AHHH Writing craft thread! Warning, warning! Also long rambling stories. There's a moral to it I guess, though...
So, I have this project that I've been work on, on and off, for like almost a year now. Really, it's a side project, a kind of a love note to R.A. Salvatore, and a big chunk of my 20's spent playing D&D (Pathfinder these days now) and pretending to be a magical elf.
It's more hetrosexual than it sounds.
Anyway, I have this book. Or it's more correct to say, I started writing a book, with lots of plans and great world building and this awesome mythology (ask me about how paladins work, I dare you) and by the end of the book I had a whole party of interesting, weird characters (female dwarven wrestling monk, doppleganger rogue, fallen paladin, kobold sorcerer/fighter, "Laughless" the gnome druid), it was off the chain. It was written in third person, from the sorcerer's POV and I had so many ideas, the book was just bursting with life and fun.
Except nobody seemed to get to the end because the beginning was boring.
It's kind of hard to admit, and it's not easy because there are certainly good things, but it just... didn't seem to grab anyone. I completed Act I, but nobody I showed it to was too enthused, including people in my D&D group who tend to lap up whatever I write (out of a misguided sense of pity, I think) and my
well-whipped alpha reading slave awesome buddy Shane Murray. They plodded through it, and I had to pester, pester, pester for anyone to get to read it.
I began to realise that the story wasn't that great. The first half or more of the book was about the character growing up, but it wasn't that compelling, and there weren't that many surprises there. I realised that the awesome stuff was at the end and I, as a writer, was just pushing to get to there.
I spent half a book trying to get readers to care about a city I didn't really care about myself. So I blew it up. City go boom.
I cut the whole Act I. I just moved it into its own document and started writing Act II as Act I. This time I made it a lot tighter. Now the protagonist was compelled to go somewhere, with their homeland destroyed.
Except it still didn't work. There were too many lingering threads, too much "looseness" from the previous cuts. Too many things that were faffing around and wasting time. So I cut it back further, and had it start with the protagonist digging at the rubble uselessly. An action based start. One that communicated the plot very easily and grounded the reader in the world. Now we were getting somewhere. It was sharp, and I thought it would work.
Except it still didn't and this time I was stuffed. I couldn't figure out why. I was doing all the things right, going through all the motions, why wasn't this story just writing itself?
It actually took a long Skype call to Shane to nut out the problem. It all started when he made a pretty simple suggestion. He said the book needed to be in first person.
I rallied against this. For one, it's a heap of work to change from third person to first (but not that much) and I'd already spent too much time in rewrites. I didn't want to spend more. Third, the fantasy-fiction I was used to reading (and preferred) was in third.
"Grumble, moan, complain," I said. "Too many words. Me Grimlock hate rewrites."
We talked it over though, and basically he asked me what the story was about in one sentence.
"It's about the humanity in non-humans and about seeing the world through the eyes of a monster [race]."
"Okay," he said, "that's not a bad start. So make it about that."
It seemed pithy, I guess. "Just make it about that." Well, obviously I was, wasn't I? Obviously.
Well, no, I wasn't. There was all this other stuff. Gods and magic and paladins and dwarven women who could crush your head with their thighs. This wasn't really about Ren's experience, and that was the problem.
It wasn't about Ren's experience. There was no moment that established the character's goals. What they wanted. Who they were.
So I re-added, cautiously, some of the stuff I'd cut. I kept only the best of that and threw away everything else. If I liked it, it stayed. If I didn't, I got rid of it, no ifs or buts.
So some of it was back in and the story was "feeling" right again. But that first person spectre was looming again, and Shane kept at it.
"Give it a shot," he said. "Write a bit. See how you feel."
So I wrote the one thing I hadn't written yet, the very end. It sounds odd but while I had a few ideas for the ending, none of them really leapt out at me.
Then I started to write it, and woah. Okay. This is good. The change in perspective really let me get into Ren's head. Now I was getting somewhere. I was able to really see what Ren thought about the world, and a small change in the ending changed everything. All the pieces that I'd laid out through the story all came together, and suddenly I felt like, legitimately, this was going to be a great story.
I'm still rewriting the majority of the story to be first person and I pity the poor, long-suffering editor who's going to get this one because I'm certain it's been rooted beyond all hell, but hey. That's a problem for future me.
So what did I learn from this?
* Ask yourself not only what the story is about in a sentence, but what you intend to convey with the story. If you intend to make it a story about situations and how that character sees, you should consider first person. If you are writing a story about a journey, and what the character sees, then consider third.
* Don't be afraid to keep rewriting, if you want to tell a good story, especially if you learn something. Throwing away a whole act is painful, but I consider it an investment in my writing. That'll serve me well later.
* If that nagging feeling you have that a story isn't good won't go away, try small things, then try something larger.
* Write the ending last, then work towards it. I used to do this then moved away from it, but now I'm returning to this plan with a vengeance. It's a good way of storyboarding while also writing!
* Cutting the fat, the fluff, off a story can turn it from good to great, but also keep whatever you trim. You might read it in a few months and go, "Hey, actually, this was pretty good."
* Alpha readers who can take an unfinished first act and give you really detailed feedback about it are invaluable. Seek them out when you can and
kidnap them, keeping them chained in your basement bribe them with chocolate or offers of returning the favour.
* Try to write different things! You'll be surprised what you can learn.