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?

Writing off the rails ...

I was dry for a blog topic this week and Alex Bledsoe posed an excellent suggestion. He recommended writing about how to know when you've gone off track while writing a new story. The answer to this type of question will be as unique as the authors answering it. [Alex did his own version of this topic over at his blog, so when you're done here, flip over and read how he avoids Shark-Jumping--an excellent post on keeping a series fresh.]

I know a lot of writers who are thrilled by the blank page. These intrepid souls just jump right into the storytelling process and turn out reams of words and characters that are believable and fun to read on the first draft.

I am not one of those writers.

Taking something so ethereal as thoughts and breathing life into people who really don't exist is hard work. It's a process that sometimes moves very quickly for me and sometimes very slowly. It depends on how new the work and characters are to me.

With the blank page before you, though, anything is possible. So how do I know when the story slides off the rails?

First of all, I never open a story without any idea of where I'm going. That's like getting in the car and driving with no destination in mind. A lot of the work on my novels begins on the front end with a synopsis and character biographies. I have a general idea of where I'm going, and while side trips can be interesting and reveal new things, I can never let myself forget the story's ultimate destination.

I don't have an exact method for knowing when the story goes off track. For me, it is a gut feeling that the story isn't coalescing the way it should. Then I usually hit a point where I can't move the story forward. It's a lot like looking at a puzzle where you have one piece that appears to fit but doesn't, and no amount of work will bring the picture together.

This summer I deleted 10,000 words of The Garden and began again, because the story had gone off track. It was a hard thing to admit. I wanted to keep building on that word count for a viable first draft, but no matter how I tried to rework the story, it simply was not working.

I understand my weaknesses as an author, so when I come to the point where I can't think of how to move my characters from point A to point B, I start looking for weak areas in the story.

I start with the emotional level of the work. I belong to the school of what I've nicknamed method writing. I need to be in that character's head, thinking their thoughts, and living their lives; otherwise, I feel like I'm writing a thesis--and trust me, you will feel like you're reading one. When my scenes and chapters are filled with all action and dialogue without a lot of thoughts and emotion from the point-of-view character, I know I'm not connecting with the story at a visceral level. Until I reach that point, the story feels off balance and the characters' words and actions don't ring true.

When I feel positively uninspired, I plug in my novel's soundtrack and go online to find images to kick-start my brain. [I do feel it is incumbent upon me to warn you that this kind of random searching can sometimes take you places best left unseen. Go on, search cyclopia in Google Images, I dare you. And remember to thank Scott Carney* for those nightmares when you're done.] It's not all creepy and horrible, though. I've searched images of Aragon, fantasy images, or Tumblr [Tumblr, Tumblr, you can be SO naughty], and I keep plugging search terms until I hit an image or group of images that inspire me. Sometimes it's a face or a setting or a piece of art, but I eventually locate something that evokes the mood I'm trying to achieve.

If I feel that I can easily slip in and out of my characters' minds and the story still feels flat, then I start looking for places where there is a lack of conflict. I like to maintain tension between all my characters, even the ones who "like" one another. Relationships are messy, complicated things, even with those we love. There is a constant balancing of needs (mine vs. yours) and that has to translate onto the page for me. So when the characters are moving through the scenes with a blasé attitude, then I have to examine why the relationships are moving too smoothly, especially between people who have just met and don't yet understand one another.

Usually everything is moving too smoothly because I'm being too nice to my characters. No one wants to read about normal people in a healthy relationship. Yes these people do exist; however, they provide little impetus for a riveting story. So when I hit that terrible stopping point where the plot will not move forward or back, then I have to go through the manuscript and look for places where the characters have it too easy. Are they working together for the common good? If they are, then something is wrong. I'm missing that vital link between self-interest, motivation, and conflict.

All of that self-interest, motivation, and conflict must revolve around one character--the protagonist, because there can only be one star of the show, and in my stories, it will always be a person, not a world. I enjoy interesting worlds, but the world is a backdrop, scenery. The other characters are satellites that influence and determine the protagonist's trajectory in the story. They will all have their own stories, their own histories, but they are not the star. The story is not about them, it's about the protagonist.

It's not that I don't like or think other books should be written with only one protagonist, some authors can carry multiple protagonists with aplomb. I've read novels where authors have juggled multiple protagonists and plot-lines with skill.

I am not one of those authors.

I stick to keeping my stories tight because that is what I like to read. I'm also old and I get confused easily. Trust me. We're all better off like this.

So if I feel the story is off-track, I go back through and look at all my scenes. Do all these scenes relate back to my protagonist? I had a problem in Miserere where I slipped off course once with Rachael. Rachael was a hard character to write, because there were times when she stepped in and tried to take the story over. She is much more intense than Lucian. Where Lucian wears his every emotion on his face, Rachael is locked down tight.

I had a chapter with Rachael that ended up on the editing room floor, because the chapter had no mention whatsoever of Lucian, it was all about her. The story had taken a side journey into Rachael's past. It was very helpful to me for characterization purposes, but it did nothing for the story. I was lucky that two critique partners picked up on it and both of them nixed the chapter. If it hadn't been for them, then I would have spent a lot of time writing, only to find that I'd slipped off base.

Diago almost hijacked The Garden. Guillermo has had a hard life, but he knows nothing of the constant shadow of fear that follows Diago. Of course, this makes Diago the more interesting character to me even though some readers might not find him likable. Mateho, my antagonist, was too focused on Miquel and not Guillermo; I had to bring Mateho's focus back to Guillermo. Belita was too competent, so by twisting a few sentences, she became more grotesque.

And so it goes. Small touches, a sentence here, a paragraph there, a shift in focus, a removal of power, all those things finally brought The Garden back on track. The sacrifice of 10,000 words made the story better, and my crit group is now deep enough into the book to reel me in if I slide off on a tangent.

What about you? Do you know when your story has slipped off track? How do you know when you're writing off the rails?

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*Scott Carney is the author of The Red Market: On the Trail of the World's Organ Brokers, Bone Thieves, Blood Farmers, and Child Traffickers / Excellent piece of investigative journalism, by the way.