Genre, Passion, and Infinite Variety

When I applied to MFA programs, I used the first few chapters of The Half-Drowned King as my portfolio material, which usually counts for 80-90% of the admissions decision. I wanted MFA faculty to know that I was a writer of historical fiction, with swords and kings, and prophetic dream right in chapter one. I was worried that MFA programs would be full of literary snobs, and I wanted the program that chose me to know what they were getting.

NYU’s program was pretty good on that front. The students represented a variety of genres in their writing, many writing realist literary fiction, but some wrote fantasy, mystery, thrillers, and surreal fiction. The professors too, many of them, welcomed different genres. Rick Moody’s class on Ancient Forms reminded me that genre as a classification is a recent phenomenon, and many early writers were writing epic fantasy novels in verse. The Odyssey is a fantasy novel; I will hear no arguments on that point.

Some didn’t though. I did work with a professor or two who clearly had no use for historical fiction, or fantasy, and some fellow students as well. And outside the program, I saw it even more, in blogs, review sites, agents.

This is a great time to be a genre writer with a literary bent, or a literary writer with a genre bent. Books like The Golem and the Jinni, The Book of Esther, and so many other are blurring the line between fantasy and literary fiction, between genre and literary fiction. Nerd culture, also, is ascendant, with the success of so many super-hero TV shows and movies.

But I want the walls to come down entirely. And more than that, I want people to stop looking down their noses on one genre or another. It’s all storytelling. Either it’s a good story, or it’s not, and that has nothing to do with whether there is magic in it.

I want people to realize that a preference for realist fiction over fantastical, or vice versa, does not make you a better, more sophisticated reader. It’s simply a preference. There is nothing more limiting than believing that your preferences and the gaps in your knowledge are some kind of virtue. You might not read much science fiction, and that’s fine, but that is a choice, not a moral victory. (And give a new genre a try. You might learn something.)

The same goes for things outside literature. You might not be interested in sports. That’s fine. Life is short and you should spend it on things that you are interested in. But that doesn’t make you better than people who do like sports. (Check out this great comic on the narrative purpose that sports serve, which is different from, and complimentary to, fiction.)

Here is a list of things I don’t care much about, and in some cases am outright hostile to:

  • Cruises
  • Meat loaf (this is where the hostility comes in)
  • NASCAR

Not caring about or liking those things does not make me a better person than those who do. And yet I see people who find disliking sports, fantasy novels, makeup, etc. to be important facets of their self-worth, a source of pride.

People’s passions and quirky interests are to be celebrated. I love meeting someone who is passionate about something I know nothing about–then I can learn from them. I remember an interesting evening with a gentleman who cared very deeply about stereos and sound. He explained his stereo and the speaker placement in the room, and showed me how sitting in different parts of the room changed the sound. That wasn’t the entire evening, but it was a very interesting digression–and he knew when he’d reached the limit of my interest. He didn’t make me into a stereo connoisseur, but he did show me the detailed, infinite little world contained within his passion. I love writers who can do that. Reading a book should be about exploring something new to me.

Dismissing entire genres, and sneering at other people’s passions, makes us smaller, less interesting people. Our time is short and the world is huge, and full of infinite variety. Every door you open has a vast landscape inside it. Even if they only carve out a small part of it for themselves, the writers I respect the most stand in awe of world’s variety, not on some false pedestal above it.

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Ancestry is a Privilege

Harald Harfagr statue
Harald Harfagr statue

When I was in high school, my family started getting into ancestry, and traced our lineage back to Harald Harfagr, the first king of Norway, on my mother’s mother’s side. On my mother’s father’s side, I’m descended from a Sheriff of Nottingham (though likely not the Sheriff of Nottingham of Robin Hood fame, and anyway, Robin Hood is more of an accretion of Green Man myths than an actual historical person). On my father’s father’s side, I’m descended from Pieter de Carpentier, Governer-General of the Dutch East India company in the 16th century. The de Carpentier family is where Carpenter Bay in Australia gets its name.

All this makes me exactly 0% special. All those Northern European genes add up to one very tall pale lady. And the further back you go in history, the more descendants these ancestors have. Harald Harfagr had upwards of a dozen wives, and children by all of them. My mom, a plant geneticist, did a calculation to find out how many genes I would share with Harald Harfagr, and after almost 1200 years, the answer is not many. If you have any Northern European ancestry, chances are good you are descended from Harald Harfagr as well.

Still, that connection to Harald Harfagr was what got me interested in his story, which led writing to The Half-Drowned King and its sequels, for that is the story of the rise of Harald Harfagr as told mostly through the eyes of his right hand man Ragnvald of Maer, and Ragnvald’s sister Svanhild. (Don’t google if you don’t want book spoilers.)

I always feel odd when I tell people about my ancestral connections, though, because an obsession with blood lines seems next door to an obsession with race. Also, the victors in historical struggles are much more likely to be able to trace their lineage than the oppressed. My husband, of Jewish ancestry, only knows the family history back three generations. His name is common, and the Jews of Europe were marginalized and displaced so often that it was hard to hang onto that history. The church records of the Scandinavian countries form an unbroken chain back to the coming of Christianity. Those countries suffered fewer destructive wars than Continental Europe.

These connections are also important to me, though. I love knowing my family’s history back that far, through the indigent Swedes, Dutch, and Irish who came to the United States at the turn of the century, to the more privileged ancestors, and back into legend, for if the Heimskringla (The Saga of Kings) is to be believed, Harald traces his ancestry back to Odin himself. I love knowing when I visit Norway, Iceland, and Ireland, that I am walking paths, and kayaking fjords, that my ancestors traveled upon a thousand years ago. I feel a greater connection to those places, knowing that my ancestors, suited to the cold weather, braved those hard winters and stormy oceans.

I try to walk the line of valuing my history without setting it above other people’s history. It is my history, the good and the bad. The vikings were pagan raiders who sacked monasteries and killed and tortured monks. They took slaves and sold them (often to Christian countries–not much moral high ground in Early Medieval Europe). They were also farmers and traders and settlers, men and women who had ambitions and loves, loyalties and enmities, like any other people. They were not particularly more violent than others of their age, but neither were they less. I find ancestry to be a useful connection to history because it reminds me that they were just people, that in a different age, I might have been very different, but still a person. It reminds me that who I am now is dependent upon and shaped by all these generations that came before.

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Whose story is it?

On Friday, I had a bit of a wrestle with the fate of a minor character in The Sea Queen. My plot question was “should s/he live or should s/he die?” and I was trying to figure that out based on my answer to: “what does it mean to my main characters and plot if either happens?”

I could make it work either way, but neither choice felt right for the narrative, and usually when I’m working out plot issues, one choice will simply feel right for the story. The question that shook me loose was: “How can the fate of this character show respect for them as a person rather than a prop?” And then I knew what to do. When I’m writing, I can do anything I want to my characters, but they only come alive when I don’t ask, “What is done to them?” but “What does life ask of them, and how do they answer?”

A couple months ago, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by psychologist Victor Frankl. The most affecting part of the book is his years in Nazi concentration camps, and how that experience illustrated, in the starkest terms, some essential truths. These are:

  1. Doing something that has meaning is a person’s highest calling, not happiness
  2. Even when every freedom has been taken away, people can find meaning and purpose in how they meet their situation

He found that prisoners in the camps who felt that their lives and choices had meaning, who had someone to live for, a memory that sustained them, or a desire to help their fellow sufferers as much as they could, had a better chance of survival than those who did not have that purpose. Those without purpose were more likely to become their worst selves, to steal from one another, and eventually, to give up and die. To Victor Frankl the central question for everyone should be not, “What do I want from life?” but “What does life want from me?” Perhaps the answer to the first one always, for everyone, is “meaning”, and the answer to the second is what creates that meaning.

Story is meaning, and meaning is story. Humans tell themselves stories all the time, at every moment of every day, when we are not listening to others’ stories 1. Even when we sleep, our minds make up stories. One of the symptoms of PTSD is an inability to give meaning to an event, to create a narrative around it. Sufferers of PTSD cannot tell their story, and often relive it instead. And people are more likely to suffer PTSD if they are prevented from sharing their trauma and telling their story 2.

The stories we tell ourselves about our lives become our truths. Do you tell the story where everyone screwed you, and everything went wrong, and therefore you failed? Or do you tell the story where you had a lot of experiences that taught you things, and you had to make adjustments along the way, but every step you took led you to where you are now. For many lives, either story has a grain of truth, but which person do you want to be?

One of my writing teachers always asked “What does this event mean to this character?” because the importance of a plot is not the plot itself but what it means to the characters experiencing it. As Hamlet says, “for there is nothing either good or/bad, but thinking makes it so.” Thinking is storytelling is meaning-making, and every character makes their own meaning. It’s one of the hardest writing questions to get your mind around. It requires knowing a character very well.

Sometimes the hardest thing about writing fiction is choosing the right main character. I got into an argument with a friend early in my MFA program, where I was railing against writers who write about characters exactly like them, usually young writers from Brooklyn. And my friend was saying that every story is worth writing, and that I was being a snob to think otherwise.

I think we were both right. I do think there is a higher degree of difficulty writing about yourself or someone very like you, because we don’t see ourselves very clearly, and we may not see our own agency.  A character can have lots of bad things happen to them, but they still have a choice in how they react to that. Even being passive is a choice. And with a skilled author, who can tease out the reasons for the passivity, and the consequences of it, that can be an interesting story. But the author needs to understand that while the character may seem to have everything happen to them, and perhaps that’s even the story the character tells himself, the truth is that he has choices, agency, no matter what. Maybe terrible choices, maybe the only choice is in how he faces his situation–what meaning he takes from it–but he has a choice.

(This is not to excuse terrible things, or to say there is something wrong with ‘being a victim’. People do terrible things to one another, and the victims of that have every right to be angry. And they have a choice of what to do with that anger and every other feeling about it. In Victor Frankl’s practice, he found that helping his patients find meaning helped them heal from whatever they had been through.

This is also not to say that everything in life happens for a reason and Frankl is very careful to state that as well. His point, and mine, is that things happen–life asks things of you–and you get to decide how you’re going to answer.)

Readers want to read about characters who do things, who make things happen, who make choices. I’m not the type of author (at this point) who can make a passive character interesting, or the type of person who has enough sympathy for a passive character. My characters do a lot, do everything, do too much. All they do is make choices and try to make things happen, often to a fault–a lot like their creator.

So this is both a post about writing or life. Whose story is it? In life, it’s always your story. You can tell it as other people’s story, as the story of everyone who did you wrong, or as the story of how you overcame that. In fiction, it is your protagonist’s story. They always have choices. And it is also the story of every other person in the book–none of them should feel like props, and all of them should have their own stories, no matter how briefly they intersect with the protagonist. Because we are all protagonists, making choices, searching for meaning, answering what life asks of us.

1 The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
2 Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character by Jonathan Shay

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Another Day In the Life

Writing
Photo by Morgan Schmorgan

Last week my sister asked me what my days are like now that I’m a full time writer, a question that is a little panic-inducing. I just came back from a long trip, and before that, I only had one week of the full time writer life.

Right now, I’m working on turning the 70% rough draft of The Sea Queen into the 100% first draft. I use a pomodoro timer on my phone to manage my time. For a while I tried working for 25 minute blocks (pomodoros), with 5 minute breaks, and every 4 pomodoros, a 15 minute break. Now I’m trying 15 minute blocks with 3 minute breaks and I think it’s working better.

I’m working mostly at home right now, where I have a nice big monitor on a table in the living room so I can see two chapters side by side on the monitor and the outline on my laptop screen. I listen to various writing mixes I’ve made on Spotify. I keep on considering whether to try to work in the NYU library, where I have purchased an alumni pass, but I like my big monitor, and I like being able to make lunch at home.

I do something athletic most days, and I try to involve other people in that when possible, since being at home all the time, especially with my husband out of town, is rather lonely.

I’ve been cooking a lot, but I know that, before he comes home, I will get tired of cooking for one.

In the evenings, when I used to do my writing, now I read and knit and watch TV and movies, which hopefully feed the creativity I will pour back into my writing.

I had always planned to try to get an adjunct teaching position, but this draft of The Sea Queen feels so all-consuming that I am concerned about adding something else to my life. Which might be silly, since I used to write with a full time, 40 hour a week job.

I was also going to start taking Spanish Classes.

But now I have deadlines. I am trying to write two 500-page novels in two years, while, over the course of three years, doing everything it takes to publish and promote three books. That is a lot. The Sea Queen is due to my editor in July 2017, which seems like a long way off, but I want to do at least one more draft on my own, and then have my agent and some other readers look at it, and then make the changes they recommend, before doing a few passes with my editor, so the months will pass fairly quickly. And then as soon as I complete it, I need to start on the final book in the trilogy, The Golden Wolf. And soon, by the beginning of August this year, I will start doing copy edits on The Half-Drowned King.

I don’t miss going into an office and working, but I miss some of the rhythm of it, the leaving and coming back. The having a frustrating day and commiserating with my husband about it. The relief when the day is over, though that usually only lasted the two hours when I came home, had a drink, and fixed dinner, before I launched into writing again.

I don’t know what it will look like in a month, or six months, or a year. It feels too good to be true now, but also a little lonely, and I am worried that this novel I’ve been crafting alone, composed of words that no other person has read yet, will not be as good as the previous one, or will take too long to get the stage of the previous one, or a million other things that could go wrong. Writer worries.

So to answer to the question of what my day to day life looks like is: lots of writing, and some of what feels suspiciously like leisure activity. It’s not bad at all.

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Gods and Themes

Last night I finished reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Blades, the second book in Divine Cities series. This, along with the previous book, are some of most interesting, sophisticated fantasy novels I have read in the last few years. Speculative fiction (and historical fiction too, really)  is at its best when it uses its fantastical or otherworldly elements to explore a real world problem. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite examples of this. Vampires, magic, curses all serve different purposes, but, especially in the first three seasons, they always explored the problems of growing up. Buffy’s status as a Slayer stood in well for a teenager discovering that she’s not who she’s always tried to be, who her mother and her peers want her to be. When Angel’s curse makes him turn evil after they sleep together, that is a heightening of the more prosaic drama that many teenage couples enact.

Bennet’s series proposes a world that used to have gods in it, but doesn’t anymore. An oppressed, enslaved people threw off the yoke of their oppressors, and in the war, killed the gods that kept their oppressors in power. In the first book, Bennet used the death of the gods, and the artifacts they left behind to explore the uses and abuses of religion. He tackles the problem that an involved, powerful deity can’t escape being a villain, at least to someone. If a god helps your sports team win, then he’s helped someone else’s fail. A god that does not fall into this trap has to cease to be a god entirely.

In the second book, Bennet explores war and violence through the aftermath of the death of the goddess of war. Different characters approach the uses and necessities of violence, what justifies it, if anything, and how civilized societies can and should use it. This exploration is very powerful–perhaps even more so than the first book, because our protagonist is a retired general who has committed atrocities in her past, and who can hardly live with those memories. She embodies one aspect of the cost of violence, as other characters do in different ways.

Mike Carey’s Lucifer series of graphic novels is one of my other top fantasy “novels.” In this series, the titular character, Lucifer, has abandoned hell, and is forging his own path. He is an uncompromising and mostly, but not entirely, inhuman character. The books explore Judeo-Christian and other mythologies, and invent new ones, while Lucifer rails against a problem that even a being as powerful as him cannot escape: a person cannot be his own creator. Lucifer cannot stand the fact that God created him and gave him a purpose. He cannot stand the idea that everything he is comes from his creator.

This is a totally different, yet still incredibly fruitful way of using the idea of gods and an all-powerful creator God to tackle the central problem of growing up and establishing one’s self as an adult. If Lucifer cannot escape his creator, who can? Sometimes I look at my life and the ways that I am like my parents, shaped by the things they showed me as a child, and think that I have not fallen very far from the tree, though I went farther and deeper with the ideas they gave me than they ever could have imagined. Who knew that D’Aulaire’s book of Norse mythology would take such root?

At the same time, it explores the question of whether a literal, all-powerful God can exist and not be a villain (theodicy) in a very different way from Bennett’s work. Lucifer shows, more than once, what happens when a creator gets too involved with their own creation–it is even more dangerous and destructive than not getting involved at all, and so an all-powerful God must be very remote.

Chuck Wendig is one of my favorite (and one of the most profane) writers on writing, and I very much agree with his statement that theme is what gives a work of fiction staying power. I agree with his definition too, that theme is the book’s central statement. What it is trying to say. City of Blades says, explicitly and implicitly, that the only just way to use violence, to be a soldier, is to use it in the service of greater good and expect no great rewards in return. To be a servant, who does the terrible things that are necessary sometimes to protect. Lucifer says that no one can be their own creator–and no one can escape their origins entirely.

If theme is well-realized, it grounds every conflict in a piece of work, whether the conflict is specifically about that theme, as most of them are, or serves to illustrate, in this case, the cost of violence, the cost of making a stand on one side or another of the argument.

I also agree with what Wendig says about theme being a statement, not a question. So far I’ve begun my works with a question, but by the end of this trilogy I will have answered it. (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is. Either it will come through or it won’t.) Theme can be hit too hard, but a work without a theme, or with disorganized approach to its theme will not come together. Speculative fiction gives writers the opportunity to explore themes in a more literal way than the internal struggles of real-world fiction do. I hope one day to write speculative fiction and try my hand at it as well.

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When is it time for a rough draft to be done?

13312635_1273576682683214_2794031860917880762_nOn Friday morning, I decided that, at 110,000 words, and about 80% of the chapters written, it was time to go back to the beginning of my rough draft of THE SEA QUEEN, the sequel to THE HALF-DROWNED KING. I’m a big believer in working straight forward on the first draft of a novel, using a rough outline. If I run into a snag where I realize I need to set something up that I didn’t, I usually make notes about it, write down some To Dos to handle in the next draft, and keep moving forward.

Eventually that stops working, though. In the last few chapters of a novel, all of the threads need to come together. The details that I’ve been putting off for later become too important to ignore. For instance, this book contains a blood feud between some secondary characters which needs to erupt out into the main story-line in the last five chapters. I have some pieces of that feud written, but not enough to know where all the players are when it all comes to a head, and in order to write the last pieces, I need to know those details.

Also, when I’m writing a rough draft, I tend to skimp on description in favor of dialogue and action. It’s necessary to keep moving at a good pace, but it grows tedious for me. I love writing description–good description reveals character, sets a mood, and plants thematic seeds that can develop later in the novel. I’m missing most of that right now, and therefore missing a lot of the fun of writing.

Any writing process, including banging out a rough draft as quickly as possible, should be used in the service of getting the thing written, polished, and ready to be seen by others. So while discipline is important, so is deviating from the process when it ceases to be useful.

I’ve also found this to be a pattern with my writing now–this is my third “completed” rough draft, and with each one, I’ve felt compelled to start re-writing from the beginning when I finish 70-80% of the total planned chapters.

A rough draft is all potential, sometimes a bit too much. A first editing pass can be even more exciting, though, with its balance of constraint and freedom. For instance, in the current draft, my first chapter is from the point of view of a less compelling character. I played with the idea of changing the POV, but I can also choose to make this character an interesting person. It is more work, but probably the right call. It’s not too late to make those changes. On the other hand, I know the shape of the whole story, and most of the plots, subplots, and arcs, which I didn’t when starting the rough draft. This gives me a structure to work within.

At this point, at the beginning of turning the rough draft into a real first draft, I am doing the following things:

  • Re-assessing each of the characters: summarizing their arcs, major plot points, and making sure I know the answers to these questions:
    • What do they want?
    • What stands in the way of getting what they want? What is their major malfunction?
    • What is their character arc? Where do they start, where are they in the middle, and where do they end?
    • What is the arc of their major relationships?
  • Re-assessing each of the chapters, and making sure I know the answer to these questions:
    • Who is in the chapter?
    • What are the major beats or scenes?
    • What is the central conflict?
    • What decisions do the characters make in this chapter? Ideally, the POV character should be making at least one decision, or they probably shouldn’t be the POV character for that chapter.
    • What is the chapter’s purpose for the plot?
    • What is the chapter’s purpose for the characters?
    • What is the chapter’s purpose for the theme?

This is the point at which I need to make sure I know the answers to those questions, rather than writing and seeing what happens. Sometimes I don’t know, and then I write about the problems longhand in a notebook, or I try writing a scene to see if it works, and if I like it, and feel like it’s working, make sure I know all of the necessary answers about it.

I predict this phase will take a couple of months. Then I will leave it alone for a month, and come back and do a final pass on it before showing it to anyone else. Or I will need to do more than one pass. I’m still learning this as I go along, but each time I do it, I know a little more, or at least I have more different ways to try solving a problem.

 

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Needed: A Thousand Inspirations

Lightbulb photo by Richard Rutter

Here is a conversation all writers end up in, and we all dread:

Someone: I have this idea for a novel. How about you write it, and we split the profits?

Writer: Nope.

Inspiration is easy, execution is not. I have 3 more novels partially written, which I hope to complete someday, not even counting the sequels to THE HALF-DROWNED KING I am contracted to write. I have 3 or 4 more ideas that are really fleshed out in my mind, some even to the point of having outlines written. Completing those may take another 10 years of my writing life. 6 or 7 ideas isn’t very many, but I still don’t need any more right now.

Also, that first inspiration is only one of hundreds needed to complete a novel, and the others only show up with hard work. One of the reasons I try to write on my novel every day is that when my head is really in it, everything I encounter out in the world feeds into the novel.

Yesterday I was walking home from work and listening to an episode of The Rachel Maddow Show. She was talking about the ad below, in which a Republican actor talks about why he will be voting for LBJ rather than Barry Goldwater. It is a moving ad, and then Rachel had the actor from the ad on her show, and I choked up a bit.

Part of writing is paying attention to these moments. I paused the podcast and asked myself why I was choked up. It was because this man had been true to himself and his beliefs, rather than tribal loyalty, and had made a moving, honest ad about it that may have cost him in his personal life. He went against his habits and his family, and he displayed thoughtfulness, emotion, and integrity in the service of a greater good. Roger Ebert said that we are often moved less when people are sad than when they are good.

So I was moved because this man was good, and he was standing up for his principles. It ways gets me–A Man For All Seasons is one of my favorite plays, even though I know the historical Thomas More had English Protestants tortured for heresy. It is moving when people rise above themselves, when people find their truth.

I turned off the podcast, and asked myself how can I let my readers experience this emotion. My main character will probably not be in a position to make a sacrifice like this for many reasons of plot and temperament, but I can give this journey to a secondary character, and my main character can watch. He can be moved and envious of the purity of the secondary character’s convictions, and also his sacrifice.

Those are generalities though. Then I needed to figure out how each character would get there, what plot and character levers need to be pulled to make it happen. And the trajectory I decided upon links several plot elements which until now had been mostly independent of one another.

When I’m really immersed in writing, this happens frequently. Sometimes I find a motivation for a big plot element, sometimes it’s just a snippet of conversation. Last week I found it in the season finale of Veronica Mars, Season 1, which never fails to move me, and which I’ve seen many times. This time, I found an idea in it. If I watch it in 3 years, when I’m writing something else, I will probably find something different in it.

I wouldn’t be open to those moments of inspiration if I wasn’t working on the novel every day, my mind always aware of its thousands of problems even when I’m not thinking about it consciously. Inspiration doesn’t strike from nowhere. This is what people mean when they say that inspiration follows the work. That if you sit down every day to write, the inspiration will come. It comes because you’re in the habit of looking for it.

For me, it’s noticing when I am moved by something, and tracing the emotion back to the things that caused it, the universals within the specifics, which I can then make specific again for my own work.

 

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Outlining and Re-Outlining

Outlining on the floor.

There are a huge number of books and even more blog posts about the process of writing a novel, and processes that you can use to write your novel, and they are all very helpful even when they contradict each other, and they all have the potential to be deeply unhelpful as well.

I don’t think I learned any of the below in my MFA program–that was helpful for other things, but was more focused on writing as art than as craft, and the work of planning and outlining, I think, is largely in the craft arena. I learned what I know by going through several NaNoWriMos, by reading Chuck Wendig and Film Crit Hulk, as well as too many other writing books to name, and by trying things, and when they stopped working, trying something else.

Mixed metaphor alert! Writing a novel is somewhere between turning a block of marble into a sculpture and untangling a giant snarl of many threads into a beautiful tapestry. Sometimes you’re chiseling away, sometimes you’re breaking things, sometimes you’re untangling, and sometimes you’re weaving. And that’s just the rough draft. In the next draft, the scissors and the hammer come out and it all starts again.

When I am writing a rough draft, I have four guiding principles:

  1. Begin with the end in mind.
  2. Try to write 2000 words every day making forward motion, and never fewer than 500.
  3. Do not go back and edit earlier chapters. If you have ideas for how they should change, write them down as notes, pretend you already did them, and go forward.
  4. Try to end each writing day with an idea of what to write the next day

In order to accomplish that when writing THE SEA QUEEN, the sequel to THE HALF-DROWNED KING, I started with a high level idea of where I wanted each of the next two books to end, the major historical events that needed to occur, and the major plot beats other than historical events that my characters needed to go through. I expanded this into a table that described of what was going on with my main characters through both of the next two books. This was 8 pages long, and pretty high level.

I copied the beats and their descriptions from that document into the note card view of Scrivener. (Scrivener is the application I use to write. It has some planning functions, like the ability to look at all the chapters or scenes as note cards, and it makes it very easy to rearrange things.)

Then I got writing. Occasionally I ran into snags, and went to my longhand journal to write about the problems until I had a solution. I often came up with new subplots that needed to be added back into earlier chapters, so I started a chapter summary, that listed all the chapters with a description of what happens in them and a to do list of things I need to add to them in the next draft. And I changed my mind from the original outline, and made notes about what had changed.

It’s been going pretty smoothly so far. I’ve been writing quickly, which is easy to do with good planning, and years of research behind it. But I’ve written about 85,000 words now on THE SEA QUEEN and I’ve run out of the stuff I had planned relatively thoroughly, and gotten into murkier territory, so it was time to do some serious planning. My philosophy about planning and outlining is:

  1. Don’t do much more than is necessary to get moving again.
  2. The use of planning and outlining is in that moment. The act of planning is the important thing, not as much the plan that comes out of it which will always change. I will play with the outline, and have new ideas, and re-outline at least into the third draft.

I think the problem that a lot of writers have with outlining is that it feels like a straitjacket, like all of the fun of discovery has gone out of the process. To bring in yet another metaphor, I view the outline or any planning document as a map for a hike in unfamiliar woods. It doesn’t mean you can’t wander, poke into things, follow a stream for a while instead of the path, but it tells you what is there broadly, and where you want to go.

So Sunday I decided that I needed to know what all my major characters were up to at all moments in the plot. I wrote out all of my characters’ names and arranged them vertically on the floor. Then I printed out my chapter summaries and arranged them horizontally. This is when it really became clear that aside from the ending and a few major beats, I really have no idea what’s happening in the back half of the novel.

I started working on a few story lines, sketching them out in a notebook, but the mess on the floor looked untenable–this was going to take more than an afternoon, and the apartment is too small for many bits of paper on the floor to be undisturbed for longer than that. So that’s when when I started looking for outlining software. And after testing and discarding 5 different timeline/post-it tools, I discovered Aeon Timeline which integrates with Scrivener, and lets you assign an Arc, Characters, and Places to each timeline event, then view the timeline by those things. So I’ll be able to see what all my characters are up to at any given time.

Some outlining and long hand writing on the table as well.

Sunday and Monday I spent time writing out story problems longhand in my notebook, and then translating them into timeline elements, which I then checked to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time. I have any number of characters who all need to be present at the final battle (or dead by then, in which case their deaths need to have the right drama, witnesses, fallout), and each of whom need to get to the final battle for their own reasons and following their own paths. Which, in a novel with many characters doing many different things at cross purposes all over Norway, is challenging enough.

However, the biggest challenge is figuring out what needs to happen to put my characters through beats that are entertaining to a reader, important to their growth, and illustrative of the novel’s themes. That work is not done on the floor, or in the right software, but in thinking and writing, and making sure I really understand my characters, who they are, and how to push them. This is all logistics. The fun, and far more challenging part, is making sure that everything that happens feels organic to the characters, surprising, and yet inevitable. Hopefully this planning will help get me there.

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First round of publisher edits

Image by Nic McPhee (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nics_events/)
Image by Nic McPhee (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nics_events/)

Last week I got my edits back from my editor. For a first book, these are the steps I went through:

  1. Researched and planned novel
  2. Wroted part of novel
  3. Realized novel needed to be trilogy and started to break it up and figure out a good end point for the first installment
  4. Workshopped novel with friends and fellow students at a variety of writing classes in NYC
  5. Several drafts later had a draft I was willing to show potential agents
  6. Massive edit with agent, cutting 60,000 words and writing 40,000 new words, with substantial rearranging and cutting of plot elements
  7. Second edit with agent, still a little rearrangement
  8. Third edit to nail some little stuff
  9. In my case, at this point a second agent entered the picture for reasons I’m not going into here, and I did another 2 round of edits with her, one that added a few scenes, and one that fixed some words, mostly
  10. Finally submitted to publishers

Something that a lot of people outside the industry don’t realize is that most agents do a ton of editorial work. Novels need to be in pretty good shape to be purchased by a publisher, so most writers do a few rounds of revision with their agent before an editor ever sees it.

By step 10 above, the novel was in pretty good shape. The edits I got back from my editor at Harper Collins were rather minor. I inputted 30 chapters worth of edits in about an hour of work. (The book is 36 chapters long, 521 pages double spaced 11pt Times New Roman in MS Word, 153,000 words.)

There was a little more plot and motivation clarification I needed to do in two later chapters, but otherwise, it was in very good shape. And that was largely because of the huge amount of outside editorial input I’ve gotten. I like to think I learned many lessons on this first novel that I can apply to the sequels, but I know that the sequels will not be as smooth at this stage of the game.

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Down the research rabbit-hole

I think one of the things I like best about writing historical fiction is doing the research. It’s an excuse to read deeply about various historical subjects, and feel like I’m doing it for a good purpose beyond just increasing my general knowledge. (It’s also a great way to procrastinate writing.)

Currently, I’m writing a novel about a medieval priest who is dealing with the issues that the church was grappling with at the time, especially clerical celibacy, which, happily for me, is still topical today. Delving into the Catholic Church’s views on women and celibacy has led to the following reading list:

– The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Tests and Modern Scandals by Anthony Le Donne

– Forged: Writing in the Name of God  by Bart Ehrman

– Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

– Parish Priests and Their People by Edward L. Cutts

– Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter by April D. Deconick

– Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church by Uta Ranke-Heinemann

…among many others.

Interesting stuff, but I have fallen down the rabbit hole of books about (a) the historical Jesus and (b) the early Christian church. It is pretty far from what the novel is actually about, since most of what has been discovered about the historical Jesus would not be known by a medieval priest, and many of the heterodox Christianities of the early movement would have been forgotten by then as well.

Still, it’s hard to reorient my reading back to the medieval period. Modern writing about the life of Jesus and the early Christian church are fascinating from a cultural and meta-historical perspective. This is an area of history far removed from our time, with sketchy written records, yet it has been pored over and researched more than any other ancient era, so in addition to being interesting in its own right, these books give a picture of what is possible when a large number of historical minds apply themselves to one particular area of history. This set of books represent the very limit of what can be known about any era of ancient history.

Elaine Pagels teaches a class at Princeton known colloquially as the “Faith-buster”, because what one discovers when researching early Christianity is that the canonical and non-canonical (i.e. books excluded from the official gospels) are rife with mistakes and forgery. The council that codified the gospel chose the books to walk a fine line between a number of warring ideas about the trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and how he was begotten, to bring the greatest number of Christians into the orthodox fold.

There are people whose faith is sorely tried, and even “busted” by discovering all the human politics and foibles that went into crafting the books that many people take as literal, inerrant truth today. I am not a Christian at all, so for me it is an intellectual and empathetic exercise to see how these revelations affect people’s world views. Furthermore, I am trying to keep judgment out of it, but knowing the facts, as well as they can be known, about the history and forgeries that went into the gospels, seems like an object lesson in not viewing any one book or idea as the literal, inerrant truth. Truth, especially spiritual truth, runs into trouble when it is viewed as black or white, evil falsehood or pure truth.

Reading these books also shows the ways stories, ideas, and institutions evolve over time to fit the needs of those who tell them, so it is interesting from a meta-narrative perspective as well. Readers and writers of novels know that there are fictions that communicate truth better than bald facts ever can, and religion may be at its best when its narrative is built around that.

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