Monday, February 22, 2010

Still Writing, Lessons Learned

Since officially halting work on Nymean Corps (at least for the time being), I've been working pretty steadily on the Other Novel. The other novel doesn't have a name yet--the working title is just the names of the two main characters. Since I felt that the problem with Nymean Corps was that I didn't plot it carefully enough, I've been very meticulously plotting out the other novel.

I've been thinking about this story for several years, and it's now been through several major convulsions. It began as a perfectly innocent Mary Sue fanfic, never shared with anyone. Despite its fanfictional nature, all the characters and the plot were my own, and I was actually pretty pleased with where it went. I decided to erase the bits that weren't mine and try to make something real out of it. As you might expect, this took some doing--setting determines story to a larger degree than you might think, at least in the fantasy genre. Nonetheless, I kept working at it--deities were erased, whole cultures obliterated. Side characters appeared with new cultural trappings. Systems of government, religion, and magic rose and fell. Those side characters developed relationships among themselves, places in the social order. Without her original goddess-given mission and totally rad powers, Mary Sue dwindled into a mere artifact of her former self, almost disappearing entirely. The one-time supporting cast was now running the show.

It was probably about four years ago that I began this process, and only a few months ago that I started working on it consistently, with a break for Nymean Corps in November and December. NaNoWriMo taught me a huge amount about the kind of problems I'd need to address as I planned out my novel, and since then I've been working on those problems and reading up on ways to solve them. At this point, I feel that my plotting odyssey is almost done. Here are a few useful advices, gathered from here and there, that are keeping me going right now:

  • The Three Act Structure: Act one, introduce characters and set up conflicts. The first major plot point propels us into act two, which is constructed as a series of crises with rising emotional stakes, culminating in The Climax. Following the climax is, of course, the denoument, where everything shakes down and things get arranged for the sequel. This structure, particularly the escalating climaxes of the second act, has proven very useful in getting me unstuck in the plotting department. I can lay out what bits of story are needed for each crisis to occur, and then assemble these bits into scenes.
  • Scenes: It is helpful to think of the story in terms of discrete scenes. I make sure I have a scene for each of the plot-bits required to build each crisis. Many scenes can advance toward two or more crises.
  • The Black Moment: This is the moment preceding The Climax, when things are at their very worst. Some of the most helpful advice I read was to make the Black Moment the first step in crafting the plot. If you know just how bad things are supposed to be, you can then construct the series of minor crises needed to get to that point. In my story's Black Moment, the princess is believed to be dead, the bad guy is about to become king, and the good guy is in prison, in danger of being killed before he can resolve the awful misunderstanding with his best friend!
  • Themes. Themes are useful things. I thought originally that a theme would arise naturally from my story, but I now realize that, as a writer, I need a theme to act as my compass. What makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad? What tells me the right way to have the characters solve a problem? What makes the final resolution satisfying? It's the theme!
  • Being dramatic. For some reason, this is hard for me. It always has been. In Dungeons and Dragons, I used to always come up with characters that had no particular drama to them. Wouldn't want to compose the dreaded Mary Sue, after all. You know, he's just a regular soldier who happens to be at the tavern that day. Very frustrating for DMs. Somehow I've always felt that it would stretch the bounds of credibility for me to give my characters exciting and dramatic back-stories. I mean, how many people in real life get to be the secret lost heirs of something awesome? Not many! These days I'm getting it through my thick skull that a hero in an escapist fantasy had damn well better be special--the specialer the better.
  • Motivation and Conflict. This is part of being dramatic. I tend to like stories where characters have conflict thrust upon them. In The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley, Harry Crew doesn't want to be kidnapped by an exotic king for mysterious purposes, but that's what happens to her. My mistake, all along, was to think this meant that she didn't want anything in particular at all. But she does have a motivation, a desire: she wants to fit into the mold of her society, to do and be something useful and satisfying. She is thwarted in this by the social position (a "charity case", her brother's responsibility) imposed on her by her father's death. The emotional kernel of the book is her desire to find her niche, to understand who she is, to be accepted by her society. The end of the book is satisfying because she gets what she has so desired, only in a form she doesn't expect. At this point, I've written and re-written the opening scenes of my story enough times to realize that momentum will quickly fail without a hefty dose of desire, starting right at the beginning.
  • Outlining Software: Right now I'm using Freemind. I've also tried Storymill, pen and paper, and the much praised index card method. So far Freemind is the best. Right now I'm working on an arrangement where I have two parallel outlines: the plot outline and the scene outline. The plot outline lists the three acts, and what happens in each. Most importantly, it lists the crises that occur in Act II, and those plot bits that build up to each crisis. The scene outline lists, of course, scenes, and notes which of the plot bits fits into each scene. The scene outline is the actual step-by-step recipe for writing the book, listing chunks of text in the order in which they need to appear.
  • Synopsis First. Internet advice-givers are divided on this point, but I'm ready to advocate writing the synopsis before the novel, rather than the other way around. Of course, if one plans to use the synopsis to sell the novel, one will have to revise it after the writing is through. But I found that writing a fairly detailed, several-page synopsis was immensely helpful in revealing the strengths and weaknesses of my story. This exercise is like telling the novel in bed-time story format: it includes all the major plot points, and all the motivation and exposition that is necessary to make the story go. It takes you through all the emotional ups and downs of the novel in a much smaller number of words.
At this point, I've followed all my steps and written a first draft of the synopsis. This was enough to reveal some deficiencies (especially in the motivation department), which I'm now in the process of correcting. By tomorrow I expect to embark on a second draft of the synopsis. I think (fingers crossed) that should be enough to let me resume writing at NaNoWriMo-like speeds, this time with a much firmer foundation.


  1. I woulda just commented on buzz, but didn't feel like creating a google profile. Super cool to get to see your newly acquired insight on the mechanics of novel-writing. Also, I think a lot of people have exciting and dramatic back-stories in real life. "Everyone's life is interesting, and everyone's life is charmed; it's merely a matter of editing." - Ruth Reichl

  2. this is a lot of fun to read, even though i have no plans for writing a novel any time soon. i was thinking - with the parallel outlines, do you think it might be useful to have a character development outline?

  3. Aviva, I actually appreciate that you commented on the blog. That way other people can see the comment (thus proving that I do get comments other than Chinese spam). I think that's a useful quote--I'll keep it in mind.

    Beau, that is a good idea. What I'm doing for characters is giving each character a node in the Freemind file and noting what they want in life, what stands in their way, and how that desire will turn out. Other than that, character development is sort of included in the plot outline--as the emotional stakes of the story rise, the characters are called upon to react in new ways. But, I think it really could be useful to try to put into words the vision I have of how each character develops. I'll try that out.

    Thanks for reading, guys!

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