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.

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5 thoughts on “A Brief History of Stories, Part Four

  1. Martín says:

    The fact that you need to understand the life of Gare, all two hundred years of it, doesn’t mean that you have to write it (making it a biography). Knowing it’ll let you write very subtle things that can make the reader guess what it had to have lived to do/think like that.

    Keep it going!
    Best of luck!

  2. Oh, I know what you mean, Martin, and totally agree. It was more that I couldn’t reconcile 200 years of life with the the character I actually wanted to write.

  3. j.e.stintzi says:

    I’m really enjoying seeing your process. It’s really interesting. And I am actually currently working on a Blog series similar to this because it seems like a really interesting way to look back. Of course mine is going to be more my complete History in Art/lit, but the ideas very much the same: to try and see a progression.

    Much thanks for this Blog. It’s helped me try and keep the one I’ve done alive.Even without the readers many readers. I look forward to your next installment.

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

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

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