Tag Archives: fiction

Notes Of A Storyteller: This Is Why Writing Fiction Takes Forever

I’ve never been well-acquainted with Oscar Wilde, but there’s a quote attributed to him that floats around the Internet that says, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

I’d like to find where he said that, because it matches my own experience with The Kingdom Trilogy to a “t”. Just look at a few phrases I obsessed over during the last few weeks of writing The Stand. My writing is in quotes; my thoughts while writing them are in italics. The sentences don’t come from the same passage, FYI, so don’t try to link them together.

“The thought had come to him before.”

Hmmm… there’s something about “come to him” that just doesn’t work with the sentence. It doesn’t sound right. I want it to sound different. How can I make it sound different? What exactly should it sound like, instead of this? I’m not sure, but I know I want a change.

What about “occurred to him”? No way! I see that everywhere! I want to make it sound more original than that! No, brain, this is not an insignificant details! If I want to write good prose, I’ve got to focus on the details!

Wait a minute… how did an hour just pass by? It was 10 AM just a minute ago… oh, forget this. I have a chapter to finish.

“50,000 armored men stood in endless iron rows.”

Hold it! I need to spend some time with this sentence. Do I absolutely need the adjective “armored”? The readers already know that this is an army. Wouldn’t “armored” be redundant, then?

Maybe I should get rid of “endless iron rows”. I mean, now that I’m running that through my head, it doesn’t sound quite right. It sounds great, but it might sound better elsewhere. What do I think of when I see the phrase “endless iron rows”? Not a medieval army so much as a robot army. Heck, I could even see a steampunk politican using this to rile his audience against some authority- hey, that might be a story worth writing…

Ack! No! Don’t brainstorm! Make a note and move on! But wait- we gonna keep “armored” or not? Ummm… let’s scratch it. And we’ll circle “endless iron rows”. If I can think of something more fitting during editing, I’ll use that. Wait, what was my problem with that phrase in the first place?

“Eyes were locked forward.”

That doesn’t look grammatically correct. I know, I know; it will be clear I’m referring to the soldiers Arman’s looking at. But still. Maybe I should play by the rules and say, “Their eyes were locked forward.” That doesn’t take anything away from the sentence, though having a word that starts with “e” at the start of the sentence looks kind of cool.

I wonder if I should just get rid of the whole sentence? I’m trying to show that the soldiers look tense. But it’s hard for Arman to notice that from a difference. Maybe instead of this sentence (how is he gonna see their eyes from where he is, anyway!) I should have a sentence emphasizing why he thinks they look tense.

Come to think of it, maybe the fact that he’s noticing emotion on the faces of soldiers at attention is a stretch. I might not even keep this passage. Well, let’s think about that…

… and there goes another hour. Okay. Decision-time. We’ll add a different sentence, and save the rest of the passage for edits. Let’s move, Sean! You have got to get this chapter done!

And that’s only three sentences. Remind me why I’m doing this again?

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Notes Of A Storyteller: Why Writing “The Kingdom Trilogy” Makes Me Think Religion Is Worth A Shot

Before we get to business, let me apologize for not posting yesterday. There were Internet boo-boos on my end. This morning I was finally able to access the Internet again.

My topic today is something that’s been floating in the back of my mind for quite some time. You may have noticed the “r” word in the title, and I want to warn you two things: I am going to speak my mind, and I am not interested in bigotry.

Here’s the thing. I’m a Roman Catholic, studying literature at a Roman Catholic college. I’m writing a fantasy trilogy with themes that draw from my experience as a Roman Catholic (and a human), and I am inspired by a man who was a much more devout Roman Catholic than I probably ever will be (yes, it’s J.R.R. Tolkien). It took a while, but I have finally decided to embrace the impact of my Catholicism on my storytelling.

Here’s another thing. There are millions of people out there who do not agree with my religion. You, the reader, might be one of them. Do you think I have weakened my storytelling by using my religious worldview to shape it?

I would argue that it is my Catholicism precisely that helped shape the more interesting parts in The Kingdom Trilogy. Writing this trilogy, in fact, has reinforced my belief that religion is worth a shot. Is that vesting too much real-world significance in fictional plot twists? Perhaps. You’ll have to decide for yourself.

One of the most important things that I am exploring with The Kingdom Trilogy is the futility of humanity. I credit much of that to another Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. When I encountered her stories, which constantly take human designs and smash them against a wall, I saw a powerful witness to real life. Does anything on this earth truly go according to plan? With that in mind, the scope of The Kingdom Trilogy began to change drastically.

For those of you who have read The Quest, you can see signs of this already, although the idea was not yet fully explored then.

(SPOILER ALERT) 

Arman thought he had time to think, time to sort through his soul and find the courage to announce his love for Lelana. Then orcs attacked his home, and Menemaeus revealed himself and sent Arman on a wholly different journey. Even then, there was a plan. Arman would warn the countries of Upper Nola about the Nameless One and then come home.

Even that plan was subverted violently. Assassins killed off most of the bodyguard, and threw Corrandar, one of the most well-fortified cities in Upper Nola, into chaos. Arman was forced to flee into the wild for his life. The only reason he is alive at the end of The Quest is because Govorro inexplicably let him live.

The Stand (Part Two of The Kingdom Trilogy) will be much more explicit about these themes. There is only so much I can explain; I don’t want to spoil the important stuff. However, I will say that the countries of Upper Nola are gathered into an alliance against the Nameless One at last. Arman thinks that this marks the end of the politics that he caught brief glimpses of during The Quest. He is terribly, terribly wrong.

The countries that he has helped unite have a history of tension with each other. Some of them fought wars recently enough for their grandparents to have fought it. Working together proves to be difficult. Arman reacts with anger. He thinks that if they all listened to him, things would instantly be simplified. But by the end of the novel, his own judgment proves faulty, and it will cost him a price that will cut him to the core.

Because of his futile judgement, he agrees to a secret deal at the beginning of The Stand which will also reap unintended consequences that will swallow him up. Because of his futile judgement, he underestimates his enemies, both the Nameless One and his political enemies in the Alliance. Because of his futile judgment, he alienates his friends and leaves himself much more alone than he has ever been in the trilogy.

(END OF SPOILER SECTION)

It is in writing about this futility that I am beginning to understand why I have stuck with the Catholic Church as long as I have. This summer, I learned that I cannot depend on myself to do the right thing anymore than Arman can. I also cannot depend on other people, not entirely, because they have problems of their own; Arman hasn’t learned this yet, but he will learn it unforgettably in The Crown.

The only sure guide is something that is not burdened by frailty. Not all of you may agree such a something exists. But who would dispute that no human being is perfect? Are you asking me to depend on the philosophy of a flawed human being? If that’s the best we have, I’ll take it.

But I don’t think that’s the best we have. I think that on some level, what was said in the Bible is true. Thousands of people shed their blood believing it was true. Thousands of people shed other people’s blood believing it was true, but those aren’t the Christians I’m talking about. I’m talking about the real Christians. I’m talking about privileged men like St. Paul who dropped everything to embrace the Gospel, and women like Imaculee Ilibagiza who continued to trust in Catholicism, even after her family was butchered in Rwanda.

Two mellenia of people have witnessed through intellect and sacrifice that there is more truth to the world than the judgments of flawed men like Plato and Bertrand Russell. This truth is that there is a being who is infinitely powerful, infinitely perfect, and infinitely loving. I am willing to take a chance that this being exists.

I believe that religion is plausible. I take my stand in a particular religion, Catholicism, and I’m not leaving it until I find out everything it offers. Until such a time comes, Catholicism will have a mark on my fiction and I’m proud to say it. After all, this is the same stuff that inspired Dante. I can’t be completely on the wrong track.

Notes Of A Storyteller: I’m Not Scared Of Query Letters

Usually this post appears on Friday, but the claws of chaos reached into my life once again, leaving me off-schedule and very disoriented.

So let’s not waste any time. This afternoon, I peeked into my e-mail, with more interest than usual. You see, a week ago or so I decide to shoot some queries out to literary agencies about The Quest (Part One of The Kingdom Trilogy). I’m still writing The Stand (Part Two) and I mean to self-publish it, but I figure that there’s no harm in shooting a few e-mails and seeing if I get a response. I’m still open to traditional publishing, and if that door opens, I’m inclined to take it (after taking a careful look at who I’m throwing in with, of course).

After what happened today, I know for sure I want to send more query letters. I got my first rejection today, and it felt amazing.

It was very nicely-written- about as nicely written as a rejection letter can be. Basically, they told me the project wasn’t right for them. I got a big grin on my face. I wasn’t angry at all; I was ecstatic. This is no rejection. This is a challenge. This is a competition. I’m thrilled to have the chance to play.

I was so enthused, in fact, that I posted the following on Twitter…

I love getting my query letters rejected by agencies. Makes me feel nice and defiant. #query #writing #inlikealion #outlikealion #roar

I’m going to spend even more time on that next query letter. I’m not intimidated at all. Neither should you, if you’re making queries yourself. This is fun! We get to show off our writing talent, pack it into a one-page explosion of goodness, and send off into the unknown. I feel like I’m the Rebel commander from Star Wars, watching his X-wings fly off against the Death Star. It gets my adrenaline going.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to plan my plan of attack for the next agency on my list. And play some motivational hard rock war music.

Fall, Goliath, fall.

Notes Of A Storyteller: Jumping Ahead

In winter 2006, my first attempt at the rough draft of The Quest (Part One of The Kingdom Trilogy) was met swiftly with writer’s block. Eventually, this forced to realize that I didn’t have to write The Quest all the way through. Whatever point in the story I felt like writing, I could write. If I was struggling with one chapter, I could start a new one with an entirely different focus, and still make progress. Delighted by the notion, I exercised it in the spring of 2007 and found myself clipping along very well.

Once I got Arman out of his hometown, it got easier to move forward. Establishing a canonical (pre-conflict existence) is fiendishly difficult. I wrote nine chapters, discarded five of them, and re-wrote significant portions of the rest before I was satisfied. I’m glad I took care of the big chapters before going back into that rock pile. Besides, the chapter I wrote after jumping ahead turned out great. In fact, it remains one of my favorite chapters from The Quest to this day.

Now that I look back on writing The Quest, I wish that I had jumped around even more. As a first-time novelist- worse yet, a teenage novelist who had jumped in head-first without doing his homework- I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. When I got Arman on the move, I spent weeks striving for interesting things for him to do in the cities he visited. If I had jumped around even more, writing about different scenes instead of stubbornly hitting my head against one scene, I might have gotten a better perspective on my story sooner.

It sure would have saved me a lot of re-writing.

That’s why I’m reprising this method for The Stand. I have a much clearer idea of what I’m trying to achieve with this story, but I think the jumping will still help. Yesterday I finished a chapter where Menemaeus reveals something to Arman that makes his life even more miserable than it already is. It’s several chapters ahead of the other ones that I’ve written thus far, but that’s exactly what I want.

Writing that chapter now will give me more confidence when I go back to the earlier chapters. I’ll have an even clearer idea of what mood I need to put on those scenes, to make them lead up to the big denouement that I’ve already written. It’s one thing to have the vision of the denouement in my head; it’s something else entirely to have it on paper already and set in stone.

I’m going to keep this up for the rest of the summer. I might even write all of the biggest chapters first. That denouement chapter came out well. I was so enthusiastic that I posted something yesterday to revel in my pride. That encourages me to keep jumping around. 

Notes Of A Storyteller: The First Chapter

I may not have access to the Internet for very long so this will be a quick update.

Last week I mentioned that I had three different openings for The Stand (Part Two of The Kingdom Trilogy). Well, I wound up rejecting them all and rolling with a fourth one that my editor suggested. More appropriately, she made a suggestion and I embellished it. Thus began the rough draft of my second novel. 

I was on a roll for a few hours, and at last I halted and took a careful look at what I had. 

“Sheesh,” I said to myself. “If that’s not melodramatic, I don’t know what is.”

I won’t give too much away when I explain that. Suffice it to say that Arman returns to a place from his past, and sheds some tears. I threw in a thunderstorm to make it as dramatic and eye-catching as possible. Now, there is nothing wrong with spicing up a passage a little bit to catch your reader’s eye, especially when that assage is the beginning the passgae- the passage that will decide whether or not my reader wants to engage with the story.

But that’s a dangerous thing to say. I don’t want this opening to be too dramatic. If I rely on pouring rain and lightning bolts, and passionately uttered statements of grief, it will be too much. Ladling all of those “special effects” in may lead my reader to think I’m trying to distract from characters who really arne’t all that interesting. It’s also patronizing to hit them over the head with said “special effects”.

I can hear the reader already. “I know Arman’s sad! You don’t need him weeping in a wild thunderstorm for me to get it! I’m not stupid!”

Perhaps not. I may keep it, but I want to make sure that Arman isn’t too over-the-top. I want there to be intense feeling on his side, but I want it to be understated. I want him to try holding it back, especially when other people are around. That’s the way real people talk. I do have more room than melodrama than most; with a fantasy epic like this, you’re allowed to say things that would sound stupid in a crime novel or literary fiction. However, that won’t excuse abusing this privilege.

It’s going to be a while before I get this chapter the way I want it, but my gut tells me I’m on the right track, and I have to start somewhere. So I’m starting there, with our hero in a moment of grief. Here goes nothing.

P.S. I may be away from the Internet for a week, so don’t feel unloved if you comment and I do not respond.

Notes Of A Storyteller: Outlining “The Stand”

I am in a moment of grave decision. All week, I’ve been tweaking my outline for The Stand (Part Two of The Kingdom Trilogy). All things considered, I’ve been tweaking the outline for about three years. The basic structure of The Kingdom Trilogy has been set since 2007. Strangely, this is no comfort to me. I don’t feel ready to approve my outline, even though I have an opening written for this book already- three of them, actually.

It’s odd when I think about it. I have one full-length novel under my belt and I thought I would be blazing with confidence right now. I thought I would be better prepared. When I first started The Quest (Part One of The Kingdom Trilogy), I outlined the plot loosely. I had a general framework, but I gave myself room to roam with details. Not so this time. I wound up with too many throwaway passages last time; my outline for The Stand is much more structured.

Surely that would make the difference, right? Wrong. I’m still as unconfident as ever. I spent all of Thursday afternoon slamming my fingertips into my laptop. I had copied everything from my chapter outline that I didn’t like and pasted it in another document so that I could write down my reasons why I didn’t like them. That Word document is about 9 pages long at last count. I don’t feel ready at all.

Perhaps that’s why I’m a writer. I’m never satisfied with my own work. This last semester in college, I had dual ten-page term papers to write. Two hours before they were due, I still found myself peering at each paragraph, probing for imperfections. I hated every single draft I wrote. My Ancient Egypt professor gave me a decent grade, but it could not cool the fire. That’s the person I am. I have come to realize that no matter how much I tinker with this outline, I will always loathe it and want to take it out to some deep, terrible pit in the earth and burn it.

Now I must decide whether to begin this novel in earnest. Hence the anxiety. It feels like my inner critic and I are on a see-saw, and the inner critic weighs more than a gluttonous minotaur. I can’t come down, and I wish I could. I’ll be showing my editor my latest draft tonight; she may be my only hope.

Somehow I think there’s only so much she can help me, when it comes to my nerves. Every fiction writer, at some point or another, must steel his brows and leap headfirst into the abyss of uncertainty. Now that I’ve done it once with The Quest, it’s time to do it again with The Stand.

The Storyteller Reports: No Pulitzer This Year?

The recent decision of the Pulitzer Prize committee to refuse to pick a winner for Best Fiction strikes me as odd. According to The New York Times, they claim that because they could not select a suitable winner among the finalists, they could not pick a suitable winner. The article further revealed that this has happened several times before in Pulitzer Prize history.

What on earth was stopping them from picking a winner anyway, or picking new finalists? When you are at an ice-cream store, you are not being considerate by refusing to choose; you are being a sissy. Human decision-making is never perfect. Just go with your gut and name a book. There are thousands of great novels floating around up there. Didn’t they deserve a chance?

While you’re chewing on that, I thought I might also mention a delightful opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal about fiction. Cynthia Crossen thinks that all fiction is escapist, and that what is criticized as escapist fiction is “bad escapism—books with cartoonish characters, outlandish coincidences, nonsensical plots, strings of clichés and tidy endings.”

I have little to add, except to tell you to go read it, and to say this: fiction concentrates our imagination and our passion on something other than where we are. What have you done when you have yearned to go somewhere else? You have yearned to escape.

Thoughts?