A Brief History of Stories, Part Five

(This is a continuation. Previous installments here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four)

The Wildfire Crown

So, here’s the scene: Two months ago, and despite all my good intentions, my recent draft of Crown & Collar was failing. The schedule I’d been hoping to adhere to – having a polished, near-ready to send out manuscript by the time I went to David Farland’s seminar at the end of August – was clearly not going to happen.

Now, when reality’s come over and stomped all over your plans, realize you have a choice on how to take it.  When you’re doing anything as hard as trying to write a publishable novel (and lots of other things fall in this category), you’re going to have lots of moments where things aren’t going the way you want. Those moments are important; they’re where you have the opportunity to make an importance choice, and learn a lot. The choice is how devastating you allow the obstacle to become. If you see it as a failure, it’s easy to enter an internal- doom spiral of despondency.

Doom spirals have the nasty habit of making the perceptions of failure worse, and can conclude in the only way to actually fail at writing – giving up.

As frustrated as I was, the recognition of the draft’s weaknesses spurred an understanding of how I might fix them. All the work I’d done was not wasted. I felt that I’d started to finally understand the heart of the story I was trying to tell. The attitude I went into starting over once again with was not pessimistic, but optimistic, because I knew the next draft would be better.

That’s the key. Forward progress. Well, that’s the vague key. You also often need specific keys. In this case, the specific key came when I was reading one of David Farland’s daily kicks (daily writing tips) in preparation for the seminar. In it, he was talking about using your setting in interesting ways.

I realized I’d been neglecting setting almost completely. It only came up when it absolutely had to, in order to make the scene’s make sense. That’s a mistake – setting is crucial to making your world seem real, to drawing the readers into your story. You don’t have to spend long paragraphs describing everything, but if your reader has no sense of the space around your scenes, it’s going to weaken your story.

I began to flesh out my setting. That means more than just what it looks like – I needed to ask how it affected the story. The first section occurred in an old ruined castle in Siberia. How does that affect things? Does it change any actions? What’s special about the ruined castle, that I couldn’t do the exact same scenes in, say, an ice cream store?

A key early scene involves a wildfire. But the wildfire wasn’t real – it just sort of appeared for one specific scene, then was never mentioned again. I began to flesh out how a large fire near town would impact characters.

Then I realized I could use the fire as a key thematic point. It could serve both as a back-drop to give my world flavor, and as a key element in the plot. The story isn’t about the fire, but the way the fire is started (accidently, by Gare’s master, Roland), the way it progresses, and the way ends, all help tie together the story.

The fire didn’t fix my story. But it gave me a much stronger structure for my story to live in.

With that in mind, as well as a number of other more subtle changes, I started to work again. I rewrote my first section, weaving the setting of the ruined castle in (actually it was a soviet compound then, but same idea). I paid a little more attention to the space around Gare – snippets of overheard conversation, the way the guards acted and moved – that didn’t directly affect the plot, but greatly affected the ambience.

That section succeeded. It was a milestone for me. If that was a short story, I felt that, after editing, it was of publishable quality.

The next section was harder. The shape of what was happening was less obvious. It wasn’t as clear to me what Gare should be doing to drive the story where it needed to go.

But the structure work I’d done made me feel confident the idea was right, that if I just iterated enough I’d make the section work. It took probably 25,000 words of discarded scenes to make the 10,000 word section work, and even then, it wasn’t quite as strong as the previous section.

Still, it got me up to the 20,000 word mark I needed to be ready for the seminar, with two weeks to spare. I stopped writing new materiel and spent a week editing that segment, and then sent it off to family and friends.

The critiques I got were excellent. Some points I expected, others were a surprise. No matter how much I told myself that I’m not objective about my own writing, seeing proof it was still a bit of a shock. I made the changes I could, and then shipped it off to David Farland and the other workshop attendee’s.

Since then, I’ve been plowing ahead. The first third of my outline was in good shape. The middle third needed serious work, though the final third seemed strong as well. I’ve spent the last month working on that middle third, terrified that all my work would be for naught and I’d discover some unfixable hole.

I’m pleased to say, that though the middle third is far from done, I believe I’ve found the proper structure there as well, though it meant tinkering with an ending I’d thought was solid.

That brings us to….today! The manuscript currently stands at about 53,000 words of an estimated 85,000. Tomorrow, I’m flying off to David Farland’s novel revision seminar. He’s going to show me his edits of the first 10,000 words, as well as his critique of the first 20k. The entire class will be going over everyone’s first 2,000 words and outlines. I’m excited and terrified – there’s some very good authors in this group.

One thing’s for certain – I’m going to learn a lot. Next year I’ll no doubt have another five parts to add to this 🙂

This ended up being quite a bit longer than I intended, but it was a lot of fun to write. For those who stuck through it, hope you enjoyed it, and thanks for reading!






A Brief History of Stories, Part Four

(Previous parts here: Part one, Part two, Part three)

Crown and Collar

The failure of the second draft of Old Dog taught me an important lesson – I didn’t fully understand my main character. That’s always a problem, maybe even more so when you’re trying to write a character-driven first-person narrative.

The main issue here was how I was exploring the animal-human dichotomy. This is the type of thing that naturally comes up when you deal with shape-shifters or anthropomorphized animals, and a theme I’ve always found fascinating. I needed to make a decision here: Was Gare a human in a dog’s body? Was he just a smart dog who could pretend he was human at times? Was he something in between? I was most interested in option three, but that’s vague. What does “something in between” even mean?

I decided that making Gare a centuries-old shape-shifter made dealing with this issue far too complicated. With a life that long, understanding Gare meant understanding his life, all two hundred years of it. But I didn’t want this story to be “Gare’s Biography”. I wanted to tell the story about Gare and Ben and the magic crown.

I also realized that the most important part about Gare’s background was his relationship with his master, Roland. Dogs are often defined by their loyalty to their masters. If Gare was dog-like at all, I had to consider this point. That created a second problem – in the story, Roland was long dead. Exploring their relationship would mean making heavy use of flash-backs. I was worried about what they would do, pacing-wise, to the story.

Fortunately, both the above problems had the same solution – Gare needed to be younger. I started again, under the working title Crown and Collar. Roland was now going to be part of the story. I decided to start off by having Gare and Roland steal Yaroslav’s magic crown together, as that was the event that really set things rolling. I also made my decision about how to treat Gare’s character; he was going to start off very dog-like, and gradually grow through the novel to something more. That nicely fit in with my decision to use loyalty as a theme. For a dog, loyalty to his master might be everything, but as the novel goes, Gare starts to think less like a dog and realizes that loyalty unearned is a hollow thing.

I wrote the initial section of Crown and Collar right before I attended the SuperStars writing seminar. I was excited – I finally had a novel that was going to work. I felt great about the themes, the premise, and the climax. At SuperStars I decided to attend David Farland’s novel rewriting workshop at the end of August, figuring I’d have a very polished complete manuscript by then. With a little help from a world-famous fantasy author, I’d put on the last touches, and be ready to submit for publication in the fall. All I had to do was figure out all the various little details to make the themes and story work.

I came back from SuperStars charged and feeling great. I tore into the first draft, ready for it to all come together.

At about the 30k mark, I realized I still had big problems. Gare as a character was working out better. The plot was not, nor were many of the secondary characters. A great deal of the story depends on Gare’s relationship with various secondary characters – Kalis, a local leader of a group called the Tyrlight Council and were-coyote; Ben, a young math professor and aspiring were-wolf; Eonhar, a mysterious being who claims to be working for the immortal Lochii. Just as I realized earlier I hadn’t fully understood Gare, I now realized I hadn’t fully understood how he would relate to these three characters.

So I tried again. I re-wrote most of my earlier scenes, refining my vision of these relationships and Gare himself. The second draft started hitting problems right about the same point the first draft did. I made myself push on, but at about 50k words, I stopped once again, rather frustrated. There were just too many things that didn’t feel right. Eonhar was crucial to the end of the story, but I felt like he was just being arbitrarily inserted everywhere else. Kalis and Ben’s motivations didn’t seem strong enough – I felt like I was forcing them to do things with authorial power, rather than letting the characters do what made sense to them. There was also the matter of Yaroslav’s magic crown creating plot holes wherever I put it.

It was mid-June. I had to submit the first 20,000 words of my manuscript to David Farland at the end of   July, and once again, I knew I needed to start over.

It wasn’t as bad as it seemed. As rough as the process had gone, I felt like I’d learned a great deal at each stage. The biggest pitfall you can run into when writing and re-writing is that you end up running in circles, but I knew I was progressing. I identified what I felt were the biggest flaws remaining in the story foundation, and decided I’d solve them and have an outline before I started the next draft.

During a wonderfully productive weekend a couple months ago, I managed just that.

I’ll tell you about that next week, when we’ll watch history catch up to the present.

A Brief History of Stories, Part Three

(This is a continuation from Part one and Part two)

After writing Dragon’s Heart, I felt things were starting to come together. My writing was improving, and with Sean’s helped I’d identified a few key flaws that had been hindering my stories. My goal for 2012 was to apply those lessons and write something I could submit for publication. I knew that meant learning how to polish and edit, but I figured that would come easily once I had a solid foundation to work with.

Old Dog

I’d been trying to develop a storyline starring a canine character for a while. My ideas folder had a half dozen sketches, but none of them gained any traction in my head. Then, I read the first few books in the Iron Druid series by Kevin Hearne (check him out here). The books are light-hearted, fast-paced urban fantasy starring Atticus, an immortal, super-powerful druid who goes around kicking paranormal ass. Atticus is accompanied by his Irish Greyhound, Oberon, whom Atticus gave sentience and the ability to telepathically communicate.

That gave me an idea: what happened if you took the powerful, kind of snarky urban fantasy main character (like Atticus or Harry Dresden), and made him a dog?

I thought that sounded fun, so I came up with the idea of Gare, the immortal German Shepherd. Two hundred years ago Gare had been a regular dog, raised by a powerful gifted human named Roland. Roland, a mad-scientist type, was always experimenting with magic and managed to give Gare sentience. He trained Gare in magic as well; shapeshifting (to human and other forms), elemental manipulation. He even gave him the gift of immortality.

When Roland died, Gare found himself alone in a world that he didn’t understand. Though shape-shifters were common, they were all human at the core. More then once humans tried to take advantage of him, and he learned not to trust anyone.

Gare decided the only thing to be done was to find some kind of magic to resurrect Roland, so he managed to steal a magic crown held by the tyrant Yaroslav that was rumored to do exactly that. But the crown’s power turned out to be sealed, protected by a code that no one had ever been able to break, much less a dog.

Gare learns that in the real world, it’s every dog for himself, and the best bet when trouble’s coming is to run. He spends the years bouncing between various human companions, leaving each when there’s any hint that Yaroslav is on his tail. He tries living as a regular dog, other times as a human, but most of the time it’s neither and he finds none of it satisfying.

Finally, Gare finds someone who might be able to help him. Ben is a newly-minted math Ph.D. who’s already hit global headlines by cracking a centuries old cipher. Gare offers Ben a deal – Gare would teach Ben magic, in exchange for Ben trying to break the crown’s seal.

But just as Ben begins to make progress, Yaroslav tracks Gare down, eager to take his crown back and extract some revenge. Helped by a group of mindtwisters, gifted with the ability to manipulate thought and emotions, Yaroslav begins to make Gare and Ben’s life a living hell.

Gare’s first instinct is to run again, but that means abandoning Ben to whatever cruel fate Yaroslav has in mind. For the first time in his life, he decides to stay in fight.

I wrote the first draft, finishing it in late January of this year. I thought it was a clear improvement over Dragon’s heart, so now came the big question: how to polish it? How far away from something publishable was this?

I ran my own post-mortem over the draft, and, well, found more flaws than I liked. I spent most of February working on the plot, and more importantly, trying to figure out what the story actually was supposed to be about. I had this notion of the book being about Gare’s journey, but frankly, I was pretty undecided on who Gare was. His personality came off as inconsistent. I couldn’t decide how to balance the dog qualities and human qualities. I thought his goals were vague at times, and worse, his voice just wasn’t coming through on the page.

Other issues included the secondary characters all being paper thin, and the tone of the story being undecided, starting off light-hearted and growing rather dark by the end. A number of scenes were obvious filler and border-line boring. My dialogue attempted to witty but, due to me not being as engaged with the characters as I needed to be, came off as stilted.

In other words, it needed a lot of work.

But no problem, I thought. I came up with a long list of improvements and started in on the second draft, maintaining a lot of the structure by writing the scenes from scratch. The first third or so went well; the characters came together, the action was sharper, the dialogue better.

The second third still fell flat. I ended up leaving the second draft incomplete about 80% of the way through. I stopped because I realized I was compromising the story I wanted to tell with a plot that wasn’t serving that purpose.

This was depressing, to say the least. I was a month away from my first big writing seminar. I had this fantasy of having a complete manuscript to show off to interested parties. I’d told family and friends I expected to have something to show them for critique in by May or June. None of that was going to happen.

But it wasn’t all storm clouds – there was a real epiphany here. In the shambles of the failed second draft I found the real Gare, so to speak. I found the story I wanted to tell, and I found the way to tell it.

And next week, I’ll tell you all about it!

The Wheel Turns

In 1984, the same year I was born, Robert Jordan started a fantasy series called the Wheel of Time. The first book, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990, when I was six.

I started reading them sometime in 1998, when I was 14. My mom had purchased the first seven books in soft-cover, but never gotten around to reading them. These were thick, massive volumes, all in the neighborhood of a thousand pages. Once I got into the first one, I was hooked. Jordon wove his stories like a grand tapestry, with detail and scope like nothing I’d ever read. Whereas most books offer a brief window into a few character’s lives, the length of the Wheel of Time allowed Jordon to show a full panorama. He showed me a new world full of color and life. I read right through classes at school till I’d finished the seven we owned, then ran out and bought the recently released eighth.

When the next book came out, a couple years later, I reread the entire series. Did the same thing for the tenth book. The Wheel of Time felt like a fixture in my life, at that point, as if the characters were old friends.

In 2006, Robert Jordan announced he’d been diagnosed with cardiac amyloidosis, a rare blood disease. It came with it a median life expectancy of four years, but he intended to beat it and finish the final book of the series.

In 2007, a year and a half after that announcement, Jordan died. I was 23, in my first year of grad school.

I remember being ashamed of my response. A man had died, and all I could think about was, what’s going to happen to the Wheel of Time?

But shameful or not, that thought was echoed by many fans, and it spoke to the power the series had. Robert Jordan had created something so powerful, that had touched so many people, that leaving it incomplete would be a tragedy.

Jordan’s wife and longtime editor, Harriet McDougal, agreed, because a few months after Jordan’s death, she asked Brandon Sanderson, an up-and-coming fantasy author, to finish Jordan’s work. That was the start of my own writing journey.

It’s 2012, I’m 28, and just last week Brandon Sanderson announced he’d finished the final draft of the final volume, A Memory of Light. He wrote a wonderful blog post about that experience here.

The writing of the Wheel of Time has been an endeavor that’s spanned the entirety of my life. It’s affected me in profound, measurable ways.

When I was younger, it inspired me to dream of my own epic worlds. When I was older, it inspired me to try to write them.

In each Wheel of Time book, the first chapter always starts the same:

“The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.”

Next January, when the book is released, I’ll read the final page and for me and millions of others, the series will be over. But the memories will endure.

The Wheel of Time will be over, but the legend will just be beginning.