My Tombstone: He died doing what he loved, waiting for Kvothe to get to the point.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by the title of this post, I’m reading (listening actually) to The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Before I press on here, I want to make it perfectly clear that this is a disorganized bit of observation by a reader and also a struggling writer. I do not make any claims that I am better at the craft than Mr. Rothfuss. The story isn’t bad, nor is the writing, I just find myself a bit annoyed.

It may be that you loved or are in love with the book. Excellent. I’m glad you connected with this. I’m afraid I’m struggling. Even though some of his language and descriptions are lovely and make me wish my tongue contained a quarter as much silver, I am now on chapter 51 and asking myself, “When the bloody hell is Kvothe going to get to the point here?” Again, the setting is wonderful as are the excellent descriptions. It’s case-study in description in prose for someone attempting to produce a commercially viable work of speculative fiction. Again, though, I say, is this book going anywhere? This alone is a pretty annoying, but what’s more annoying is that a single, very popular and well regarded book can contain so many of the things people tell authors not to do.

I spend a lot of time trying to improve my craft. I do want to get published some day and can’t get there without improvement. It’s also true that I’m incredibly hard on myself and sometimes just find it easier to say, well, that didn’t work, did it? Nobody can tell you your work is a pile of thoroughly unsalvageable garbage quite like you can. However, in listening to this book I’m finding myself faced with virtually every piece of advice I’ve heard being completely ignored. Some of these tidbits of advice, such as the use of dialog tags and adverbs, I’ve come to regard as absolute nonsense advice. I feel that reviewers point to these as problems, but really it’s just the smoke. The real fire is elsewhere in the writing. I also once got advice to the effect of ‘watch out for passive description’ in a short story that used it once. The Name of the Wind use it in near equal measures to more active descriptions.

I’m not really sure what the point of all this is, except to say that I’m struggling as a writer right now. I’ve hit a moment where I’ve convinced myself the work is absolute trash. The only solution for me is to understand how to improve. Then, when I go to examine other writers’ work, I’m presented with this sort of thing – A never ending story, with lovely descriptions that manages to break every damn rule of thumb for good practice I’ve been acquainted with. It brings to mind the question, are there any actual guidelines to follow? Is there really a way to get better or am I just stuck trying different things until I find my voice? Anyhow, I’ve got no answers or even conjecture on the matter. I’m just annoyed.

Also, I’ve been working on the Name of the Wind for days, listening while I drive, cook and even for two days while I worked on one of those metal earth models. There is no end in sight and I really don’t know if I have it in me to finish.

Major massive milestone

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Ten years.

That’s kind of a long time. Over the course of the past decade, aside from the usual 8-5 job and various successes there, I’ve built most of a house, added a workshop, duck-house, chicken-coop, took up woodworking (I managed to sell a few pieces of furniture), fiddled with bonsai, learned much about the art of home-brewing, and, not least significantly, had three children (okay, I didn’t, my wife did, but I was present). In short, a lot has happened. I’m sure at this point you must be thinking: This guy is a smug and self-important bastard isn’t he? If you’re not, perhaps you should be -I would be. The thing is I’m not. In fact, if you think I’m calling these ‘accomplishments,’ you’re wrong*. These are the daily distractions of my life, all of which I have chosen, for the past several years, but don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this.

When our first son was born, I had my trusty notebook with me for the hospital stay, where I was treated to three nights on a too-short couch and the absolute panic associated with being a new parent. The story I was working on is the very same I’m working on now. It started as two separate sci-fi novels that morphed and merged into a single fantasy series that dropped all of the sci-fi elements**. Back then, I was mostly focused on background and constructed language development. I’d be a lying jerk if I tried to claim I had anything like a plot, and the characters were sketches of people, without any sort of personality.

Now, for the milestone bit: I finally, after a decade, have a full first draft.

Holy crap, it took you ten years to write 90,000 words? What’s wrong with you?

Hey! – I got it done, and bits of it are fairly well polished and have even been through beta-readers. It happened last night. I hit the end of a sentence and spent a few minutes trying to think of where I might go next with it and realized the remainder of the ‘story’ was superfluous. Nothing more needed to be said.

Wait! You dodged the question about what the hell took you so long!

Alright! Jeez. It may be that it took me a decade, but in all of that random stuff I was spending time on, I wasn’t necessarily spending much energy on writing. In fact, there were stretches of months, maybe even as long as a year, where I didn’t spend any time thinking about writing at all. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I once again dusted off my notebook and started working on my story. I made some serious progress. Over the course of a few months I ran through what’s now the first five or six chapters of the book, as well as a few other chapters sprinkled in throughout later parts of the book. Then, I sort of shelved it again. We had some family stress and I just didn’t work on it.

An interesting side note here, I had only confided in my wife about this project while working on it, that is until last spring. I started thinking about it again and decided to confide in a friend and co-worker what I was doing. I’m not sure why, but I did.

Anyhow, sometime last summer, I had a shit or get off the pot moment. I don’t remember it exactly, and neither does my wife, though she assures me that’s what happened. The bottom line is that I said (probably after a few beers), I’m going to finish this book dammit!

Are you going to get to the point or just ramble on?

I’m just about to get there, stop interrupting.

What I think I realized is that I had been waiting for some sort of inspiration to strike me. (Emily Russell wrote a good article related to this, if for some reason you’re reading this and haven’t seen that, just stop and read that first – but come back here!). Inspiration isn’t going to finish a book. It’s not the sort of thing that just hits you while you’re driving down the street thinking about the trees*** It happens while you are trying to write, while you are actively thinking about your story. Sure good creative ideas do seem to strike in a flash of brilliance, but the truth of the matter is that you were thinking about it. It’s even better if you’ve written something down. Of course, I’ve had those moments where something strikes me as funny or odd, and I scribble down a note for later. Perhaps that’s a bit of inspiration, but inspiration doesn’t make a book. Writing does. Work does. Effort does. Like it or not, sacrifice does.

Possibly one of my favorite inspiration stories is the J.K. Rowling story about Harry Potter. She was on a train and the boy who lived just sort of walked into the train car with her. Isn’t that lovely? Boom – A multi-million dollar franchise was born! Bullshit. After that bit of inspiration, Rowling worked her ass off on back-story, setting, character development, plotting, and themes. It took years and loads of work (and quite a bit of luck too, but I’m not going there). For all practical purposes, ALL of the story comes from hard work and focus.

So. There it is. Lesson learned. If you want to finish, you have to focus and not make excuses about having too many other responsibilities. One paragraph per night? Good enough. You’ll get there, just keep on it.

* Except for the day-job stuff. I really am pretty full of myself there, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

** Someday I will blog about the circumstances leading to this, but not today.

*** I do this, don’t laugh. My family all thinks I’m a freak because I’ll fawn over the trees on any sort of hike. I will actually stop on a trail, grab a leaf and pontificate about a particular type of tree.

Thinking about withholding information

Proof_reading

I’ve been cracking away, almost half-heartedly, on at least one blog for the week to no avail. There were several long days at work and a traffic-jam this week, which combined with pi-day party preparations, have conspired against my ability to focus. It’s not just the blog I’m struggling to write-up, it’s also the chapter I’m working on. After having gotten a first version drafted last Sunday, I really thought that it would make the re-write easier. So far, no luck. Last night, I got down about 700 words to open, which is the 3rd or 4th time this week that I’ve re-written that part. I think it works okay, but I’m still not satisfied. The only way to get through this is likely to be a bit of rubber-ducking, and so here it goes.

Here’s the situation: The chapter opens up after the main character has managed to seize a small fleet of ships by boarding the lead ship which happens to have the rival lord aboard. After some ‘negotiation’ the other lord has agreed to join forces the main character. Whether or not the defection is a true change of allegiance is an open question. So, the main character, unable to sleep, is standing on the poop deck*, considering the next steps in his plan, which is to first re-claim his own lands, before pushing south, and taking over other islands, eventually leading to the capture of the entire kingdom. He’s essentially doing this on a shoe-string. To this point, the reader has been led to believe one thing about how he’s going to do it, but it’s really only part of the picture. This chapter contains the big reveal about the way he’s really going to achieve his goals with apparently so few resources. I want this to be a shock, and also become a major point of contention between the main character and the rival.

The questions from the stumped writer (me):
I can’t work out why this isn’t sitting well with me. Do you think I’m being overly critical of myself? Can I just go with the intro I’ve written? What do you think is wrong with it?

The answer from the reviewer (me):
It’s possible you’re being somewhat overly critical, but it’s true the voice of this chapter doesn’t match the previous chapters, and as a result it doesn’t read quite as well. The sub-plot you’re working on now is arguably the best written part of the book, even this early on in the revision process. This is largely the result of strong characters, backed by clearly defined goals, solid dialogue and setting to tie it together. You don’t have that going for you at the beginning of this chapter. The objective of the chapter isn’t clear at the outset, you only have a single character involved and he’s not doing much. It also happens that the chapter follows a reasonably intense fight scene. Given that the strength of the sub-plot comes from it’s solid characters, you need to try and stick to that, it works well. If you could bring another character into the opening scene, you could use those character dynamics found in previous chapters to improve the flow of the story. Keep in mind as you open this chapter that you want to establish the goal of the characters as quickly as possible, it should help things remain focused as the plot progresses. This doesn’t mean that the end of the chapter needs to be obvious at the beginning, just that your character has a goal. Whether or not he reaches it depends on where you’re headed. The other piece of the problem, and this requires more in-depth discussion, is that your holding back essential information. It’s one of the things that weakens your characters in the main plot of the story.

The problem of holding back is what happens at the far end of the information dump spectrum. At one end, you’re supplying too much information up front at the cost of good story telling. Holding back falls at the other end, where you’ve held back too much information at the cost of good story telling. If you’re holding back too much information from the reader, you’re likely to have a Scooby-Doo** moment somewhere in the end. This, I think, is true even for a mystery novel. There is an art to knowing when and how much information to give. The only viable general advice is that you do what works for your story, however it’s not always clear what makes for plausible situations and good reading. Before making those very specific decisions though, the starting point should be that you only hold back information that isn’t or can’t be known by the character***. I’m not talking about information that isn’t relevant to a scene, would come out better later on, could be left out altogether, or needs to be explained to the perspective character, but a piece of information that is a key driving force in character motivation or plot. There are more circumstances than you could count on how this bit of advice is wrong, but thinking about the situation in question, this is a matter of holding back information in a way that makes natural and plausible character actions difficult. It’s too central to character motivation and plot. Looking backward at the sub-plot it’s clear you haven’t done enough to set this chapter up, and so it doesn’t flow from the previous one. Yes, the outcome of the previous chapter is an unexpected twist, but that works. It may seem like a difficult task to set up unexpected circumstances ahead of time, but in this case it’s a matter of character motivation. They should be acting in a manner consistent with their previous actions and motivation. Very little will need to be done in order to make it right, a few strategic sentences here and there. It doesn’t have to fully give away the bit of information you wanted to hold back. In fact, if done carefully, and kept to a minimum, you can keep this key bit of information obscure. The reason to do this is, in part, to prevent out of place information dumping and ensure that early scenes remained focused. If this is the right direction for the story, the way to achieve the desired effect is through the use of creative dialogue, and slight mis-direction. The context might lead the reader to either gloss over the hint, or assume it relates to something else. Then, later in the story, as that little bit of held-back information comes to light for the reader, the context for those little hints should come into focus. To make it work, a lot of subtlety is involved, and not all readers are likely to catch it, which is probably fine.

With my question to myself answered, here’s my solution: I’m going to start again, bring in a character who would be interested in the ‘what next’ of the plan, and write it as though the held-back information had not been not held back. It means I’ll need to go back to previous chapters and work it in, but I don’t think that’s going to be a huge challenge, just a bit of work.



*The level above and behind the quarter-deck. The quarter deck is the place where the ships wheel is and operations are generally commanded from.
** Scooby-doo moment is the moment where the villain is finally captured and unmasked, and it’s a complete surprise that no one expected Mister ….. they all exclaim, and insert the scooby version of wha?.
*** This is true for first person, and third person limited, but I think it’s a bit more flexible in third-person omniscient, where some of the suspense is going to come from the reader seeing what’s coming, but the characters do not.

photo credit: Proof reading the thesis – this IS gonna take long via photopin (license)