Is It Too Complex?

I was out in the car today with my wife, babbling about The Veil.

I told her I’m having serious difficulty writing the final four chapters. Simply put, they need to be planned in an in depth fashion. I’ve been lucky so far, my “Chess” approach has worked well and brought me into novel length territory.

But this is the end.

If I don’t get some kind of ending written that has the foundation of being kick-ass, I’m sunk.

So now I feel challenged.

In the midst of telling her this, I started to relay some of the numerous ideas and influences that exist in The Veil. When I was done, she looked at me and said, “Now, I’d have to read it, but something has me a little worried… It sounds kinda complicated.”

And she’s right.

The Veil is a mish mash of various story ideas I’ve had over the past couple years. It incorporates science, religion, myth, conspiracy and so much more, it threatens to spiral out of control. But it’s meant to be several books.

Yes, I know all the weird and complicated maneuvers that are going on behind the scenes, but I don’t intend to show all my cards to the reader in book one. Nope, I want them in for the long haul.

This presents a conundrum. How much do I reveal in Book One?

I need to present some smattering of all the themes and ideas, or I’ll get to book two or three and something will just hit the reader out of nowhere. To me, it’ll be obvious, but the reader is going to shake their fist and scream “Bullsh!t.”

This is where editing is going to be crucial.

I believe I’m not the only writer to do this. To be honest, I’m positive there’s a boatload of writers in the exact same situation.

I’m sure you’ve all read the writing advice that as an author, you should know all the back story; but you shouldn’t feel the need to info dump all of it.

Honestly, some things are useful to build a character’s identity in our mind, but are unnecessary to state explicitly for the reader.

But what if the whole series hinges on that information?

Do you remember the fifth book of Harry Potter, The Order of the Phoenix? It finally revealed why Voldemort went after Harry and his parents. Thing was, the prophecy was mundane. I mean, Duh, any astute reader had that prophecy already figured out. It felt like we’d been baited with something earth shattering, only to have a deflated feeling when it turned out to be the same old “the boy & monster will meet, and one will defeat the other.”

While the actual prophecy was a bit of a let down, it served to explain why it had been so important to Voldemort to find and eliminate the Potters. It answered a question that had been nagging for a number of books.

On the flip side, the reveal of the master wand in book seven seemed forced. There was an article I read on the web that asked a very good question; Why the hell didn’t Voldemort just take everyone out at the end of book six? Well, because it would have been a suck ending. The introduction of the master wand and its ilk tried to a) answer why Voldemort remained in the shadows and b) provide a way for Harry, who hadn’t been the most powerful wizard in the world, to defeat Voldemort. While it was thrilling, it felt forced.

Don’t get me wrong, Harry Potter is brilliant. If I could write a series half as good, I’d consider myself blessed. My point is, if you have an invisibility cloak early on in the series that is part of this mystical triad of items that are integral to the end of the series, couldn’t you have mentioned something about it earlier? Reading the books, I have no doubt JK Rowling knew all about the wand and company early on. She just didn’t let us in on it until the last book.

Given the complexity of plots and themes in The Veil, I need to avoid this. First off, I need to do so because people aren’t going to be as forgiving of me as they are JK Rowling. Secondly, because people really will call me on using big twists out of nowhere.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with big, complex ideas. In fact, I thrive on things like that, which is why my book is filled with them. The key is finding a way to make them feel organic. Book one needs to lay the ground rules. If a stepping stone doesn’t exist in book one, that’s a path I won’t be able to follow.

Editing this thing is going to be a beast. I know that, and I’m not even there yet.

What do you think? Can you get away with omitting some ideas from book one as long as they get put into book two? Or should the whole path be present in book one, even if left obscure?

Or am I making a huge mistake from the start, having it clear in my head that this story is going to require several books to tell?

Of course, it’s too late to stop now 🙂

The Process of Creation – Concepts – Themes

The last foundation for a “concept” novel is the Theme.

Now, this is going to encompass a larger discussion, because theme isn’t just about how a story starts. It’s an important, if not integral, aspect of virtually every story written.

But let’s address the main point of these articles, theme as the genesis point for a story.

This type of story is all about a message. It could be as simple as “I want to write a book about good versus evil and how good always wins through perseverance.” On the other hand, it might be as obscure as, “I’m going to write a story about how it’s important to have a balanced diet.”

In the end, what is most important to the author starting this way is that their message is conveyed and in the light they want. I mean, it’s a pretty epic failure if the author wants to tell how good triumphs over evil and all the readers walk away thinking they should join the dark side.

I have to say, I think this is the hardest way to start a story. I mean, we were all challenged to write a short story this way in school (well, maybe not everyone, but I was) and it was painful! Why? Well, let’s look at where we’ve been previously;

The Character start gave us an engaging and interesting character to ask questions of and to find out about their story from.

The World Concept gave us a world to explore. I mean, there’s tons of stories in a whole world, it’s just finding them.

Even the Scene Concept gave us something. We had a smattering of character and world, so there was some foothold.

But this? Who do we talk to? I mean, do you notice how in every story start I get around to the point of us asking questions? Ages ago, I wrote a post here, and you know what I had discovered? The most important question is Why?

What do you ask a theme other than ‘what am I going to write’?

To my way of writing, there isn’t a strong enough anchor to really get started.

Yet I said earlier that theme was important, integral even.

Yes, yes I did.

See, when you meet a character, you try to get to know them. You interview them, have some coffee. You look for the part of their life that is an interesting story. Very often, the part of their life that gives you your story does so because there’s a theme or lesson in it. In the end, there’s a point.

Take a look at my articles on the Hero’s Journey. You could jam pack those full of themes, but the one that holds throughout every iteration of the Hero’s Journey is personal development. The Hero’s Journey, at its core, is about growth. Can we have a journey tale without the hero growing? I suppose you could try, but I promise you it will feel empty and will leave your audience feeling cold.

That’s why we gravitate toward the Hero’s Journey, because we all share the same theme. Every person grows and develops. Whether the hero is navigating the difficulties of high school or first romance, we’ve been there. Heck, even the hero fighting monsters to protect his family can be related to. Unless you don’t care about your family. Ummm, ok, awkward….

In many ways, theme is a naturally occurring entity in writing. Even if we don’t initially set out to tell one, it almost always finds its way in. The question is, and why this type of concept story exists, how much do you want to control your reader’s perception of the theme?

Maybe you just want to write an epic Hero’s Journey. Great, go for it. There will be a theme. But what if you want to put something else in there?

Let’s look at Harry Potter.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Harry follows a Hero’s Journey. When we meet him, he is in an ordinary world. He plunges into the other world and has to triumph over evil in order to free both the ordinary world and the other world that he has grown to love. We watch Harry grow and mature. We follow him through his awkward tween years to the point where at the end, we meet him as a man. We see his rebellion, his first attempts at love, his gain, loss, and gain of family and friends.

Harry Potter is a hero that exemplifies the theme of personal growth. But there’s so much else.

How does Harry win? Time and again, it’s because of his friends. So the themes of friendship, loyalty, honesty and so much more get packed in there.

Does JK Rowling want you to know she values the theme of friendship? I’d have to say yes. I mean, it’s all over the place. She has carefully crafted characters for Harry to be friends with. She’s made them integral to his life and success.

So as you write your story, or more so, when you edit your story, you need to think about what messages are coming across. Are they intentional? Are they the messages you want to deliver?

Theme, as far as I’m concerned, is a lousy way to start a story. But in the end, it will make or break your story. Tricky little devil.

The Process of Creation – First Came the Character

How do you start a work of fiction? What is the initial spark that lights the fire?

In these series of articles, I’m going to be looking at what starts the ball rolling. This isn’t about the first line or paragraph, this is about what made you want to start writing your story in the first place. Today’s focus is on Character.

The lady with the big gun is named Black Rock Shooter. She was first an illustration that was posted by Japanese illustrator Huke on his website and the illustrator website Pixiv on December 26, 2007. At that time, she was nothing more than an image of a character.

Soon after, Ryo of JPop group Supercell caught a glimpse of the character and was so inspired that he wrote a song about her. The band had Huke do drawings & animations for the music video.

The video was released on the web and garnered hundreds of thousands of views. It was so popular that soon a 50 minute anime was produced, which of course spawned countless figures, posters, etc.

So what’s the point?

The point here is that a story, and an entire marketing franchise, launched because of one thing; a cool looking character.

JK Rowling has often said that the character of Harry Potter just popped right into her head. The kind of boy he was, the scar, the boy he would become, all of it, BAM, into her head like a lightening shot.

In these cases, and many more like them, an author had a character in mind but no story to use that character in. The story was eventually born from poking and prodding the character to learn more about them.

Some writers compare this to an interview process. In fact, some literally have interview questions that they write and fill out by asking their character.

From the answers that they receive, the author begins to build a story. From the character they learn who their friends are, what kind of family they have, what scares them, what makes them happy. If the character has some sort of defining physical trait, the author probes deeper into it. Like, gee Harry, why do you have that scar?

Admittedly, I’ve never written anything this way. I’m more a concept person.

The potential for strengths I see in this are probably clear. First of all, most readers are hooked by a compelling and fully fleshed out character. That’s likely to happen when the whole story has been crafted around a character so compelling that the author had to write their tale.

Is there a downside? I can only think of one; a thin plot.

Reading the synopsis of the Black Rock Shooter anime, it’s pretty clear that either it was meant as a tease for future projects, or the story was only half conceived (when I’ve actually watched it, I’ll let you know my full opinion).

What it all boils down to is the author’s intent. Is the story beautiful & wonderful because of its character, or is there an amazing story that has an equally awesome character? I mean, would anyone argue that Harry Potter’s plot was thin and lacked intricacy?

In the case of Harry, I think what truly saved him wasn’t just the world he revealed to his author, but that it was populated with characters just as interesting and compelling as Harry himself. And that’s where careful steps need to be taken. A story usually involves several characters. If only one is formed in your head, there’s probably going to be issues.

What do you guys think? Are there liabilities to writing based on a character as opposed to writing based on a concept that you then populate with characters (that approach will be post 2)?

The Hero’s Journey Part 8 – The Ordeal

Our hero has been through a lot.  Now, he faces the greatest and darkest of moments, The Ordeal.

The ordeal is about change.  When this is over, our hero will never be the same.  Often, the ordeal results in a symbolic death for our hero who is then reborn. Once the rebirth has occurred, he will begin the long journey home.

The ordeal should not be confused with being the climax of the story.  Instead, it is the mid point.  All roads travelled thus far have lead to this point, and all roads away will be forever altered because of it.

Consider the recent movie, How to Train Your Dragon.  The ordeal occurs when Hiccup first rides Toothless high into the sky and becomes separated from the dragon.  The two plummet toward the earth, their doom certain.  At the last moment, Hiccup grabs hold of Toothless and the two are in perfect sync, performing maneuvers impossible to this point.  The fireball Toothless shoots backfires and singes Hiccup.  This is symbolic of all his old fears and misconceptions being burned away.  After this point, he truly realises that the vikings are wrong about the dragons and he needs to show them.

Speaking of near midpoint ordeals, consider Harry Potter’s experiences at the end of Goblet of Fire.  He literally goes to a realm of death, is witness to the physical death of a classmate, and then conjures the spirits of the dead in order to flee.  From this point, Harry is changed.  So too are the books.  Both Harry and the audience know that nothing will ever be the same.  The horror of the possible consequences if Harry fails in his quest are far more clear.

The ordeal can take several forms as to the type of “death and rebirth”

  • The hero can face the main villain and nearly lose his life – the villain may live or die
  • The hero might face the main henchman of the villain, saving the villain for the final act
  • The hero might face a great fear and have to conquer it
  • The hero will have to face up to a parental figure
  • The hero will have to let some of his ego or pride go
  • The hero will have to learn how to work with others
  • The hero will give himself completely to a relationship

These are only a few permutations.  The simple fact is, the ordeal transforms the hero.  That transformation will inform every decision that he makes from this point forward.  Remember, while it seems we’ve come a long way, this isn’t the climax, we’re only halfway to the end.

Next, we finally cut our hero a break and he gets a Reward.  Have no fear, it’ll get sucky for him again before it’s all over!

What Harry Did Right

When approaching Young Adult fiction, there is a singular holy grail of modern achievement.  I can’t recall a series that had such equal appeal across age and gender.  Naturally, I’m talking about Harry Potter.

Now, when you have a series as big as Harry, there are going to be the naysayers and pundits that want to tear the book apart and justify why it should not be the success it clearly is.  As writers, I don’t think any of us really care about Harry’s grammar, structure or any other negatives people drag up.  What we care about is, why does it work, and how can we use those lessons to improve our own chances of success.  Well, I have a handy series for you to look at that can do just that!

Jane Friedman’s website There Are No Rules contains a wealth of advice and information.  One particular series of articles, contributed by guest writer Jim Adam takes a look at The Strengths of the Harry Potter Series.  There’s a wealth of things to learn from looking at the fundamental elements that makes Harry Potter work.  I know the first article, on being able to sum a plot in one sentence, gave me some serious pause on my own work in progress.  I went back to ensure my story held up to this seemingly simple test.  Initially, it didn’t, and I realised I was writing more of a concept than an actual story.  Some serious soul searching and digging in the guts of what I was writing eventually produced that simple sentence, and I found almost immediately everything seemed more cohesive.

So go check the link.  I found every single one of the points useful and will be returning again and again just to check.  There are far worse role models.