Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between

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The Best Laid Plans

It has been quite some time since I last posted, but the reason is simple: I have been completely immersed in the final book of my science fiction trilogy. The first draft is now done. I tend to be rather eclectic in this blog, but just so you know, this post is just about writing, specifically about the journey I undertook to write a trilogy, and what I have learned about the craft in the process. Fair warning: there are no pretty pictures; just a lot of words, which I hope are interesting enough that pictures will not be required.

The amazing thing about writing is that no matter how much you do and no matter how long you do it, there is always more to learn. Language is the most complex thing we humans do, and writing is the most complex aspect of language. I could live to be 300 and write books the entire time and never know everything there is to know about language — or about writing. That complexity is deceptive, though. Since we apparently acquire language effortlessly as infants and cannot remember a time when we couldn’t communicate with words, language seems to be a simple thing. Everyone does it, and most people take it for granted.

(Note that I did not say we “learn” language. Until the age of six or so, we acquire language in much the same way we acquire the cells in our growing body. After that, though, if we want to learn another language, it is definitely a learning process. To wait until high school to require a foreign language is nuts; it goes against everything we know about language acquisition. Foreign language training should start in pre-school. Kindergarten at the latest. Our school system is stuck in the Nineteenth Century — but that’s another blog post.)

One of my writing instructors in college said that if you don’t have a plan in mind when you start a novel, you’ll find that you have written yourself into a corner by page 100. I didn’t believe him. I thought, “How can you know that will happen, much less by page 100? What’s so special about page 100?”

Well, it turns out he was right. For the first novel I started (and which I may yet return to — I still like the premise), I did not have a plan, and sure enough, by page 100 I was stuck. So when I decided to write a children’s science fiction novel, I knew I needed a plan. I bought a book called The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, by Evan Marshall. The book presents a formula for designing an effective novel. Now, normally I abhor formulas. When I was teaching Freshman English in college, there would always be a significant fraction of students who would attempt to fulfill the assignments I gave them with the infamous “5-paragraph essay.” It drove me nuts. The person who came up with the idea of the 5-paragraph essay as the ideal model for that form of writing should be forced to sit in a room and read nothing but freshman 5-paragraph essays for a week — and then EAT them! They’re horrible, contrived, and formulaic in the extreme. So you can imagine that I was dubious about using a formula to design a novel.

Nonetheless, I had to start somewhere. As it turns out, I didn’t stick precisely to the formula, since it was based on multiple point-of-view characters, and my novel had only one POV. I also opted for third-person limited, to keep the structure simple. The reader knew only what the protagonist knew. All that being said, Marshall at least gave me a rough structure, and he taught me the importance of mapping out a novel completely before starting. In the first book of the trilogy, The Talisman of Elam, I knew what was going to happen from beginning to end (except for minor details). It made the actual writing process very straightforward, and I didn’t get stuck at page 100 — or anywhere else for that matter.

Originally I had intended to write only one novel, but in mapping out the story structure I discovered there was no way I could get it all in one book. That’s when I decided to go for a trilogy. So I mapped out the whole, epic story, then broke it down into three parts and mapped the first book in more detail using Marshall’s techniques.

It worked well. Once the mapping was done, it only took me a couple of months to write the first draft. So naturally, I took the same approach to writing the second book, The Hand of Osiris. If you’ve written a trilogy — or even if you’ve only looked closely at trilogies — you can see there is a definite structure to them. The whole trilogy is like a single story, with a beginning, middle, and end. The first book is the beginning, the second the middle, and the third the end that contains the big climax and denouement. But each book must also stand alone as a complete story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. This makes the middle book of a trilogy rather challenging, because typically the middle part of a story is where tension builds as we head toward the climax, but the excitement of the beginning is gone, and we already know the big climax is not going to happen here. It’s just a series of obstacles the protagonist must meet and overcome, with each obstacle more difficult than the last. Finding a compelling beginning and a compelling climax to the middle part of the story, thereby making the middle stand on its own as a complete story, is not easy. At least, it wasn’t for me. That difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the second book you are constrained by what happened in the first. You can’t do just anything. You’ve established your fictional world and the direction of the narrative, so you don’t have the same freedom as you did in the first.

So it should come as no surprise that mapping out the second book was harder than the first, and it took longer. Nonetheless, the Marshall system worked again. I stuck to the script I developed and was able to write the first draft fairly quickly. (Interestingly, though I think the writing is better in the second book, and though I think the story becomes more interesting, people seem to like the first book better. Perhaps because the first book is more clearly good vs. evil and there are no blurred lines. Things become more complicated and more nuanced in book 2.)

If you are constrained in book 2 by what you did in book 1, imagine how constrained you are in book 3! In fact, I found that mapping out book 3 was much more difficult than I had thought it was going to be. I knew where I needed to start and I knew where I needed to end up, but the middle part gave me fits. Finally, I finished mapping it out and began to write. And then a very funny thing happened. The writing went flat. The characters went flat. It was almost as though they had taken on lives of their own (something I felt very strongly in book 2) and were telling me that I was making them do things they didn’t want to do. It just wasn’t working. By page 100 (there’s that magic number again! I wonder if that’s coincidence?!) the whole thing felt dead. It was boring to write, which I knew meant it would be boring to read. That is worse than death for a story.

So I quit. I threw away those first 100 pages and I threw away the plan I had worked so hard on and I started over knowing only where I would begin and where I needed to end. In essence, I let the characters drive the story. Once I did that, the story came alive and took off. I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with it. As I noted earlier, I have now finished the first draft and have begun the first revision. The characters took me places I had absolutely NO idea I’d be going, but in the end it worked. I’m very excited about it. I think this is the best book yet, and I think the story will boggle a few minds. But like all writers, I won’t really know until readers get their hands on it.

I’m looking forward to that, and to finally finishing this project that has occupied me for the past ten years. I’m already thinking about the next novel, a completely unrelated fantasy.