Is that supposed to happen? or How I fixed my first novel

So I am neck deep in untangling the final mess of my third book for its April 1 deadline (so very tempted to send a 1 page manuscript ending with “Rocks fall, everybody dies.” but I don’t think my editor would see the April Fools day humor in that), and I’ve been thinking about revelations. This book has me bringing out a lot of my big guns: world secrets, power players, secret histories, truths that could break up the primary relationships of the series, all that sort of good stuff! But revealing all of this to the reader in a way they can understand and care about has been something of a challenge.

The author is in a unique, omnipotent position when it comes to their work. They literally know everything. If they haven’t thought about it, then it doesn’t exist. If they made something one way and later change their minds, then the thing changes to suit whatever the author needs it to. It’s tempting to see this limitless power as limitless fun, but really it’s a constant liability. I have to think of literally everything, and not just what I care about, but stuff other people will notice is missing if I leave it out (like how my characters never seem to eat, which I mentioned in an earlier post and have taken steps to correct by adding 200% more food to book 3). But more important than crass details like daily caloric intake or the fact that no one poops in fantasy (don’t think about that one too hard) is the information you actually want your reader to know.

At a very simple level, books are the revelation of information over time. Stuff happens which causes other stuff to happen, and you keep reading to find out what. Revealing what happens next in a way that keeps the reader reading is the hallmark of good writing, and there are as many ways to do it as there are books. Great writers make it look so simple, but as with all things worth doing, it’s way harder than it looks. For example, in my first book I had these huge, deep world secrets that were SOO COOOL (to me), and I didn’t want to tip my hand too soon. I wanted the mystery to peek out of the background, tempting people to keep reading. So I dropped subtle hints, so subtle, in fact, that no one got them.  My editor/agent/readers kept telling me to make the book bigger, deeper. I was indignant! I was deep! Didn’t they see all this amazing stuff I was doing in the background? Well, no. I saw it, because I knew it was there. If other people were going to see it, I was going to have to make the writing on the wall a little larger.

The first thing I tried was to make everything more obvious, but not too obvious. There is nothing I loathe more in a book that really blatant foreshadowing, or, as I call it, two by foreshadowing (on account of the way it beats you into submission).  Now, this sort of obvious information revealing does indeed get the point across. It also makes readers roll their eyes. Even worse, however, really obvious hinting breaks tension. You start to wonder how the other characters aren’t getting this, and disbelief begins to set in. (Suspension of disbelief is a tricky thing. People will buy magical cities floating in space, but have a character who is SO TOTALLY OBVIOUSLY the bad guy surrounded by supposedly smart people who steadfastly refuse to get the enormous clue and that suspension vanishes pretty quickly. ) But for all the dangers of over stating, understating gets you nowhere either. I played things too close to the vest and lost a lot of my tension. People simply didn’t see the things I’d put out there to build the mystery of why my main character could do some of the impossible things he does, thus making those impossible things confusing rather than cool. So I went through the novel scene by scene, and in every scene I asked myself “what do I want the reader to get out of this scene? Why is it here?” and then I went through the scene again bringing those bits of information to the front. This made my novel enormously better without adding anything other than clarity.

The next step I took to fix this not-getting of important information was to add a scene where two very big movers in the world (who previously had only had mysterious cameos) sit down and have a chat that reveals important information. This was a scene I spent a LOT of time on. Scenes like this, where people who know a lot talk about what they know, are very dangerous. It’s so easy to have a “As you know, Bob,” kind of moment. I ended up rewriting this scene a dozen times to get the right mix of overheard, casual, in character conversation and vital information. I think it’s the single most poured over 1000 words in the book other than the first 1000. But it was this scene, and the other work I did bringing out information in other scenes, that took my book from Okay to publishable.

Weeeeeell, there was some other stuff too, like pacing changes and general bad-writing cleanup and implementing all of Lindsay (my agent’s assistant) and Devi’s (my editor’s) wonderful suggestions, but a LOT of my triumph I owe squarely to making all that cool stuff in the book bold enough that people could actually see it.

9 Responses to “Is that supposed to happen? or How I fixed my first novel”

  1. March 6, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    As an aspiring writer, it’s good to know the pros have this problem, too. 🙂

    In one of the projects I have going–a secondary world fantasy–there’s a great deal of “deep” background hiding underneath the surface of the story. Some of it will be impossible to include (and hopefully unnecessary), and some of it I desperately want to include, and I think it is very necessary.

    But for the latter some, it’s often material not directly related to the protagonist’s current position, and so I am having similar trouble in-clueing the audience without breaking POV or launching into an obvious info-dump. Of course, every action in the story has that deep, dark significance for me, because I know the background without it being on the page. Yet the reader will know nothing that isn’t on the page, and finding that balance you mentioned in your post is probably one of the hardest things about writing this particular story.

    In fact, I might venture to say that for any story, one of the most difficult tasks of the writer is putting everything on the page that must be there, while putting nothing on the page that shouldn’t be there.

  2. 2 rachelaaron
    March 7, 2010 at 3:25 am

    I think everyone has this problem. Honestly, the best I’ve ever seen it done (the foreshadowing of enormous deep, problems without exposition) was in Sarah Monette’s Melusine (http://www.amazon.com/Melusine-Sarah-Monette/dp/0441014178/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267946606&sr=8-1) series. She can convey more in 2 sentences than some authors can in entire books. I’m a huge Monette fangirl though, so there’s a little bias. 😀

  3. March 7, 2010 at 8:11 am

    “Two by foreshadowing” — classic! I realize all authors have this challenge but in the case of world building it’s amplified. Not only do you have to carefully tease the audience, but consistency is utterly crucial. No eleventh hour (or book 3) trickery or you are in trouble. In my own book, I have a set of characters with skills that I don’t want to fully reveal and, like your readers, people said “But who ARE they?” I finally had a trainee sit down with his teacher and say “What is it exactly that we do?” I had to laugh but it did the trick.

    A great post for all of us world-builders rowing along beside you. Thanks! SGR

  4. March 8, 2010 at 12:07 pm

    Rachel, maybe there is a place in the muse-sphere where all the missed meals of fantasy characters end up because I think I tapped into it while writing the first draft of my current WIP. I was just reading back over what I’d written and realized that in the first fifteen scenes, food is used as a prop in six of them. Your characters might be starving, but mine are going to be 600lbs by the end of this book. LOL.

  5. 5 rachelaaron
    March 9, 2010 at 12:37 am

    Aahahahaah. That is awesome. Glad someone’s eating. My pack of MCs are always doing something Extremely Important (TM), and food, even when I remember it, just seems to just slow down the scene. So, they don’t get to eat. Good thing they’re not real or I’d be getting sued for violation of worker’s rights.

  6. March 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Okay, have to say I absolutely love “two by foreshadowing!” Thanks for the clear description of a problem that I have suffered a time or two. That balance between saying too little and giving away too much is a difficult one.

  7. April 2, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Hello there, Happy April Fool’s Day!

    The musician finally finished a new song, but no one buys it. He was telling another musician about it, and the other guy said, “Let me hear it”.
    The first guy went to the piano and played a wonderful tune. When he finished, the second guy said, “That’s a wonderful tune! I don’t see why no one will buy it. What do you call it?”
    The first man says, “I love you so goddam much I gotta shit.”

    Happy April Fool’s Day!

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