I Started A New Book

One possible image of Jim Thompson, protagonist of The Lore Of Efrathah

I’m not reading a new book. I’m writing a new book. This may not be a big deal to lots of writers, but it is to me. I’ve been working on The Lore Of Efrathah, the four book epic fantasy story of Jim Thompson and his journey … well, hopefully some day you’ll get to read it. But suffice it to say, I’ve been working on that story for a very long time.

The book I’m starting now is my “Hobbit” book — the prequel of the four-book epic. I’m pretty excited about it, to be honest. At first I didn’t have a story, just an end point. I also knew I didn’t want it to be a journey quest, since that’s primarily what Lore is. I wanted this one to be different, but similar enough so that readers who like it wouldn’t be disappointed with the four-book epic.

So now I have the rudiments of a story, and I’m in the process of developing characters. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had to flesh out main characters. Sure, I added minor characters from time to time, especially in Against Blood and Fire, the conclusion of Lore. But this is different. This is the main character and the necessary opponents. Who are these people, I keep asking. What do they want?

It’s slower than I’d like, but more fun, too. Slower because I’m taking a different approach this time. I’m really trying to get the scaffolding up before I start writing. I mean, I want the story structure to be in place. I want to know it’s right, that it works, that I have all the pieces.

Not that I think I’ll map out the story, then sit down and write. I don’t work that way. In John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story which I’ve been going through, he has twenty-two steps in developing the story framework, one being to list all the scenes you’ll have in your book.

I balked. No way am I ready to list scenes. Even when I knew my characters inside and out and had the end of the series all lined up and in my sights would I have dared to write out a list of scenes. How can I know, when things change so easily?

I tried that in my first book. I carefully outlined the entire thing but as I wrote, the next logical step after I completed one scene was something different from my outline. So I inserted and changed and doubled back and skipped. And decided I’d never do the entire outline ahead of time again.

But I have to know what’s going to happen in the present scene and maybe in the one after that. I can’t write when I’m facing blankness. I don’t know how to start.

I stumbled on a system that works well for me, and later learned that Jim Bell had a name for it in his Plot & Structure book. I use the headlights method. I need to shine the light far enough ahead so I can see where to go, and I need to know what my destination is, but I don’t need to have the entire map laid out in front of me as I head down the road.

I’ve got lots to do still. I don’t have names for my characters yet. They are still Hero, Opponent 1, Opponent 2 and so on. I don’t know the subplots for sure and I don’t know who the allies will be, though I have some rough idea.

The main thing I’m trying to do now is get to know this new protagonist, and not make him a Jim Thompson clone!

Anyway, if any of you think of it, you can pray for me as I venture out into this new story. It’s exciting, as I said, and at times a little daunting. I fluctuate from thinking the plot is too convoluted to thinking it’s too simple and boring. I think I’ll never know the characters well enough, that I won’t be able to make someone with the set of needs and desires Hero has, likable enough for readers to take to him.

So yes, I would appreciate many prayers. Only by God’s grace will I be able to make this story what I would like it to be.

Fantasy Friday – What’s Better Than Tolkien?

As the old year drew to a close, I abandoned a contemporary fantasy for the tried and true — a re-reading of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which you may recall from the post Fantasy Friday – Reading the Greats.

In explaining my decision, I said, in part,

I want a book of substance, that says something and makes me think larger. I want a story that touches my heart and makes me cry. Or laugh. I want a story I will want to re-read some day.

What book better qualifies than one of Tolkien’s? He is the master of fantasy, certainly. But why? Once we know Frodo makes it safely to Rivendell, once we know who the nine are who will make up the Fellowship, once we know the mountain won’t let them reach the pass, once we know who doesn’t make it out of the mines of Moria, why read it all again?

Today I read the last of writing instructor John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story which ends with the chapter “The Never-Ending Story” in which he addresses the factors that make a story live on. Such stories are the ones we re-read. Such stories are the ones that influence us long after we’ve put them back on the shelf.

Truby looks first at stories that do the opposite, then presents ways in which a writer can create the kind of story that doesn’t leave the “must read” lists. Most of what he says, however, is quite different from Tolkien’s work. Is Mr. Truby wrong, then, in his estimation? Actually, no, he stretches his theory to include books like The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

These are stories that are plot heavy and story-world heavy. The characters are important but less so than what they accomplish and how it affects the world. These are the types of stories that usually do not make the have-to-re-read list since the driving force is “what happens next?” Once the reader knows the outcome, the need to re-read evaporates.

But Tolkien’s work is different. He does two things which Truby identifies as elements creating an “infinite story tapestry.”

  • Place a tremendous number of details in the background of the story world that on later viewings [readings] move to the foreground.
  • Add elements of texture — in character, moral argument, symbol, plot, and story world — that become much more interesting once the audience has seen [readers have read] the plot surprises and the hero’s character change. (p. 420)
  • I remember the first time I re-read The Fellowship of the Ring. I had all but forgotten the character Tom Bombadil and much of what happened to Frodo and friends in the Old Forest. But this time, reading again after much less time had elapsed, I knew what was coming and focused on different aspects. I even thought ahead to Fangorn and the Ents.

    I also have a better grasp of how The Hobbit fits into the history of Middle Earth. There are many, many more references to Bilbo’s story than I remembered. (And now I wonder if that’s because I re-read The Hobbit since re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring. 😉 )

    One reason writers should read great literature is to learn. To be honest, I hope it’s one of those “caught, not taught” things because when I read Tolkien, there’s just so much to enjoy that I forget to look at how he put it all together. Is there anyone better in fantasy?

    Thinking About “Theme”

    “The art of [including themes] is to infuse them into a dramatic story that compels on both levels: the dramatic and the thematic.”

    So says a commenter to the StoryFix article, “The Thing About Theme – What Are You Trying to Say?” by guest blogger Jessica Flory. Interestingly there was no discussion about the problems of writing stories with a message.

    How different the Christian writing community is. The discussion over the last few years has run the gamut — from those eschewing any message, claiming that saying something in fiction is propaganda, to those on the other end who think a long speech setting forth the plan of salvation should be in every novel called Christian.

    I’ve written extensively on the subject of theme and have been gratified to see others address the topic too. But there still seems to be some misunderstanding. Some people believe that an overt message is automatically preachy. That’s not close to the dictionary definition:

    having or revealing a tendency to give moral advice in a tedious or self-righteous way (Oxford English Dictionary).

    What makes the theme of a novel seem tedious or self-righteous?

    Tedious would be “same ol’, same ol’.” Self-righteous, I believe, would be the author spelling out the message to make sure the reader gets it. It’s an insult to the reader, and it violates the story.

    Unfortunately, Christian fiction has become known for both those problems. Just last week I was bemoaning with a friend the tendency for Christian romance to tell the story, and retell the story, of a Christian girl falling in love with the Bad Boy, only to convert him in the end as they fall in love and begin their happy lives together.

    That scenario suffers on two fronts. First, it has been done before … with some frequency. Nothing other than the salvation message comes through the story — nothing new for the reader familiar with salvation to think about. Secondly, stories with that basic premise may focus on spelling out how conversion “works” so that the reader gets it.

    I’m not opposed to romance in fiction, and I’m not opposed to conversions. Both can work and they can work in the same story. However, to avoid being tedious, something different, interesting, unusual should be added. Or the expected should be turned on it’s keester. 😉

    To avoid being self-righteous, the author must muzzle himself. He must also resist turning a character into his mouthpiece.

    Here’s what writing instructor John Truby has to say about theme:

    The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. But instead of making the characters a mouthpiece for a message, we will express the theme that is inherent in the story idea. And we’ll express the theme through the story structure so that it both surprises and moves the audience (from The Anatomy of Story).

    On his web site, Mr. Truby addresses the approach one movie takes to theme:

    The Constant Gardener shows us what happens when a film’s moral argument outweighs its story. The film has a serious thesis it wants to express concerning the plight of Africans and the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies that supply them with drugs. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a theme and creating a story from that. But it had better be a good story. [emphasis added]

    Some people argue that many who read Christian fiction like overt Christian themes. That’s why they choose to read those novels. Overt is not at issue. Overt themes are not by definition tedious or self-righteous. Overt themes do not, by nature, cause readers to feel as if the author is talking to them about Christianity rather than telling them a story.

    The classic example of stories with overt themes is C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. No one can miss the good triumphing over evil with the king comes into Narnia, or forgiveness purchased with sacrifice, both of which are at the heart of The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. Though the themes are clear, I have never heard Lewis accused of being preachy.

    In short, we Christians would do well to stop quibbling about whether or not stories should have themes. Yes, they should! But whether they are overt or subtle, they must be crafted well so that they don’t “overwhelm the story.”

    Published in: on August 17, 2011 at 7:05 pm  Comments (7)  
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    Writing Fiction—Planning the Truby Way

    Anyone who hangs around fiction writers or our blogs soon deciphers that there are supposedly two types of authors—seat of the pants-ers and outliners—though James Scott Bell in Plot and Structure (Writer’s Digest) identified a third sort of in between writer.

    I’ve identified myself as the latter, at least when I write fiction. When I journal (or blog), I definitely write on the fly. For this blog, I pick a topic and pour out my thoughts as they come. When I journal, I don’t even pick a topic!

    On the other hand, when I write non-fiction formally—the articles I did for Victorian Homes, for example—I carefully research and plan.

    Fiction seems to fall in between.

    But I’m currently dreaming up a stand alone fantasy to write when I complete The Lore of Efrathah (I’m revising the last book, now titled Against Blood and Fire.) I had one plot point and no characters, though I knew the story would take place in Efrathah before Lore. But who would it be about, what would it be about, what would happen?

    No thoughts, but no hurry either. Until a few weeks ago, when I was in Borders with our little group of SoCal speculative fiction writers (Mike Duran, Merrie Destefano, Rachel Marks, and me), and Rachel pulled The Anatomy of Story (Faber and Faber) by John Truby from the shelf.

    I was excited about the book because it put a premium on theme, something few other writing books seem to do. But once I had my copy, I realized it was more than a book that discusses the elements of stories. The subtitle is accurate: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller.

    Well, I don’t know about the “master” part, but I do know that by setting out to follow the steps, I am building a story. And the great part, as Truby says, it is organic. It isn’t a formula where you plug in character type A in slot B, then fifty pages later shift to Act II.

    All that to say, I am becoming a firm believer in plans. I’ve run across several blogs/writer comments in which writers are obviously well into their story and they do not know what will happen.

    One said his character was accused of a crime, of which he was innocent. Or not, because he did have a good motive to commit said villainous deed.

    Well … doesn’t it MATTER early on if your character is a villain or a hero? I mean, is it OK to switch part way through a story? Or will the author, of necessity, have to go back over that earlier ground and rewrite, putting in the appropriate foreshadowing and character attributes of a villain?

    Either way, it seems so unnecessary to me if an author would sit down and think the story through first.

    Sure, changes happen as a story unfolds. The character must act in a way that is consistent, so in a given scene, the appropriate and necessary action may be one the author had not anticipated before hand. Hence new possibilities open up.

    But using Truby’s organizational structure, there is a framework that serves to hold the story in place so it doesn’t wander.

    Here are some pertinent quotes:

    Most writers don’t use the best process for creating a story. They use the easiest one …

    The writer comes up with a generic premise, or story idea, that is a vague copy of one that already exists …

    He thinks of the opponent and minor characters as separate from and less important than the hero. So they are almost always week, poorly defined characters.

    When it comes to theme, our writer avoids it entirely so that no one can accuse him of “sending a message” …

    He comes up with a plot and a scene sequence based on one question: What happens next? …

    Often he organizes his plot using the three-act structure, an external imprint that divides the story into three pieces but doesn’t link the events under the surface. As a result, the plot is episodic, with each event or scene standing alone.

    Instead of the above, Truby says the process he is detailing will allow you, the author to

    construct your story from the inside out … With each chapter [of The Anatomy of Story], your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.

    This latter is exactly what I’ve experienced so far. I think I’m being won over. I’m not outlining. I’m not filling out character charts. I’m thinking and answering questions and imagining and recording in a precise way what each new layer of my story will become. I hope. 😕

    Faith in Fiction

    When I first became active on the internet, a friend introduced me to Bethany editor Dave Long’s blog and the associated discussion board known as Faith in Fiction. While Dave is no longer an active blogger, there is a lot of interesting material in the archives at his site.

    Lots of intense discussion on the FIF board too. So much of the interaction that took place there helped shape my thoughts about fiction and how it intersected with my faith—that is, how faith comes into a story.

    I think FIF was the first place I encountered writers who claimed Christians should stop making theme the point of their writing. They didn’t say this in those exact words, but the idea was clear: Good writing might have an accidental theme, but anything else would be too preachy.

    I’ve long countered this view and have been pleased to see authors such as Andrew Peterson and Athol Dickson discuss theme in a positive light.

    Still, I have to admit, as much as I believe theme is an integral part of stories and should be crafted as carefully as any other element, I was surprised to see a writing book that takes this same view.

    The book is The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Here are a few pertinent quotes:

    We might say that theme, or what I call moral argument, is the brain of the story. Character is the heart and circulation system. Revelations are the nervous system. Story structure is the skeleton. Scenes are the skin.

    KEY POINT: Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.

    No individual element in your story, including the hero, will work unless you first create it and define it in relation to all the other elements.

    Wow! The theme is the brain and must be created and defined in relation to the other elements. Then this:

    The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. But instead of making the characters a mouthpiece for a message [!], we will express the theme that is inherent in the story idea. And we’ll express the theme through the story structure so that it both surprises and moves the audience.

    Well, I can tell you, I can hardly wait to get to the Moral Argument chapter (Chapter 5) and see what Truby has to say.

    Already I’m learning more about theme. What Christian writers call preachy or propaganda is characters acting as mouthpieces for a message. There is a better way. The choices are not a preachy message versus no theme at all. I’m so excited that a writing instructor has tackled this subject.

    Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 1:29 pm  Comments (5)  
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