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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.

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.
 

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This was a great post.  I've got a novel sitting in wait for me to get back to tackling it.  Like you, I did a bunch of work at the beginning to later realize it starts out way to slow. The first third is downright boring and even whiny.  So... I switched to short story erotica.  ;)   For now at least...

Kudos for continue to chip away at that marble until you got your perfect David!  (no pun intended on the "David" lol)
 

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Spot on, David. I'm starting to realize that sometimes the first draft exists only as a vehicle for the author to figure out the story and characters. Then you throw it away, with all the best pieces still in your head, and write it for real. I'm doing this now with a YA novel. 100,000 words down the hole. But the first draft served as the train wreck that showed me how to build a better locomotive.
 

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"If that nagging feeling you have that a story isn't good won't go away, try small things, then try something larger."

This is an apt description of Hemingway's "built in s*** detector." I had a writer tell me once, that if you didn't have this "nagging feeling" at some point in your manuscript you probably weren't meant to be a writer. ;D

Great post, David. I've got a couple of stories sitting in purgatory as I write. I keep dragging them out, messing with them, and putting them away... Oh, that nagging feeling. :-\
 

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It sounds like you've been over and through and around and on top of this book for awhile. You need a fresh set of eyes. Find someone who is not familiar with you personally or your past works. Just find some lovers of your genre and harass them for some reviews/feedback.

Best of luck,

Mark
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Heh. Thanks all.

I do dread the day when I feel I've got nothing left to learn. The more I learn, the more I realise I have a lot more to learn... :)
 

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donnajherren said:
I think being a gamer has taught me SO MUCH about characterization. Unfortunately, not so much about pacing and structure. LOL
As a roleplaying as well I agree. I don't have a problem with pacing so much, but the structure of my novels do tend to zig and zag. Roleplayers just have a better idea how some situations would play out and usually it's not pretty compared to a more traditional structure. :)

As the OP's post, there is nothing better than either a good writing partner or an honest reader. I have both with my wife. It really helps. We each can tell each other when stuff needs to be chucked and a new approach necessary. If you're willing to jettison your work to take a better approach then you can't help to have a better product ... though I'd rather get it right the first time which I have yet to do.
 

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Terrific insight and advice, David!
 

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Great advice. I started out the opposite (first person) and then switched to 3rd for the same reasons. Although, I didn't know why I did that, it just felt better. But, now I know why. Thanks for fleshing it out for me. ;)

First person if you want to tell HOW the character sees the world.
Third person if you want to tell WHAT the character sees.

Great stuff!
 

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This isn't addressed to your particular decision but to something you said that gave me serious pause because of what I have seen, which is certain writers writing and re-writing the same work over and over again for years.

You say don't hesitate to re-write. I have to respond to not hesitate to say that's enough and it's time to move on. There comes a time (maybe not for you but for many writers) when it is time to say that you've learned as much from a work and done as much as can be learned from it. It didn't work. Boo hoo. Now time to put on one's big girl pants and write a new book using what one has learned.

Sorry, but that's what your rant made me think of. I know authors who never give up which may be admirable but they also never move on.
 

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Hear hear! I went through seven (yes, seven!) rewrites with one book and someone wanted more. I beat the thing into the ground and finally said, enough. *grumble grumble* To this day I loathe that book and would like to bury it in a deep dark cave. So, it could go either way.

JRTomlin said:
This isn't addressed to your particular decision but to something you said that gave me serious pause because of what I have seen, which is certain writers writing and re-writing the same work over and over again for years.

You say don't hesitate to re-write. I have to respond to not hesitate to say that's enough and it's time to move on. There comes a time (maybe not for you but for many writers) when it is time to say that you've learned as much from a work and done as much as can be learned from it. It didn't work. Boo hoo. Now time to put on one's big girl pants and write a new book using what one has learned.

Sorry, but that's what your rant made me think of. I know authors who never give up which may be admirable but they also never move on.
 

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JRTomlin said:
You say don't hesitate to re-write. I have to respond to not hesitate to say that's enough and it's time to move on. There comes a time (maybe not for you but for many writers) when it is time to say that you've learned as much from a work and done as much as can be learned from it. It didn't work. Boo hoo. Now time to put on one's big girl pants and write a new book using what one has learned.

Sorry, but that's what your rant made me think of. I know authors who never give up which may be admirable but they also never move on.
I see your correct post and raise you a blog post of mine on the same subject.

Key point repeated here:

Can't it be perfect?

There, friends, is the ugly trap at the end of any creative endeavor. Your work-in-progress will always feel like a work-in-progress, and nothing you or anyone else does will ever eliminate that feeling. For those of you writing your first novel (I have three under my belt, though this is the first one I'm publishing) - I will warn you that you can, and will meet the point of diminished returns. You will arrive at the juncture where you can choose to publish, or spend the rest of your life working on an unpublished manuscript.

You'll be very aware that the book you hold is only the idea of the book in your head.

This is why I tell folks all the time: Fiction is never finished. It simply reaches a state of rest.
 

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I was advised to switch from first person past to first person present in a brutal workshop and all I could think of was the horrible revise that would be since I already wrote three books. Funny thing is, I still have to write the fourth book in first person past. I just can't stay in first person present no matter how much I try. I do think the instructor and fellow workshoppers were right. The series needed to be in first person present.

It is a wonderful thing to realize we can always improve our writing and it's important to step away from your babies in order to make important decisions. Great post! Thanks for taking the time to share it, David.
 
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