I read an interesting post on Jane Friedman’s blog, There are No Rules, entitled Telling a Story: One-Sentence Stress Test. It is a post well worth reading, but I want to focus on one thing she wrote. It is some advice that might have helped me over twenty years ago, but now comes a bit late. I provide the out-of context quote here because I think it is worth repeating.
For most first-time novelists, however, pursuing a story that resists the one-sentence stress test is perilous. Stephen King didn’t start off with The Stand; his first book was Carrie. Meanwhile, George R.R. Martin only undertook his complex fantasy cycle late in his career when his skills had reached full maturity.
Complex books like these should come with an FDA label: “WARNING! Trained professionals at work. Do not attempt this at home.”
Struggling writers who wave off such warnings often pay for their hubris by producing a novel that simply doesn’t work.
My own work over these many years is a testimony to the wisdom of Jane’s words. If I could go back to my younger self and give some writing advice it might well be something like her warning above. “Start with something simple. A straight forward tale that fits in one novel. Something easy to tell. Delay working on the complex epic until you have the skills to tell it properly.”
I had simple stories in my head back when I was in college, but I didn’t feel the urge to write those stories down, to tell them quick and fast. Instead I was lured by a disjointed series of ideas that felt right together, and so became fascinated by a complex puzzle of a tale that I could only glimpse at out the corner of my mind’s eye.
Over time I toyed and tweaked with the various ideas I had, arranged and rearranged them next to each other, trying to discover how the fragments fit together to form a greater whole. I knew I was trying to write something big, something complex, but I had no idea how big or how complex. I didn’t have the skills needed to tell my epic, nor those needed to find the thread of a story that connected one item to another.
Over the last several decades I gained the abilities needed to tell the epic I call Gods Among Men. I know my story now in ways I couldn’t in my youth, and I know what I must do to tell it. It is a daunting task, and if I had other books under my belt I would feel more confidant in my ability to do my story justice. To tell it the way it deserves to be told.
I said Jane’s advice comes a bit late. When I was younger it might have been possible for me to choose another story, a simpler tale that I could have focused on and finished. Now I cannot turn aside from Gods Among Men. Day and night I think on it; it fills my daydreams and is the center of every effort I make as a writer. Call it passion, or obsession, or just plain stubbornness, but the end result is the same. I cannot tell another story until I have Gods Among Men “finished” in some sense of the word.
I take solace, however, in a different thought: had I been more experienced, had I realized early on how complex and difficult it would be to tell Gods Among Men, I might never have found the nerve to to try writing it down.
Gods Among Men is the work of a lifetime, my lifetime. And the truth is I love this tale. It isn’t effort to work on it, to think on it, to write and edit for hours at a time. Well, sometimes it is an effort; but often I lose myself in a fantasy world of my own creation. A brutal world, a beautiful world, a complex realm with characters that defy simple labels such as “good” or “evil”.
Perhaps I shall never finish this tale of mine, that it will be nothing more than a monument to my own hubris. If so, that will be a shame, but not a tragedy. A tragedy would be if I had never tried to tell this story, if I had never accepted the challenge of telling one great, truly original, tale.