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 is easy, it's storytelling that'll rip your heart

Writing is easy, look at me, I'm doing it right now, writing words.

Storytelling, on the other hand, takes some time. Storytelling is the process by which a writer brings all those words into some form of coherence and it can be a harrowing process. However, it's worth every second when I hold the finished product up to the light.

I'm in the storytelling phase of The Garden right now, and that, combined with the holidays, means that I won't be around very much.

I've got a couple of online interviews that will be going live soon. I'll keep you posted on those.

I will be at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh on December 7 to hear NCSU Professor John Kessel, editor of a new anthology, Kafkaesque , and Chair of the Foreign Language and Literature Dept, Ruth V. Gross, will lead a discussion about Franz Kafka, his work, and his influence. This is going to be an excellent event, and if you're in the Raleigh-Durham area, I hope you'll attend. You can find all the information at Quail Ridge Books & Music's Events page.

Looking for gift ideas? Head over to John Scalzi's Whatever blog. He is running a 2011 Whatever Shopping Guide that highlights creative gifts for the holidays. Today it's traditionally published books. Check out the Whatever blog tomorrow to see what other great gift ideas might pop up.

Night Shade Books, in collaboration with some of the web's finest book bloggers, is hosting a holiday countdown filled with excerpts from Night Shade authors' novels. Follow Night Shade Books on Twitter so you don't miss a stop.

That's it for now. I'll be around later this week with more.

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?


*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.

storytelling versus writing in fantasy

After several months of just putting words on paper, I finally have a real story.

There is a difference, you see, between just writing words and telling a story. When I write essays or blog posts, I'm writing. It's sometimes dry, occasionally (very, VERY occasionally) witty, or just a quick note or two to let folks know that I'm still here. That is writing. It is the presentation of information, nothing more.

On the other hand, in order to tell you a story, I have to feel what the characters are feeling and understand their thoughts and motivations as my own. I have to immerse myself into a world of make-believe, so that you, the reader, will become immersed with me.

One day, as I was daydreaming, I realized that one character was throwing the whole story off. She was too developed, too complete in those first scenes. The parts I had written were suitable for the last half of the book, not the first. I wanted her to awaken to magic, but I had no immediate explanation for how the magic worked. After wrestling with the issue for days, I finally trusted my instincts and deleted the old words and wrote new ones based on a few lines that kept rolling through my head.

And magically, the story started to speak to me in the way that stories do. Just that one change gave me the subtle shift that I needed to make the rest of the story live. I stopped trying to analyize how things were happening and believed in the myth of magic.

Jeff VanderMeer awakened me with these words in his excellent post on The New Surrealism:

There’s always a reason, an explanation, for anything. On some level, in these post-post times explanations are less useful to us than journeys that expand consciousness, get at psychological truths, and convert the dross of the everyday into something amazing.

Then I came across this lecture that Federico Garcia Lorca gave in Madrid in 1923* where Lorca talks about the child's wonder as spectator and creator in the story:

The child comprehends much more than we think. He is in an inaccessible poetic world, that neither rhetoric, nor imagination the procuress, nor fantasy can penetrate; a flat plain, its nerve centres exposed, of horror and keen beauty, where a snow-white horse, half nickel, half smoke, falls, suddenly injured, with a swarm of bees furiously nailed to its eyes.

Unlike us, the child possesses his creative faith intact and is still free as yet of the destructive seed of reason. He is innocent and, so wise. He understands, more deeply than us, the ineffable key to poetic substance.

Both of these passages make me realize that if I'm working too hard to find explanations for you, the reader, then I have robbed you of a wondrous journey. I have slipped from my role as storyteller and have become a writer; an author who seeks to force my understanding of the world on you. I have cheated you of the ability to expand your consciousness through your own interpretation and robbed you of your chance to let go of the "destructive seed of reason" so that you can be a participant in the story.

Fantasy is a journey into the realm of myth and magic and an even deeper journey into the subconscious; it is poetry, it is beauty, and it is terror. Fantasy cannot always be wrapped up neatly with twenty-first century logic. Nor should it be.

I am so glad I happened upon both of those posts last week. They reaffirmed to me what fantasy is and what it is about. It's not about explanations and writing; fantasy is about the story, the journey from darkness into light. It is about becoming something other than what we are, it is about seeing deeply.

*From Las nanas infantiles / On Lullabies, the lecture has been translated into English

telling stories . . . or how to lie effectively

I love living in the south. We have all kinds of gentle euphemisms for ugly truths. My personal favorite is "telling stories." If you've never heard it, it goes something like this: That Teresa! She's something else--always telling stories!

The rough translation is: That Teresa! She's a problem child. Don't believe a word out of her mouth, she's a liar.

I learned a few things when I was "telling stories," and I'd like to share them with you, because the rules of telling a good lie twine with the rules of good storytelling.

KISS it--Keep It Simple, Sweetheart. The more subplots you add to a lie, the more lies you have to tell to incorporate the subplots into the original lie. Lose track of one thread and the whole lie is shot to hell.

The same is true of your novel. Start with a very, very simple plot, because mark me well, once you start adding secondary characters, they will come with their own subplots. The deeper the layers, the more difficult it is to keep track of the spinning threads.

Details, details, details. A good lie will contain enough detail to make the lie believable, but not so much as to derail the lie. In your story, only tell your reader the important details. If you have a character with blue hair, then give us a reason to know this fact. Give your reader too many insignificant details to remember and they will be lost when they get to the BIG REVEAL that contains the crucial detail they must remember. Streamline, don't clutter.

Lies of ommission. They go like this:

Have you been drinking? [We all know the inference here is whether or not you are intoxicated.]

Um, no. [Which is, in effect, the truth. At no point during the evening did you once drink an alcoholic beverage. However, what you're NOT saying is that you have ingested enough pharmaceuticals to tranquilize a small herd of elephants.]

Careful with these, because they work occassionally, but if you use them too often, the reader [and the parental units] will question your every scene. They will also feel cheated that you, the storyteller, took the easy way out by not giving out information you knew. You'll be accused of using a deus ex machina as your final resolution, which is an insult to most readers, but especially genre readers.

So what about you? When you're telling your stories, what are some techniques that you use to keep the story believable?