Writers in Training has been going since July 2013 every weekend, and I’ve been learning a tremendous amount about my writing. One of the things we all seem to struggle with at times is determining just how much to reveal or conceal about the overall story. I’ve heard it told that novels are like icebergs: You only see the 10% at the surface, but there’s 90% of the real story that the author knows that the reader will never see.
I see it very clearly in some of my own favorite writers, Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. They have an entire universe with history spanning longer than the process of evolution on the large scale, and on the smaller scale even the cab driver that takes the main character from point A to point B is well-developed enough that it breathes: The reader knows that cab driver has a personal history, even if they may never see what it is.
Lee and Miller themselves have an interesting story as writers. When they began their Liaden Universe novels, they had a three-book contract from their publisher. Book one (Agent of Change) sold well. Book two (Conflict of Honors)… for some reason the publisher decided to sell it overseas to a market that hadn’t been exposed to Book one, so it didn’t sell well. Although the publisher still had to sell the third book to complete the contract, the publishing industry blackballed Lee and Miller for years due to poor sales, during which they could not get publishing contracts.
In the meantime, the Internet happened. Fans of the Liaden Universe tracked Lee and Miller down, joined mailing lists, cheered the authors on, arranged sales of books so that it was possible to get our hands on that mysterious book two of the series, asked questions. They built momentum and fanbase and found new publishers willing to take them on. Lee and Miller formed SRM publishing, where they treated the Friends of Liad to yearly chapbooks of short stories that filled in their universe in tiny brushstrokes. We got to see the reasons why certain characters acquired the nicknames that they did, the life of the cab driver, or distant relative. Like seeing fractal patterns in their universe, the closer you look, the more you realize that there is to look at.
At today’s writers in training session, we were going over one of my chapters. My initial plans for the novel had avoided having any scenes directly from the perspective of (see here, I even hesitate about how much to reveal. Should I say villainess or anti-hero? She lives life according to a strict moral code, but evil and good are in the eye of the beholder). Today’s chapter seemed to need her though, even though I was still torn about putting in her perspective. She’s got such a rich history and plans, weakness and insanity that I can’t cram her all into the novel. I knew the combination of her insanity and her supernatural powers would make a big tangled mess of yarn to plop in a reader’s lap and expect anyone to be able to even find the beginning or end, or know what part of the yarn to grab onto.
The resulting discussion was amazing, enlightening, and makes me feel like even though I am in Chapter 10, I have to change a lot of character’s motivations throughout the novels. On the upside, it has led to a scene where this tangly character has to do something that is even creepier than I had originally intended. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to make major shifts in the book like this, where later chapters require massive changes to earlier chapters. I used to write a chapter, revise and polish and revise again trying to make each chapter perfect before moving onto the next. I’d get stuck in the trap of revision and never make progress towards completion. One of the gifts that the writer’s group has given me is the realization that I have to write the complete the entire draft before I go back and revise because perfection can only be determined when I know exactly what each part of the book is leading up towards, and having an outline laid out did not give me the level of detail I needed to see the whole picture. I can’t just revise a chapter, I am revising the entire fractal pattern, both the parts the readers see and what they don’t. The story is the same, but I’m drawing different colors to the surface.
It is hard not to go back right now and start the rewrites from Chapter one with the revelations of necessary changes that I had today, but I know that I have to press on in case Chapter 13 results in another wave of changes needed.