Taking a step back to re-plan my novel has really allowed me to look at it with a fresh perspective.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather be writing. What writer doesn’t want to be racking up the dreaded word count? To feel as if they’re making real progress, instead of bumbling around, lost and confused? It doesn’t feel great to be hauling doubt around everywhere, either. To be pursuing answers, ones that only I can find. In fact, it sucks.
But this [unexpected] stage is necessary.
Instead of continuing on with the next block of chapters, I’m assessing my situation. Much like a tourist with a map, I’m evaluating what I’ve done that’s got me to where I am and what I need to do to get me to where I want to be.
Here are four things I’m assessing.
As Everborne is a multi-narrative story with five main narratives (separate characters and story lines that eventually connect), it’s become to seem like a steadily worsening tangled mess of ideas. It’s got to the point where I’m wondering if I’ve been over ambitious, that perhaps less—or even just one—narrative would be better.
Originally I wanted to tell a story about a world (correction: worlds), which is why there’s multiple narratives and character perspectives, but I’m now questioning if I need to sieve through my ideas for a more concentrated story. I remember saying in one of my early posts that I enjoyed how Game of Thrones (TV Show) could jump from major to minor characters, even if for one scene, compared to being stuck with the characters’ perspectives like in the books.
My narrative is framed more similarly to King’s Under the Dome, or IT or The Stand: instead of focusing on a single character, the chapter will be split between multiple characters, and the focus is on the location.
My decision for this is to have a less constricted narrative; to be able to get-to-know minor characters better and to have scenes outside of certain characters’ perspective. One BIG advantage I think the show Game of Thrones has over the Song of Ice and Fire books is the small scenes and conversations between minor characters that you simply don’t get in the books. (Remember Season 2 with the Hound and Bronn? So awesome!) I have also done this to make the characters appear more equal. If a character doesn’t have their own perspective chapter, then they may feel less important.
[This was taken from my Week #2 Overview, back in September. Aww, past Tom. How cute! How naive!]
Despite my best intentions, I’m now wondering if I set myself up for a fall. I’m a first time writer (and not yet published). Can I even call myself a writer? I’m certainly not close to being Stephen King, nor George R.R. Martin. All those books mentioned above were written by previously established authors. King’s first novel, Carrie, did flit between perspectives, but not to the same extent and certainly not on the same scale. Most of his books are the size of a wheel of cheese. In comparison, Carrie was a single modest slice. It took him four books before he wrote The Stand.
At the same time, I want to set myself apart. To write something that’s going to grab the attention of agents and publishers (or, rather, something that those parties are going to
want need to grab).
I’ve been paying close attention to the books I’m reading at the moment, making notes on their unique selling points—what sets them apart from other books. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that has a large cast of perspective character. Maybe I’m not reading broadly enough, but a common theme I’ve found in the fantasy/science fiction genres is the focus is on a group of individuals with a common objective.
As well as characters, the setting is reduced to perhaps one or two main locations, allowing intentional room for expansion in future sequels. Wanting to tell the story a world, I had several major locations, each vastly different to each other. I’m undecided whether this is a unique selling point for Everborne or not, or if I would be better to stick closer to the market’s formula.
When I looked back at the amount of perspective characters I had, I realised I had a problem. There were simply too many.
A Song of Ice and Fire began with eight Point of View characters in A Game of Thrones, doubling to an incredible sixteen by A Dance with Dragons. [This excludes Prologue and Epilogue POV, which are often told through minor characters.] When I first counted up my cast, I had seventeen POV characters. For a first book, that seemed far too many.
Far, far too many.
If I started with that amount, however would I expand and explore my world further? It would make it harder to introduce future important characters. With this in mind I decided to see how I could lose some POV characters. In some cases, it was quite simple. Especially if that character was often seen with another. In others, though, it seemed impossible. Either they were too important to lose, or I didn’t see a way of telling the story without them.
A problem with too many POV characters is that they can dilute each other. A crowded cast invites the risk of characters becoming undeveloped, too. Not only that, voices need to be distinct, convincing and compelling. As a first-time writer, is this something beyond me? Or is this something that would set me apart?
Another issue I found with my characters is that some of them are boring. Too many of them are reactive, opposed to proactive: instead of propelling the story forward themselves, they wait for an event to happen and then react to it. While it’s fine for characters to be reactive, I realised I needed a better balance with proactive characters.
This problem stemmed from the fact my characters weren’t well-rounded enough. I’d rushed the character-planning, probably due to how hard it is to get right. Well, at least I’ve found that out now, and not later on.
Having recently read Wool by Hugh Howey, I’ve come to realise I don’t have to introduce all the characters at once, like Martin does in A Song of Ice and Fire. (Though he also drops characters between books.) In Wool, the perspectives change frequently. The first two parts consist of a sole POV character, but the later parts are split by additional POV characters who either appeared or were mentioned in the previous parts.
This is something I’m currently considering, and looking at plot will likely influence my decision.
I’ve discussed many times George R.R. Martin’s philosophy that a writer is either a gardener or an architect. Initially thinking I was the latter, I found after several months’ writing that I was the former. Like Martin and King, I found that I enjoyed discovering the story as I went along.
Now, though, I’m wondering if I should go back indoors to the architect headquarters.
Again, both authors are well established. King in particular has over fifty novels to his world-wide name. I do not. He’s had many successful years to improve his craft. I have not.
The last book I read was The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, an excellent fantasy novel that was clearly meticulously planned before it was written. Lynch himself said that to hone his skills a friend took him to watch a Disney Film so he could understand basic story structure. (If only he’d said what the film was! Though, really, what Disney film is poorly structured?)
As obvious as this was, I think this was something I missed out. Probably because I wanted to set myself apart. I don’t like traditional, formulaic structures as they make the story too predictable. Only the past couple of weeks have I realised this was a mistake.
Brandon Sanderson, in his excellent lectures (uploaded to YouTube), argues that story structures are there to be used, but just because they are there to be used it doesn’t mean they have to be. Rather, he says that as a writer you should see how an element, such a a trope (e.g. the wise mentor dying) could better your story—what would it add?
These lectures are about an hour long each and I’m currently on the seventh one. I really can’t recommend them enough, especially if you’re a fantasy or science fiction fan, as these are aimed specifically at those genres. Even if you’re not, they’re an engaging take on writing from a bestselling author. Watching these lectures has really helped me understand my fourth assessment.
Unlearning What I’ve Been Taught
I studied both a BA and an MA in Creative Writing. Over four years I was taught what was “good” literature and what was “bad”. Or, rather, I was told what was “good” literature and what was “bad”. I was told this by a like-minded department who applauded literary fiction and shunned almost everything else with an infectious snobbery, particularly genre fiction.
You know, the thing that sells.
What was shunned the most—other than the horror genre—was my love for science fiction. As an aspiring writer, this probably wasn’t the best course for me. Oh the power of hindsight.
The concept of unlearning what I’ve previously been taught isn’t something new to me, but since watching Brandon Sanderson’s lectures I’ve realised that there’s nothing wrong with genre fiction—especially fantasy and science fiction, my two favourites. It’s been so refreshing and encouraging to learn from an author who’s inspired me, one who doesn’t shun but promotes what I love about reading.
I don’t believe you have to be loyal to one or the other schools of thought. It’s not like all literary fiction sacrifices a good story for the words it uses to tell it, nor is it that all genre fiction is poorly written and potholed with cliches.
The two years following my degrees I found a real joy in reading books that I thought were good, not ones that I were told were. (I’m sure a lot of the books I chose to read would’ve been considered “bad”.) I continue to do this, especially as I’m hungry to learn what makes a book sell. But, one of the longest remaining scars from my degrees is the idea of “good” writing.
Instead of continuing on with my story and completing a first draft, I became obsessed over the quality of what I had written, even on a micro level. Was every word perfect enough?
I’ve already learnt the hard way the despair this will cause. There’s a time and a place for editing—and lots of it—and it’s not partway through your first draft.
This is most likely what’s put me in my current sucky position.
I’m not going to give up, though. I can’t. I truly believe I’ve found what I’m supposed to do in life. Like the tourist with the map, I’m still working out what I need to do to get me to where I want to be.
[A lovely Saturday afternoon walk with Emily and Monty in West Wittering]