I have been delinquent in my duties to this site for the last week, and for that I apologize. My intent is to post at least twice a week, but that has proven difficult to maintain with my current schedule. Plus, I have been plagued by questions about my story of late. Questions that have consumed much of what I laughingly call my “free time”.
One of the hardest choices a writer can face is deciding what good material must be done away with so that important material will shine. You can write beautiful passages that slow a story down to a crawl, or have subplots that obscure the main ones, or so many characters that you can’t tell major ones from minor ones. If this is done intentionally then it is a legitimate artistic choice, even if it turns out to be a bad one. If any of these happen for no reason, and you make no attempt to correct the problems they cause, then you are guilty of bad writing.
Recently I was working on writing down a chapter-by-chapter outline of my whole story, Gods Among Men. This became a major task that forced me to think, long and hard, about the order of scenes and what each scene must include. I have long known my story was big with many interrelated parts, but I am beginning to realize that I have included much that simply needs to be removed.
A Bit Of Math
I think in terms of books, chapters, and sections. I have seven books in the series, thirteen chapters per book, three sections per chapter; each section can be as long as it needs to be, but must focus on one central scene or character. I know at a high level what each book must contain, and where each book must begin and end.
This rigorous structure helps me plot what must be done, and how much space I have to do it in. A quick calculation reveals that there will be 39 sections per book, 91 chapters in the whole series, and a grand total of 273 sections. That is the space I have to fill with words; no less and no more.
At first glance that sounds like a whole lot of wiggle room, but it is far less than you might think. A story has rhythms; a quickening of pace in some places and a slower mood for others. You can’t mix these elements directly, but must transition from one to the other. Too sharp of a transition and the story feels choppy, too slow and it becomes boring. A single book packed with heart-stopping action from beginning to end can be exhausting to read, and can cause readers to not care why characters do what they do. From there it is easy for the reader to not care about the character at all, and from there to stop caring about the work itself. The same danger exists with books that meander aimlessly and where nothing important ever seems to happen.
Too Many Notes
At one point in the movie Amadeus, Mozart is told that one of his works has “too many notes” and that he should “cut a few”. Mozart is rightly offended, and we agree with him that the advice is being given by fools.
But why do we agree with him? Because we know Mozart is a genius whose works will grow more popular the more people listened to it. There aren’t too many notes; there is a lack of appreciation from those who are listening.
The truth is that talents on the scale of Mozart are incredibly rare, and most artists think too highly of their own work. Sometimes there are too many notes, and the best artists are the ones who know which ones to cut.
In my case, I hew too closely to plot and subplot with too little consideration for characterizations. This is a consistent failure of mine. Partially it is because I don’t practice characterization often enough, but I have come to believe there is a bigger problem at play here.
Know You Story
It is hard to write a story you don’t fully understand, and it is only in the last few months that my story fully crystalized in my thoughts. As it did, I came to realize that I had characters that serve less purpose than I had first thought. Keeping big scenes with less important characters means less space for characters that are crucial. I have subplots that would be full plots in lesser works, subplots I crammed in because I thought I needed something to fill 273 sections. I also kept adding characters to flesh out scenes, to provide depth to the work as a whole.
I was right, and I was wrong. Yes, a sprawling epic will have many characters and subplots; that is the nature of sprawling epics. But a story that sacrifices quality for quantity is not worth the time it takes to write, nor will anyone likely read it to the end.
I need to make clear to the reader what are the important plots and subplots, and I need to develop them better. Also I need to make clear which characters are important and which aren’t; who should be followed closely, and who should be forgotten. Right now, I have more characters than I can reasonably include and do full justice too, and trying means there is less room to develop important characters. The work is a maze for me, and someone else has little reason to attempt navigating that maze.
Where To Now?
Gods Among Men is about Damon Roth, and he is not a nice character. He is not easy to relate to, easy to understand, nor should he be. But the reader needs someone to focus on that will draw them further into the work. Someone they care about, positively or negatively, and hope either succeeds or fails. Damon is ambiguous, and it is important he stay so.
By the same token, while I like the character of Artemis Arrowsmith, and while she is a crucially important character, she also is not easy to relate to or understand. She is also not a nice person, nor should she be. She is the lens though which the reader comes to see and understand Damon. She is important, but it is impossible for her to be someone the readers latch onto emotionally. I have written much of the first book as if she was the central character, and that was a mistake.
The person the reader must care about is Tara Rihtwis. She is the one whose success everyone must root for, whose failures everyone must cry over. Damon is the brain of the story, it is his quest for redemption that is the central-most plot line. Tara is the heart of the story, whose hardships make the reader want to turn the page and find out what happens next. Artemis is the character that joins them together, that is friend and ally to both.
This is my core insight in the last few weeks, and now I must begin trimming my notes to turn this insight into action. Anything that does not directly affect either Damon or Tara, that does not move their stories forward, must be eliminated. Any character that does not directly interact with them or influence them must be eliminated, or at least reduced to their most essential moments. Essential being defined by how it impacts Damon or Tara.
It is a harsh insight that carries with it drastic implications. I now have a scale to weigh what must be kept versus what must go. The hard part is actually forcing myself to live with what that insight tells me I must do. Major portions of Gods Among Men must be rethought, whole chapters rewritten. The plot remains as it was, but many subplots will be sacrificed so that the most important subplots can be adequately developed.
I must admit, I am not looking forward to this task I have set myself. But I think it is the right direction for me to take the story. The right choice to turn Gods Among Men into something people will want to read.