Tag Archives: Structuring the novel

#amwriting: creating a strong novella

A little over three years ago, I discovered that one of my works in progress was not really a novel after all.

The first draft was at 85,000 words, but it occurred to me that it was a novella. In the first half of the book, 4 chapters didn’t advance the protagonist’s story. When I finished weeding it out, the manuscript length was slightly over 50,000 words.  In YA and some romance 50,000 words is a novel-length book, but in fantasy, it is only half a book.

So, I  shelved that manuscript, as I had other, more pressing, work to get finished and had nothing of value to add to the tale. I said at the time that I would much rather be known for having written a strong novella than a weak novel.

Those four cut chapters totaled about 16,000 words. Added to that were the words I weeded out in the second draft. They totaled 8,000 to 10,000 more words.

But why did I do this?

  1. Besides the four chapters that didn’t belong there anymore, 3 more chapters were mostly background that didn’t need to be in the finished product. When I removed large chunks of exposition, I was able to condense those 3 chapters into 1 that actually moved the story forward.
  2. Also, in the rough draft we always find words we can cut or find alternatives for, words and phrases that weaken our narrative such as:
  • There was
  • To be

Also, we look for places where we can make contractions: ‘was not’ becomes ‘wasn’t,’ ‘has not’ becomes ‘hasn’t,’ etc.

Many times we can simply cut some words out, and find the prose is better without them. Most times, those words need no replacement.

I have mentioned the overuse of what I think of as “crutch” words. You can lower your word count when you look at each instance of these words. These words  fall out of our heads along with the good stuff as we are sailing along:

  • so,
  • very,
  • that,
  • just,
  • so,
  • literally
  • very

But back to the novella: why did I cut an 85,000 word MS down to 50,000 or so words?

A lot of what I had written was good work, but as I said, several long passages didn’t advance my protagonist’s tale. They pertained to a different character’s story set in that world–so they were a rabbit-trail to nowhere in the context of that story.

I didn’t discard those chapters, though. Those passages will come in handy later if I choose to write that character’s story, so I saved them in a separate file, under the character’s name.

The fact is, you must be willing to be ruthless. Yes, you may well have spent three days or even weeks writing that chapter. But sometimes, when you see it in the context of the overall story arc, you realize it bogs things down, and there is no fixing it.

Just because we wrote it does not mean we must keep it in that story.

At some point I will finish that novella, but the lesson I learned was this: no matter how much you like your prose, there are times when it must go.

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#amwriting: Midpoint in the Character Driven Novel

LOTR advance poster 2Some novels are character-driven, others are event-driven.

ALL novels follow an arc.  For my personal reading pleasure, I prefer literary fantasy, which has a character-driven plot. Events happen, often in a fantasy setting, but the growth of the characters is the central theme, and the events are just the means to enable that growth.

You may have built a great world, created a plausible magic system or, conversely, you may have created an alien world with plausible technologies based on advanced scientific concepts. You may have all sorts of adventures and hiccups for your protagonist to deal with. All that detail may be perfect, but without great, compelling characters, setting and action is not reason enough for a reader to stick with your story.

Despite your amazing setting and the originality of your plot, if you skimp on character development, readers won’t care about your protagonist. You must give them a reason to stick with it.

In a character driven novel, the midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed. There is no  turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

Of course, plotting and pacing of your entire story arc is critical, but it is especially so from midpoint to the third plot point.

As you approach midpoint of the story arc, the personal growth for the protagonist and his/her friends begins to drive the plot. These are the events that tear the hero down, break him emotionally and physically so that in the final fourth of the book he can be rebuilt, stronger, and ready to face the villain on equal terms.

How does the protagonist react to the events? What emotions drive him/her to continue toward the goal?

In a character -driven novel, this is the place where the protagonists suffer a loss of faith or have a crisis of conscience. It may be a time when the main character believes they have done something unfair or morally wrong, and they have to learn to live with it.

What personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

This part of the novel is often difficult to write because the protagonist has been put through a personal death of sorts–his world has been destroyed or shaken to the foundations. You as the author are emotionally invested in the tale and are being put through the wringer as you lay it down on the paper.

What has happened? Remember, the protagonist has suffered a terrible personal loss or setback. Perhaps she no longer has faith in herself or the people she once looked up to.

  • How is she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes her pull herself together and just keep on going?
  • How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event

LOTR advance posterThe truth underlying the conflict now emerges. Also, the villain’s weaknesses become apparent. The hero must somehow overcome her own personal crisis and exploit her opponent’s flaws. It’s your task to convey the hard decisions she must make, and show that she truly does have the courage to do the job. The villain has had his/her day in the sun, and they could possibly win.

This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which she is taken down to her component parts emotionally, and rebuilds herself to be more than she ever believed she could be.

At this point in the novel, if you have done it right, your reader will be sweating bullets, praying that Frodo and Sam can just hold it together long enough to make it to Mt. Doom.

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#amwriting: circumstance, objective, and the story arc

Book- onstruction-sign copyIf you intend to write a novel, especially a fantasy novel, a little pre-planning and at least a smidge of an outline is really beneficial.

Consider the beginning: At the outset of any good story, we find our protagonist, and see him/her in their normal surroundings. An event occurs (the inciting incident) and the hero is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the Situation, which is the core idea of your plot.

This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story. Some things for you consider before you you begin writing:

  • How will the story start?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?
  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone?

Now we come to the core of your story: Objective. Without this, there is no story.

In every class I’ve taken on plot development, the instructors have emphasized that a protagonist has no reason to exist unless he/she has a compelling objective. If your main character doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he doesn’t deserve to have a story told about him.

That harsh edict is true because everything you will write from the moment of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest. Your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Every scene and conversation will push the protagonist closer to either achieving that goal or failing, so if you make it a deeply personal quest, the reader will become as invested in it as you are.

In the book, Tower of Bones, Edwin wants to free Marya from captivity in Mal Evol. It’s a mission that begins as a somewhat noble desire to help his friends free a healer he has never met, but along the way he realizes she is the girl he has been dreaming about for several years. Once he realizes that, it becomes personal, and he becomes driven. That is when it becomes a real story.

When writing fantasy, you need a broad outline of your intended story arc, and you really need to know how it will end. If you try to “pants” it, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.

  • What will be your inciting incident?
  • What is the goal/objective?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?

These are just a few things to think about when you are planning to write a fantasy novel, because so much goes into world building and creating magic systems that it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere.

Some people are able to visualize a story in its entirety and can write a coherent first draft without even a minimal outline.

I am not one of those people, nor are the majority of writers. An outline will tell you what you need to have happen next to arrive at the end of the book in a reasonable number of words: 100,000 to 125,000 for a first epic fantasy novel. You don’t have to go into detail, but if you give yourself a rough outline, you will know how many words you have to accomplish each task within the story line.

The Story Arc

You want to have a smoothly functioning story arc, so you don’t become desperate and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up.  That doesn’t really help, because you run out of characters, and people don’t like it when you kill off someone they liked.

Besides, you might need that character later.

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Structuring the Novel: the third plot-point, crisis of conscience

I don’t feel well. I have a mountain of work, and a spring virus has destroyed my very tight schedule.  I would bang my head if I didn’t already feel so crappy.

Today I have a client’s MS to begin editing.

Today I have revisions of my own to make on a ms I am getting ready to publish.

Today I was supposed to have a blog post ready to post on structuring the epic fantasy novel.

The Arc of the StoryWe were going to talk about the story arc, and how the third quarter of the book always begins with another life-changing plot-point. I was going to talk about how the the plot drives personal growth for the protagonist and his/her friends at this point.

And then I was going to discuss how this is the place where the protagonists often lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. What personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

I had intended to discuss how difficult this part of the novel often is to write, due to the fact that the protagonist has been put through a personal death of sorts–his world has been destroyed or shaken to the foundations and he no longer has faith in himself or the people he once looked up to.

  • How is he/she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her/his own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes him pull himself together and just keep on going?
  • How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

quarrantine symbolI had intended to talk about that, but I don’t want to expose you to this crummy virus.  It always puts me through the emotional wringer to write this particular section of a tale, and I don’t feel well, so I can’t deal with talking about it. This low point is such a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which he is taken down to his component parts emotionally, and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.

This is where she makes the hard decisions and learns that she truly does have the balls to do the job–

But I am too sick to talk about it.

I blame The Boy.  He was sniffling during his visit last week, and you know what a germ factory the average eight-year-old is.

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