Six impossible things

Now what?

So the first draft of The Far West is done at last, turned in a bit over two weeks ago, and I’m past the first walking-around-in-a-daze bit where I spend all my time feeling as if I ought to be finishing the book and then remembering that no, I’m actually done until the editorial revision requests arrive. I already know two fairly important things that need fixing (the current climax is a bit of bait-and-switch, and also not nearly as dramatic as it would be if I can rearrange it a bit so as to have my two different Solutions To Big Problems happen in one giant emergency, instead of two; also, the final chapter sort of dribbles off into “…and then we got home,” instead of, you know, actually ending), but those can wait until I’ve recovered a bit, run the draft through my new crit group, and have the editorial requests in hand.

Which means I am now looking at my huge list of Possible Things To Write and contemplating which idea(s) to start poking at. My agent has weighed in, and so have several of my friends; they’re all pretty much in agreement, so unless my publisher gets really demanding about some other possibility (and does so pretty soon, before I’m totally committed to this project), I probably have settled on The Next Thing.

And what it started with was this:

No shit, there I was —

What, you don’t like the opening?  Listen, it’s fairy tales that start “once upon a time.”  War stories are supposed to start “No shit, there I was.”

So, no shit, there I was, thread in one hand, needle in the other, and a silk bolt worth four thousand isiri spread over my lap, when –

Now what?  Oh, you think this doesn’t sound much like a war story?

In the last few weeks of thinking about this rather minimal story-seed, I added a McGuffin (although I have no idea yet why it’s significant), a notion of what happens in the first half of the opening scene, and the barest hint of a plot thread. Oh, and two, count them, two secondary characters, one of whom probably won’t be around for more than two chapters, tops.

This is not much to start writing a novel with.

I could just take what I have and keep writing for a while, to see what happens and what I come up with. I already know, however, that this seldom works well for me, so I’m not going to start by trying that. I need to develop what I have a bit more, until it gets past the Critical Mass point and really starts rolling, and that means poking at what I have until new things show up and start to gel.

The question always is, where and how to poke. Up until last weekend, the obvious point to poke at this story was the characters. The story needs more of them, and I need to know more about the few that I already have (well, about two of them, anyway. I don’t think I really need to know much more about the one who’s disappearing within two or three chapters). And characters and what they want or need (but can’t have…yet) are the heart of most stories.

So I’ve been thinking about these people off and on: who they are, where they come from, what they’re each trying to do and why. I was thinking about the second character, the one who’s not the protagonist but who will be a major player, and why that was happening…and I figured out something about the McGuffin. And suddenly, I had a structure for my plot.

As soon as this happened, where I need to poke at this idea changed. See, structure is fundamental for me. It’s what goes under the plot, to hold it up. What I need to know next, for me to be able to finish that first scene, is what I’m going to build on that structure and why. Once I know that, I’ll know who the rest of the characters have to be and what they’ll have to do. Undoubtedly, that will change the plot – once I have characters and they start acting and interacting, they always end up changing the plot details. That’s what makes it all work, for me.

But the characters and incidents won’t change the structure. That’s solid. I know how many incidents I need, and the effect they have on the McGuffin; now I need to figure out what they are and why the villain set things up this way and how they’re going to affect my characters. (I’m not too worried about how my heroine is going to mess up the villain’s plans; after that opening, I have no doubt she’ll think of something.) Oh, and I need a villain…the structure requires one.

If this were going to be a different book, or if it had started with a different set of bits – say, a well-developed setting and a bunch of characters, but no plot or structure – I’d probably have started by poking at the characters. The point isn’t how I’m doing this, or that anyone else ought to work the same way. The point here is: 1) The basic idea needs a lot more development before I can make much forward progress; 2) The development doesn’t just happen; it requires poking; 3) Where I poke keeps changing, depending on how much I’ve already figured out.

Changing where I poke at ideas is part of the process of developing them. I don’t make up a list of characters, then figure out everything about their backgrounds and personalities and desires before I ever start thinking about plot or setting. I think about a character for a bit, then about the McGuffin for a bit, then about a different character, then maybe about the setting/history/culture.

This morning, in conversation with Beth-my-walking-buddy, I got a handle on the villain, and the whole plot changed. So did one of my two supposedly-known secondary characters. The structure’s still the same, though, and so’s the McGuffin; a little more background, and I’ll be ready to start writing my first totally-wrong outline.

(Julie D, I’ll put up the post on agents on Sunday, when I’ve had a chance to think about it a bit more.)

19 Comments
  1. OK! Thanks so much 🙂 And best of luck with your Next Thing!

  2. Since you mentioned the Frontier Magic series I was just wondering if you could disclose the exact release date of the second book in that series yet. I think I read somewhere it’d be in August, and I’ve been eagerly waiting this book for about a year now. I’m glad to hear of progress in the third book, and good luck with future projects!

  3. There is at least one war story that includes quite a bit of needle work, “Four Generals”, from the 1926 Newberry winner _Shen of the Sea_. One of the generals is a tailor whom the current ruler met on his wanderings as a disguised prince.

    • Kellie – Across the Great Barrier is due out August first. When I get a spare minute, I plan to put a teaser chapter up on the website; when I do, I’ll link to it from here.

      Tom V. – Haven’t read that one, but I suspect my heroine doesn’t mean it literally. I could be wrong, though; I haven’t even gotten to the first plot outline yet. 😉

  4. This sounds awesome. I want it! And I love hearing about the way you come up with things. It’s very organic and creative, and much more like the way things really go than how people say they ought to go.

    (And your idea makes me want to get back to the revisions on my princess-is-heroic-with-embroidery novel. I’m done with the walking about in a daze period. Time to trim and tighten and then find a beta-reader before I decide it’s horrible and rip it apart.)

  5. Congratulations on finishing `The Far West.’ It’s funny that you step back to develop the story instead of plowing on to see where the voice takes you, because I’m exactly the opposite in how I find stories. 🙂

  6. All my stories start in my imagination. I don’t really think about having something to write down until I’m far enough along to have an idea how it will end (although that often changes.) The thing is, I never know what’s going to happen in the middle until I try to write it.
    If I were a professional author I might be more interested in having something to write rather than only writing down after I’ve already thought up the story and just want to develop it more.

  7. Aaaand I already kind of love the protagonist, just from that little snippet. Way to go. 😀

    • Cara – I did the plowing-on-with-the-voice thing twice that worked: Once with Talking to Dragons and once with Sorcery and Cecelia. I’ve tried it other times, with other stories, and it never seems to work out well. It DEFINITELY doesn’t work for me when I’m doing tight-third-person, rather than first person.

      Katya – Most of what I need to know to get started on a story (to get to that Critical Mass point) is actually backstory: how the characters got to where they are at the start and what they have planned and where they want to get to. They often don’t end up where they thought they would; I’ve written several stories where the ending wasn’t at all where or when I thought it was going to be (or even what I thought, except in the most general “the good guys win” sense). I don’t work at developing stuff because I’m a professional author; I work at it because I’ve been doing this long enough to know that if I don’t do the development, the story will never get finished, and I will never know what really happens.

      Celeste – Me, too. Max is going to be fun to write, I think.

  8. I’m trying to figure out what you mean by ‘structure’. Is it something like, she’ll start at point A (home) and end at point B (saving the world) and the plot is how she gets from A to B?

  9. Congrats on achieving draft!

    I usually get to critical mass by writing – I have characters in a Situation and I find out what happens next, and then quite often I need to find out how they got to that point. (This has its dangers. The current project started with a scene that will be part of the climax of Book Four. Ooops.)

    On the other hand I recently had a story idea that I could have started writing. On closer examination, both characters and setting turned out to be fairly clicheed, so I’ve put the idea on ice for the time being. This was not a discovery I was happy to make 🙁

  10. After reading your post on structuring your stories, I did a quick online search of the subject. Talk about overwhelming. There are links to explain away the three act structure, the four part novel structure, six, and even eight. I have not read them all yet. The venture seems perilous to attempt prior to at least two more cups of coffee, and perhaps a marshmallow to boot. Do you recommend always following a certain number, or differing from novel to novel? Personally I think it depends upon the story being told… but I’d like to hear your take.
    By the way, I love your new opening line–No shit!

    • green knight – OK, if both characters and situation are a bit cliched, that could be a problem…but I still think it’s more about what you DO with them than about whether they start off as cliches. And if you know that’s where you’re starting, you can deliberately twist things in an unexpected direction. Not that I’m encouraging you to revisit this when you seem to already have dozens of projects in process… 😉

      Deb – Structure is one of those things that I can go on about for many, many posts…and I probably will, once I’m done with Julie’s question about agents. The short answer is that I definitely agree; it depends on the story and the author’s preferences. The slightly longer answer is that for a really large number of writers, structure is something to analyze AFTER they have at least an outline, maybe even a whole first draft; it’s not something most people start with unless they’re deliberately experimenting. The really long answer…will be posts and posts. Later. 🙂

  11. [mental hiccup] Regrettably, what I want to know is not what the villain wants or how the villain is foiled, but exactly how large is a bolt of silk worth four thousand isiri?

  12. Not that I’m encouraging you to revisit this

    I think going forward, I want to expand my repertoire into different directions, so anything _new_ will be stories that stretch me further out of my comfortzone.

    you seem to already have dozens of projects in process

    That’s because I never got to the point where they were satisfactory, so they’re all up for review. I think I’ve worked out where the problem lies, but that means everything I’ve written is up for review, and I keep having flashes of insight about what to do to improve this project or that.

    Also, the Swamp Thing is bogged down once more. I know what happens next, but it’s an endless stream of little events that don’t really drive the story forward, it’s just people talking to each other, so everything else is looking shinier right now.

    • green_knight – Stretching is good. New is also good; there is a point where going back over one’s mountain of Very Old Stuff, trying to bring it up to one’s current writing level, is…counter-productive in the extreme.

      As far as the endless stream of little events goes, there are two possibilities: either they do drive the story forward, but you don’t consciously know how or why yet (darned backbrains…), or else they really are little things that don’t matter and they probably can and should be left out. If your backbrain is insisting that you need to write them, then you probably do; they may not be plot-related, but they certainly sound as if they could be character-related.

  13. I think my problem is mostly that I have no idea how to weave little events into a narrative unless I write fully-fledged scenes. Take tomorrow’s tutorial: the group has lost one (nasty) member and functions much better without it. On the other hand, they’re now cautious of her because they wary she might share private matters with her (fey) boyfriend [and he with his family], so she needs to reassure them that they will both observe privacy.

    But if I write this, I will start with the tutorial, and the way they’ve set up the chairs, and report the conversation, and there’ll be other little things happening and I end up – again – with 1K words of people sitting in a room talking. I seem to be lacking the techniques to tie events together without the glue. (And yeah, that has taken me a very long time to work out, because much of the time writing immediate scenes works perfectly fine… just not for every book.)

    I seem to remember you talking about this when you started the Thirteenth Child…

    • green_knight – A lot of that depends on the book. Your stuff tends to be very character-centric, and that means it’s going to tend in the direction of people sitting around talking anyway. Since that’s also something you like reading, and appear to be comfortable writing, it’s no surprise that you end up with a lot of it. And if it works, if the story as a whole flows, it’s really not a problem. Of course, if it doesn’t work, or if you find yourself 100Kwords in without having gotten to the first crisis, you may be overwriting.

      It is very similar to the problems I’ve been having with the whole Frontier Magic trilogy – which came out most strongly in the first book. In most novels, there’s enough room for at least a few quiet, talky scenes; they can be a necessity as a break from action. When one is covering 13 years in 80,000 words, one has to be a whole lot pickier about exactly which scenes get shown, which are summarized, and which get left out entirely. One has a little more than 6000 words, on average, in which to cover an entire year’s worth of events. One learns to be choosy.

      As I recall, you’re very focused on dialog, and have some difficulties with description. Is this perhaps carrying over into this sort of scene-summarizing? If so, perhaps it would work if you did the summary in dialog – that is, instead of showing the pre-tutorial conversation, skip to the tutorial itself and have somebody come in late, whereupon someone else gives the latecomer the one-paragraph summary of what he/she missed. It may not end up being what you want to do for the scene, but it might be a way of edging in the direction you want without it being too dreadfully painful.

  14. I realize this is quite a while after the original post, but I’m very curious- are you planning on continuing the Frontier Magic story at all? It seems like there’s quite a bit that you could talk about, and I just loved your alternate version of events!

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