tell the story ...

I haven’t been blogging much, because I’ve been busy with edits. I’m about four chapters from the end of The Garden and working hard to wrap up the climax of the novel. Even as I delete the old portions of text that no longer apply, I’m holding steady between 103,600 and 104,000 words. To give you some perspective, the first draft was 92,000 words.

One of the final chapters will have a few hundred words added to smooth out a plot issue that seemed contrived on the first draft, so I’m looking for The Garden to round out somewhere between 103,000 and 110,000 before the final edit. I have a tendency to be overly wordy in places, so that number will flux slightly as I go back and trim the final draft.

It seems like a lot of words to me, but the story moves along at a good clip and I love the characters. The editorial portion of writing a novel is the hardest part, but it’s the part I enjoy the most. It's the way I flesh out the story and the plot.

When I'm in this phase of the edits, I often think back to questions people ask. You know, questions like: how did I get my agent, or what’s the best way to get published … but very few people have asked me the most important question: How do you tell a good story?

Of course there is no set-in-stone approach to storytelling any more than there is a set-in-stone approach to editorial techniques. I consider the major components of my stories to be: theme, conflict, and resolution. The reader follows these components through the eyes of the protagonist. I’ve found that I can use the three-act structure, or the snow-flake structure; I can pants-it or plot it; but I must keep these three components before my eyes at all times:

  • the theme
  • a clear idea of the conflict between my protagonist and antagonist
  • a general synopsis of how I want the story to proceed, so I have a clear picture of the trajectory I need to take to achieve the resolution

One of the coolest things I learned in a writing class was when the instructor told us that the story is your protagonist's emotional journey, and the plot is how you get him/her to the end of that journey. Each plot point should provide an awakening to your protagonist.

Using that advice as a road map, I write a workable first draft that essentially outlines the emotional aspect of the story along with some of the flash and glitter that fantasy fans (including myself) enjoy. However, my primary concern during the first 97,000 words of The Garden was the dynamics between Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel.

The first draft of The Garden went to some excellent beta readers and my agent. Once I had feedback from everyone, I sat down and evaluated the commonalities in their comments. Everyone had the same issues. Weronika gave me some wonderful suggestions on how to fix the problems, and she told me not to fear the word count. Tell the story, she said. Coming from a woman who truly understands the critical elements that make a story work, I didn't think twice about taking her advice.

The second draft is about filling in blank spots: how the magic system works, the subtleties between the antagonist and the protagonist and all the little people in between, the global implications of failure or success between their various objectives. The tendrils of these issues were in the first draft, and I use the second draft to fully form those ideas into actual people and events. I delineate and emphasize the stakes for everyone.

That’s how I layer my stories. I write the first draft entirely focused on the intimate level with the ties between the characters, then I go back and fill in the big picture details. The hard part, especially with The Garden, has been to avoid overwhelming the reader.

So back to the original questions: how do you get an agent, or how do you get published? Weronika gave you the secret: tell the story.

To which people inevitably reply: But isn’t there a lot of luck involved in getting an agent or becoming published?

Hell, yes. There is a tremendous amount of luck involved. I got lucky. Very lucky, but I am no overnight success. I wrote for over twenty years before my first sale, because before I could sell someone on my writing, I had to learn how to tell a story.

So leave me a comment and tell me what components you look for in stories; or if you write, what components do you like to keep before your eyes while writing?