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A Brief Discussion of Literary Method

04 Feb

A few years ago, a friend and fellow writer was revisiting a short story about vampires, and she was considering a series centered on the same family. My second fantasy manuscript was far less complete than it is now.

In the discussion, she references my novels (Dragon’s Rook and Dragon’s Bane), and I reference Thieves’ Honor, a science fiction serial that was being written for Ray Gun Revival magazine.

Friend:

How do you keep a chaptered story REAL? You do a great job with Dragon’s Rook and Bane, but my problem has always been keeping things fresh. In chaptered tales, I tend to maunder along, wallowing in character’s emotions, because you have to take them day to day. I need to keep action rolling along. Do you use chapter outlines? I have little patience with writing outlines, they only frustrate me.

Me:

I’m not sure what you mean by keeping a chaptered story real or fresh, but I’ll try to answer.

…One recent criticism (about my work) is that the main characters are too good, too perfect; they never make the wrong choices, and therefore they aren’t interesting. On the other hand, one old critique expressed irritation that Kieran is a weak character, that he lets other people push him around. I hate characters who are too saintly; I also hate characters who consistently operate without spines…How weird is that? (Write the best you can; you won’t please everyone, but you can learn your craft.)

Second, about keeping it real: My early drafts of an emotional or dramatic scene tend to be melodramatic, totally over the top. Subsequent drafts are pared down and pared down and pared down until several pages may end up only as a few paragraphs. Sometimes it takes a while to get to the core message, to the essence of what I or the characters need to say. This also means that some readers are dissatisfied, because characters tend toward reticence. However, I think facial expressions, silences, and actions can reveal just as much — or even more — than words can.

(As a reader), when I’ve been dissatisfied with characters, sometimes it’s as a result of authors who force stories to conform to what they want rather than what the stories or the characters dictate. This Dragon saga has taken so many turns that it bears almost no resemblance to its original idea. That’s because I learn things about the world, the people, the customs, the history, and so on. As I learn about my own creation, I try to incorporate that into the story. That can lend a certain reality to the fiction.

Another thing: Men don’t emote or react like women; women don’t emote or react like men. On the other hand, there are times when general humanity takes over, and a man weeps loudly or a woman issues a challenge because her pride is threatened. People are just people, with no regard to gender, age, religion, politics, philosophy, or agenda. Again, knowing what to do and when is a result of revision after revision after revision…

Third, about keeping it fresh: The story must move. The characters must always be faced with a problem, a decision, a conflict, an obstacle, a task. There are times when the story needs to slow down–to give the reader a break, if not the characters–but even the slow times need to accomplish something: give information, reveal character or motivation, answer questions, set up the next conflict, and so on. I still need help with this, too. It’s one of my biggest difficulties with Thieves’ Honor.

Fourth, about outlining: I do, and I don’t. I view outlines like the crew of the Black Pearl views the Pirates’ Code: as suggestions. Sometimes I do an outline or a timeline in order to orient myself in the story, when I’ve lost my grip on the plot. Sometimes I outline in order to make the story progress in a clear fashion. But, for the most part, I let the characters, the setting, or the circumstances dictate the outcome. That doesn’t mean I don’t keep certain goals in mind i.e. the finding of the sword in the Dragon story, and the restoration of the House of Kel. (SPOILER ALERT) Or, in Thieves’ Honor, the joining of the Vega crew with the colonial rebels.

Friend:

(Y)our answers helped a lot! But I forgot to say that an item that draws my attention as a reader is when the chapter breaks off at a key suspenseful point to address another set of characters. But if the gaps between the action are too long, I’ll skip and follow the more interesting set of characters.

Writers or readers, feel free to jump in and offer your opinions. I’m always curious to know how other writers operate, and why readers are drawn to one story but not another.
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