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!






6 thoughts on “A Brief History of Stories, Part Five

  1. j.e.stintzi says:

    This was a neat series, I enjoyed it. I actually decided it sounded like a lot of fun so I started something similar. I hope your seminar goes well.

  2. Martín says:

    I really enjoyed :). After so much work you have improved a lot!
    “One thing’s for certain – I’m going to learn a lot.” Hell yeah!!

    You have a reeeeally good understanding of feelings and the decisions you can make with them to either improve or give up.

    Have a nice day!

  3. Runi says:

    I’ve really enjoyed reading these and it’s good to hear that you’re really moving forwards with your work. I’m entering Nanowrimo this November, inspired by you 🙂

  4. Mary VP says:

    Good luck at the workshop! When I was working on my master’s thesis, the workshops always made me nervous going in, but I always came out feeling really energized. Hopefully you get some good critiques and come back ready to keep pushing forward! Thank you for sharing your process with us 🙂

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

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