Revisiting older work

With Wine Bottles and Broomsticks entering the long and epic end-game of writing a book, my extreme sense of procrastination is starting to kick in. Aside from mocking up fake magic cards and poking about with a program I’ve been working on, I’ve started thinking seriously about other stories. While I want to, want to work on the sequel to Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, I just can’t seem to stay focused. Part of that probably has to do with a healthy dose of self-doubt about Wine Bottles. I mean, just because I think it’s a good book and that everyone should read it doesn’t mean anyone ever will. One of those avenues of procrastination happens to be my last attempt at a novel.

The War of Shadows was the first book I’d actually completed. I even proudly sent it out to beta readers. As these things tend to go with first books, my friends mostly finished it and had encouraging things to say. However, the truth of the matter is that the book sucked, something my wife tried to say in constructive terms. The idea that it was broken finally started sinking in last summer. I don’t know that it’s broken beyond repair, but it was pretty clearly beyond my skill to correct. The core (not the entire) problem was the two main characters and especially the main character. They were bland, weak, and had no chemistry. Some of the other characters are a bit better, but in general they’re bad. My conclusion? I’m awful with characters and character arcs.

With that failure solidly under my belt back in August, I decided to take a short break from revising my broken book and work on a concept that came to me after a flippant remark. The phrase ‘The problem with witch hunts is that sometimes you find one’ actually comes from something I told someone. I’m not sure how a sentence can become a book, but there it is. This story quickly became my main writing focus, almost to the exclusion of everything else in life. What’s the main strength of Wine Bottles? Ironically, it’s the characters. This has made me revisit the conclusion that I can’t write good characters. In fact I can do it, furthermore, I knew what was necessary to fix it, but I couldn’t seem to make it work. This was, of course, because much of the action surrounding the main character was built according to his reactions, which meant a full and complete re-write of the book, something I didn’t want to do. Now I’ve finished a second book, I actually WANT to to rewrite it. I want to make that character the way he should be. Having concluded a character arc, I can see how it’s supposed to work and I’m ready to tackle it again.

In fact, I’ve already started. On Thursday night I crawled into bed, exhausted and ready for the day to be over only to be drawn to my iPad, where I clacked out the new start to the book. I only made it five-hundred words in before calling it a night, but the gauntlets were off. I’m going to completely gut and re-write the book. So far, I can say that this is much, much easier than the first time. I’m about half-way through the new first chapter and while it’s still rough (it is a draft), it’s a million times better and the characters are already more interesting and likable.

What’s interesting to me about this is that I didn’t stop writing or take a ton of classes, and I didn’t pick up dozens of books to carefully study them for techniques on how to bring out a strong character. No, I kept writing. I wrote something different, something that was supposed to be a throw-away, not a serious effort. You know what? I learned something. Not only did I learn more about how to put a story together, but I also learned about my own writing style. Just playing to my strengths has made the process of writing much more enjoyable and move along much faster. I may still have a lot to learn, but I’m now much, much further along than I was last year at this time.

Now I’m off to work on that first chapter again. Hopefully, it’ll make for a readable book this time.

Trying to figure out plausibility

Last week I asked a friend to look at a couple of chapters with the idea he would rip into them and tell me how bad they were. For various and sundry reasons that didn’t really happen, which is fine. However, what did come out of it was the general comment that there are plausibility problems. Nothing super major. I mean I am writing a fantasy story. There should be a lot of stuff that just can’t be. No, the issue was more specific to the human side of stuff. Mostly, how people are reacting/not reacting to certain circumstances. What really made the nature of the comment clear to me was the statement, Your main character is supposed to have been a soldier, but he’s not really acting like it. I brought the topic up with my wife when I got home, and also shared some thoughts on where the story is going next. Once again, the plausibility issue came up with rather vigorous discussion. This one makes me feel bad too, because I spend a lot of my time trying to make sure things are plausible. It really doesn’t feel good to have messed up an aspect I put a lot of energy into.

Okay, so it’s clear I’ve got a problem, what do I do? Turns out that’s not so easy. A few of the plausibility issues are embedded deeply in the detail. I’ve already gone through most of this stuff a few dozen times, and so I think it’s going to be tough for me to work out whether or not a particular bit of description or a reaction by a character works, or if it’s trash. I think I can do it, but I expect I’ll miss a lot the first time around, unfortunately that’s not really a solution, more of an approach.

The one place where my reviewer pointed out a problem he characterized as just being in the details will actually require a pretty thorough re-write to bring a measure of plausibility to it. Why? well, what he pointed out was just a symptom of a much larger problem, which I did see clearly once it was pointed out. It wasn’t just the details that were problematic, it was the entire situation that didn’t make any sense, which is why the details weren’t right. How could they be? I don’t think this is the only place I’ve got this problem, once I go through it looking for it, I expect most of my chapters will need rather a lot more work.

Another issue I’ve got with plausibility is a lot broader. While the plot is generally sound, I think, there are key elements that are pinned on pretty weak justification or on events that would not have ended in the manner I have described or imagined. It’s written so that those inconsistencies really don’t make themselves known until pretty late in the story.

My solution? I don’t have one, at least not a good one. I spent the weekend brooding on it (and going to a whiskey tasting), and can’t think of a way to really address some of these larger issues without re-writing significant chunks of the story to make the key plot points sit on top of much more plausible circumstances. Maybe that is what needs to happen, but really, how many times can I do that before I have to admit defeat and throw in the towel? I can’t say I’ve hit that point yet, but if the first reaction to a fantasy novel is that it’s not believable, that’s a major problem. If your reader is already expecting implausible stuff, yet it’s not believable. Damn, though I did ask for it, and I got it.