m no exception, and while I’ve kept the overall structure and throughlines of most of my long-form works through each of their rewrites, I knew full well they would have to be revised even as I was pounding out their first drafts.
When you create a wiki for the world of your work, one of two things can happen. Sometimes you end up using it more as a dumping ground than an organizational tool. It becomes just another kind of notebook, with all the one-dimensionality of its paper counterpart. This isn’t to say paper notebooks are no good—heck, I scribble in them constantly and keep at least one on my person everywhere. Only that if you’ve got other tools that do a better job than mere paper, why not use them?
If you use a wiki as a mere repository, you end up with a Fibber’s Closet situation: you have everything in there, sure, but no real way to get to it short of text searches. What’s more, because it’s not organized, you have no incentive to find it. All those valuable details about your world and the story that stems from it have been turned into so much verbal compost. The end result: you dump things in there, forget about them, and never wind up putting them to use.
The other thing that can happen—and that should happen—is that your wiki lets you know when you’ve gone off-course. Some writers have a profound sense of being able to hold the world of their story in their head, and have an instinctual sense for when what they’re writing doesn’t square with what they were planning. But most of us are not that sharp, I think. I know I’m not, and that if I don’t keep notes and follow them, I will end up running aground.
Sometimes, there’s no other way to know your wiki is doing its job until things do break.
In my case, I saw that I’d ignored some key details about my story’s world—details I’d already made a note of and had been faithful to elsewhere. I had to backtrack—sacrificing a good several thousand words in the process—and pick up the story again in a different direction. I knew I’d painted myself into a corner and that the story, on its current track, was fundamentally broken. It was the kind of knowing that came with having been down that road before, and seeing full well what worked and what didn’t.
Was I happy it had come to that? Not one bit. But I knew I couldn’t continue having made such a giant mistake—and I was grateful that I’d given myself at least half a chance to discover my mistake before really running aground.
Next time: on why worlds are characters, and vice versa.