Writing in fractals

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.

2 comments for “Writing in fractals

  1. John
    March 9, 2014 at 8:22 am

    I have certainly fallen into the write/ rewrite trap many times. The first few chapters of my current project started out that way and I ended up getting frustrated and shelving it for a long time. When I picked it up again, I decided I needed to just get through a single complete draft. The story and characters inevitably change through the writing process from what I’d originally outlined and that’s okay. I make lots of notes as I see the changes coming, but I’m trying not to rewrite because I realized, like you said in your post, that events in chapters 10, 20, 30, etc., inevitably affect or rely on decisions and foreshadowing in every earlier chapter. Until chapters 10, 20, etc. are written I can’t know for certain what changes I need to make in chapter 1, 2, 5, etc.

    I realize I mainly just restated what you said in your post but it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one that struggles with the desire to go back and rewrite my early chapters again and again. Thanks for the post, keep up the good work.

  2. H. R. Ryder
    H. R. Ryder
    March 8, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    One of the big guidelines that I use is what the characters actually know, and what they would be willing to say to others. When a scene is from a particular character’s point of view, you can only reveal information that the character already knows, or that the character is learning in that scene. Some can be revealed through dialogue, but the speakers are each going to have their own motives in what they choose to share and to whom.

    One thing I like to do in my writing is to have characters lie about certain things, or tell half-truths, or completely make stuff up if it suits them, so I have to tip off my readers not to take everything said at face value. It is helpful to give readers some clues as to why they can trust.

    I think having layers of misinformation is particularly important when I’m writing supernatural in order to make that air of mystery and unknown. I have to know how my supernatural critters work and how they fit in with the world so that I can have everything work in a logical manner according to those background rules, but I don’t tell readers what those background rules are. I think part of the reason that stories like Bram Stoker’s Dracula is that readers catch glimpses of a wide range of his supernatural powers including being able to climb vertical surfaces like a reptile. Some would have been familiar from folklore, but there were enough new things that it kept people wondering, “If he can do that, what else is he capable of?” I would like my readers to be wondering, thinking, questioning, putting together puzzle pieces and actively engaging in the world presented in the book. Giving out information too easily can kill the sense of mystery and insult the intelligence of the reader. I hate it when I read books where the author is trying so hard to prove that the bad guys are really bad that I feel like I’m being repetitively struck with a sledgehammer before I’ve even reached page fifteen.

    Sometimes I have to look at what is really important for readers to know in order to understand what is going on, and what they don’t. I’ve got more of a balancing act to do when it comes to novels that are part of a series: I may know something when I am writing book one that isn’t important for readers to know in book one, but will be very important for book three. I can drop hints here and there of things that they will get to learn later, but revealing too much that they don’t need to know now, can bore readers and leave the writing cluttered with large hunks of exposition or irrelevant details.

    Choosing what to reveal is not just about the big plotline stuff, but can also be a matter of how much you describe characters and settings. I will admit that as a reader, I will sometimes skip part of books. It is usually happens when the main character has entered a new town, and then there’s five paragraphs of descriptions of what every building looks like and how they were constructed and how well they are maintained, and what all the people are wearing, and what the weather is like, and what the ground is like, and…and…and… I tend to skip those paragraphs and look for where the story begins again.

    So as a writer, I know what the apartment buildings look like, how dirty they are, the way they smell, the history of the building, what the rent is like, whether or not the landlord visits frequently, and all sorts of other details that wouldn’t be immediately apparent to a character walking up to the apartment to ring the bell. The things that are important to relay to a reader are the things the character would notice, because it can give information both about the setting and the character. Maybe the crumbling brickwork reminds a character of home. Now you know he didn’t grow up in an upper-class family, and I didn’t have to tell you that directly. I work in the descriptions that are important as the characters interact with that environment. I try to avoid writing large swaths of descriptions and expositions that break the flow of what is actually happening in the story. It is usually a sign that I’m revealing too much.

    On the other hand, I know that I sometimes err on the side of not revealing enough. So readers complain that they need more details about what the main character looks like because I didn’t see any reason to bring up his eye color when it isn’t something he is likely to be thinking of and he’s not looking at himself. The writer’s group unanimously told me that I needed more information on the looks of the main character, and that’s part of why I really value the feedback from my readers so that I can adjust what I am leaving “under the water line.” If there isn’t enough description of the setting or characters, it can make it hard for readers to engage in the story to begin with. If too few of the motivations and actions of various characters are revealed, the events unfolding can look like a remarkably convenient coincidence to the readers instead of an immersive world with internal logic. I’ve made mistakes going both on both sides of revealing too much and too little, but that is what second drafts are for.

    I’d love to hear from others on how you choose what stays under water.

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