I recently talked with K.M. Weiland about knowing when to give up on a manuscript and dealing with failure. Fortunately, I haven’t been at a point where it makes sense to give up on a novel, but I have been struggling with finding out how to put my character into my story and get going. We’re going to talk about the problems of starting a new project and getting all the elements—character, theme, and plot—integrated into something that you can move forward with.
While I have a big-theme concept for my next novel, I’m struggling through what I think is a common phase for writers—translating the big ideas into a unified story. In the past, I’d just write, but I felt the lack of a mental structure too keenly to just muscle through.
Let’s use some of the difficulties I’m having as an example of working through early issues in novel writing.
By the end of The Forty-seven Words of the Broken Girl, Jinxx is the equivalent of a nuclear super power. Her magical mastery dwarfs standing armies in it’s potential to devastate. But does ultimate power matter in the face of popular revolt?
Jinxx Relinkerys, a sweet but naïve young woman who was forced into taking action against a budding tyrant. She’d prefer to stay home and study math or magic than get involved in politics she doesn’t think she understands nor has the wisdom to act in.
Unifying the concept and the protagonist has proven difficult. Jinxx’s natural barriers to action have made my model (the French Revolution) a tricky fit.
Where do you start to address reconciling character and concept?
To some degree, this is actually where I feel I went wrong with the book I gave up on, The Deepest Breath. The problem, of course, is that we often come up with our plots and our characters as if they were separate entities. E.g., I’ve got this great character, so why not just stick him into this equally cool setting?
I just finished reading Blake Snyder’s excellent screenwriting guide Save the Cat! (which, as with many screenwriting guides, is just as useful for novelists), in which he offers the forceful reminder that plot and character must inform one another.
The easiest way to make this work is to do it purposefully. We start out with a character, we figure out how we want him to grow (and thus the main theme), and then we brainstorm for the setting/plot that will best facilitate that journey of growth.
But how it usually happens (at least in my experience) is that we come up with a character and a setting (e.g., a WWI vet in Kenya) and only then try to figure out how our idea of this character’s personality can be bent to the will of the plot.
Too often, this art of reconciling the two is anything but organic. Practically speaking, our best approach is to address this juxtaposition as early in the planning as possible. Figure out how the character will grow. Figure out what opposition he needs to meet to force that growth and make it most resonant to the audience. Then craft the plot.
Perhaps ironically, my problems on the Jinxx sequels arrive from coming up with an idea for the story from the character. I saw Jinxx, by having so much physical power, provided a great way to think about the limits of power. A lot of speculative fiction—particularly in films—imagines power as something that solves problems, when in real life, power is rarely a solution. Yet when I started to think about how to involve Jinxx in the plot ideas I had, none of it was working.
Sequels can be a unique challenge. I’ve yet to write one myself, but I would imagine that completing that solid character arc in the first book, it often closes as many plot doors as it opens. This is undoubtedly why so many sequels offer “flat/testing arcs” instead of the classic hero’s journey change arc we often see in the first books.
By the way, I love the idea of coming at power from the perspective of its being problematic (and beyond just the whole “with great power comes responsibility” trope)—and even catastrophic.
Thank you. I didn’t want to do a sequel. I’m wary of multiple book story arcs. But I fell in love with Jinxx so much, I wanted to spend as much time with her as I could and her power raised a question that I felt almost required to respond to.
What I ended up doing was taking a page from your Outlining Your Novel and turning to mind mapping. At first I played on ideas about what would need to happen to get from a new nation being formed to a revolution. Then I realized that wasn’t going to answer my question. I had to approach the problem looking at both plot and character: what would the inciting incident be if Jinxx is directly involved. Below is a screen shot of my Curio mind mapping.
I spent a few hours on the white, plot boards before realizing they weren’t leading me to a solution—Jinxx, nor her magic, wasn’t in either of them. That lead to first asking, Where Does Jinxx Fit? (the bottom dark board), then once I identified the coronation as a logical place for the inciting event, to the dark board on the right, which teases out ideas about the coronation itself.
The “what if” question visualized! I love this. I don’t mindmap, per se, but I love this brainstorming part of the story, in which we get to explore all the possibilities. In trying to line up the linear cause and effect of events with the hypothetical force of our imagined theme, we can end up in some pretty interesting places. It’s interesting how often these two aspects can be so concrete in our minds – and then be totally out of sync with each other on the page. Yet another reason why it’s so important to stay fluid and let the story guide, instead of boxing ourselves into our own preconceptions (again, one of my major problems with Deepest).
Lack of fluidity has always been my biggest concern with outlining or any deep planning. I think of myself as a method writer: I get in my characters’ heads and stay there while I’m slapping the keys. Or, perhaps more correctly, I used to. I truly hate to say this, but as I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve learned to incorporate strategic thinking into my writing routine.
I know myself and I know how I work best—and that’s with outlines. But I also have to admit that there are moments when I’m reading about someone’s spontaneous (and seemingly entirely brilliant) process, and I feel twinges of envy. But I could never sustain that. I would go crazy with the chaos and the uncertainty that anything I was doing was going to end up working out.
But, as with so much of writing, I do think a balance of the two – spontaneity and structure—is optimal. It’s finding the balance that gets tricky, since most of us tend to err heavily on one side or the other.
Definitely. I’m an intuitive creative who wants to have my creative mind tell me the story as I write it. Too much pre-planned structure would take the joy of discovery (and the mental conversations that come with it). But the frustrations of not knowing what I’m doing when I sit down to write wore on me, too. Hopefully, mind-mapping and roughly outlining will allow me to keep both the thrill of improvising and the security of pre-planning the story.
I’m really curious about the conflicts between conception and actuality as they played out in Deepest. You’ve said the characters didn’t fit with the setting the way you thought they would. Was this something with more planning—or better planning—you could have foreseen? Or did the story get away from you at some point?
It’s been so long and so many things have evolved in my concept of that story that it’s almost hard to go back and pinpoint exactly what I originally intended it to be anymore. But the biggest issue is that I let my backstory gallop off with me.
I originally intended the story to be about best friends turned against each other. But two things dragged me away from that: 1) I was fascinated by a female character, the wife of one, who it turned out they both loved, and I wanted to explore that dynamic, and 2) I knew, without knowing the details, that these two men had served in a war together. World War I fit my timeline, so I ran with that.
There was also a third problem: I wanted to experiment with a different narrative type (present tense, three POVs, divided equally). My first mistake was trying to make all three characters protagonists in their own right. That further led to a need to give the female narrator a plotline that mattered as intensely as the two guys’. And that led to a convoluted wartime backstory that ended up dragging me way too far away from my original concept.
Sounds like you needed to throw away chapters, many chapters, early on and turn to ideation. Wait, was that a pupil teaches the master moment? No, couldn’t have been.
Ha! You should see the delete file for this project. It’s about twice the size of the “finished” book. I actually started out writing all that backstory as part of the story. I had sense enough, at least, to realize how far that would have taken me from my original vision for the story.
If I have the order correct, The Deepest Breath was drafted before Behold the Dawn and Dreamlander, and it was with Behold that outlining really clicked for you. If you were starting Deepest today and discovered a secondary character who spoke to you so much, how do you think you’d handle it? What would be the back-to-the-outlining-pad moment?
Ah, yes, me and my crazy timelines. Actually, Deepest was conceived, outlined, and written after I finished Dreamlander‘s first draft—well after I’d figured out my outlining process. So really I have no excuse for what happened with that book.
I think, really, it’s problems were the culmination of various other things I was learning—including shutting down the internal editor and, particularly, not pressuring myself to live up to my own writing advice.
The whole point of outlining is that we’re trying to foresee problems and work through them. But no process is foolproof. The system is only as good as the user at any particular time, and if our foresight/story sense happens to be foggy, well, then no amount of good technique is ultimately going to save us.
As always, thank you for the wonderful words.