A Brief History of Stories, Part One

I thought it’d be a fun exercise to reflect on the various writing projects I’ve worked on over the past three years to try to see what worked, what didn’t work, and what I can learn from them going forward.

The Iron Circle

This was the first project I attempted after deciding I wanted to write. It was an epic fantasy taking place in a world with no sun, where the light was generated by a substance called shine that hovered above the surface and gradually became less dense the farther away from the ground you went. Mountain peaks would be permanently cloaked in shadow, whereas caves would be bright as summer. The cast of characters included a hero who used his stature to swindle people, a wizard and his demon familiar chasing after a fallen apprentice,  the leader of a secret government that existed within the empire, and a mysterious sorcerer (named Raven, and yes, I thought it was cool at the time, don’t hate me!) intent on unsealing an ancient prison, letting loose the wicked beings within.

I worked on it on and off for maybe four months, getting around 30,000 words written before giving up. The story was incredibly complicated – I realized I needed to focus on few characters and a simpler plot before giving something this epic a try. As this was my first serious attempt writing, the disconnect between what I wanted to say and what the words I wrote said frustrated me a great deal. I had this great, beautiful epic story in my head, and yet what ended up on paper was awkward and stale. The entire experience was depressing, and I didn’t try writing again for months afterward.

Looking back, the frustration was expected, but the depression unwarranted. The writing was mediocre –but what did I expect? It’s like anything else, gets better as you go. There were a lot of cool ideas in that story. In fact, I’ve already begun polishing this idea so that, at some point maybe a few years from now when I feel I have the skill to try something of greater scope, I can give it another go.

The main lesson here is that something this big needs a lot of world building and thought – diving in as a newbie author is just going to lead to disaster.

The Demon’s Son

After the depression of the first failed project wore off, I was re-invigorated and decided to jump in again. This time I was determined to find a simpler story, and to spend more time planning out the plot.

The Demon’s Son was another epic-ish fantasy, about a boy named Quen, the fifth (and inconsequential) son of a Duke who believes rank and caste are everything. Quen finds out that, in fact, he’s the son of a demon who had an affair with his mother, when his real father arrives and tells Quen he wishes to make him his apprentice. Quen is sent to a place called Dragonsclaw Fortress to be trained in magic, while secretly being trained in demonic arts by his father. There he meets two others with secrets of their own. Ellodin is heir to the kingdom but can tell no one till the king dies; Zade is at the fortress to free his uncle, locked in a secret prison below the fortress.

Wondering what the overall point of that is? Me too. The issue here was I came up with a premise, added some complications, advanced the plot…and had no idea where it was going. I had simply never figured out what the ending was. Also note that while Ellodin and Zade have clear goals, Quen (who was supposed to be the viewpoint character), doesn’t really, nor was I able to find one for him at the time.

Of course, I didn’t figure any of that out at the time. I struggled with this for at least four months, getting close to 40,000 words before giving up. Though my writing did seem to be improving, as a project this seemed a greater failure than the Iron Circle, simply because I had tried much, much harder to make it succeed.

The biggest lesson here is that the plot simply wasn’t working, nor was the main character, and I should have gone to the foundations of the story and changed some of the assumptions. But instead I was determined to make the idea as I had originally come up with it work, which ended up being trying to stuff a square peg into a round hole.

Looking back, I see a few ways to breath life back into this project. One would be to center the story around Ellodin instead of Quen – he was the most interesting character. Another would be to give Quen some kind of central goal, since he didn’t really have one. I don’t have a particular urge to revisit this premise now (I think it’s built around too many common tropes), but I keep my notes around in case inspiration strikes.

Tinarel

As we all know from books and movies, the main character has to fail something twice before he can succeed. Tinarel was my first successful story. It was about these two races, the satyr-like Eln and the foxlike Santii, who live together in a valley surrounded by impassable mountains. The two races believe this encompasses the entire world, and that outside the mountains is oblivion.

The Eln are the rulers, the Santii the servants, a hierarchy locked in stone for all time. Tinarel, a Santii, works as the librarian for an Eln lord. Tin’s never found himself comfortable with people of either race, and prefers the comfort of books. Then, Tin’s friend Karve convinces him to join a growing resistance movement, a ground of Santii sick of being second class citizens. Tin isn’t sure he’s comfortable with that – he’s always thought the Eln lord he worked for fair – but he quickly discovers that leaving the resistance is as dangerous as being part of it. While the resistance begins to plan acts of violence, Tin finds a secret door in the library. There, he finds ancient magic, and something else – a secret that, if revealed,  would show that everything the Eln and Santii believed was a lie.

I didn’t have high hopes for this project – all I had to start with was the concept of the world, the two races, and a bit of an idea for Tin’s character. I also had an ending in mind, which I suspect made the difference. I did very little planning, and after a slow start, it just took off. Three months later, I had a finished, 95,000 word draft in my hands, complete from beginning to end.

I was happy with that as my first novel then, and I still am now. It’s not publishable at all in its current state. The plot needs a lot more work. The skeleton is there, but it needs more polish. One of the crucial twists doesn’t work at all. The ending is quite dark, and may not fit the tone of the rest of the book. There are numerous consistency issues, and every character besides Tin and Karve is one dimensional. I also think this would be a hard story to sell. If I ever decide to go back and re-do it, I suspect it would end up being self-published.  I hope I do that one day – I’m rather fond of Tin, and would like to see his story told well.

Lesson’s here? One, that I was capable of finishing a novel – that was critical in terms of my motivation. Two – I could finish a novel with minimal planning, which surprised me. Three (which I didn’t learn right away) – I need to make my characters much less passive. Tin needed to make more decisions; he spent way too much time watching and thinking, not enough time doing.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed hearing about some of my older projects. This ended up being quite a bit longer than expected, so be sure to check out the continuation next week!

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12 thoughts on “A Brief History of Stories, Part One

  1. Me says:

    Good blog, sounds like my brother he had a ton of ideas in his head which were pretty good, but he couldn’t seem to figure out how to articulate them. He also tried diving into a story that was huge and pretty complex. He gave up on it after several months but he still keeps his notes.

  2. Beta says:

    I love your perseverance. A writer writes! I really like the imaginative settings. Hopefully one day I get to read a finished work of yours.

  3. Ergo says:

    As a budding game designer I found myself really relating to this. I’ve had these awesome ideas for huge games and then I get behind my IDE and realize I don’t have nearly enough experience or knowledge to implement my ideas. The solutions, code design etc. just don’t work or are so badly designed I get demotivated and quit. I’ve never actually finished any of the projects I’ve started.

    But I got motivated again! (more so from reading your blog). I started a simple project and my goal is to just have a complete game, all features implemented, no loose ends etc.

    I’ve been reading your blog and it’s kinda making me want to blog as well. I’m sure there are plenty beginner-game-designer blogs out there but I think it’ll be fun.

    Thank you very much for the motivation 😀 . I hope one day I’ll get to read one of your finished novels!

  4. Chris says:

    I would buy all those stories, they all sound enchanting and creative and sprout from a unique ideas. Sean may have sent me here, but you, sir, kept me reading.

  5. […] is a continuation from Part one and Part […]

  6. […] is a continuation. Previous installments here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part […]

  7. Lidia says:

    I would very much like to read through some of these stories someday and give you some constructive criticism where it is needed. So far though it seems that Tin resembles yourself and maybe you need to make him his own character.

  8. […] is a continuation. Previous installments here: Part one, Part two, Part three, Part four, Part […]

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