First in a series of promised screeds about writing n' stuff, from a writer who might be published some day!
I thought I'd begin at the beginning, namely the plot. Before you have anything written down, before there's more than a germ of a seed of an idea in your head about story or characters or anything else.
Sometimes, I find, plot will be hidden. Many times I start with a character or a concept I love and build around that. I'll use two examples for the rest of la belle essay:Prince of Bones
, abortive dark fantasy novel.Night Life
, successful urban fantasy novel.
Attempt 1: Prince of Bones
was born out of a question I asked myself, namely, "What if Sauron had been the hero of Lord of the Rings
? What if Voldemort had vaporized that twit Harry Potter and gone on to become the most powerful wizard evar? What then?" What if the "dark lord" was the central part of the story? I really wanted to answer this burning question and so I started with a central concept of a pagan-ish dark lord oppressed by a good-but-not-really "Christian" regime in the form of an overbearing king person. Lucius, the "dark lord" was marked at birth by the ancient god of death to serve as his avatar during armageddon, the Prince of Bones. He raided villages, had an awesome punk-rock goblin second in command and was generally evil and despicable. However, in the end of the story, he was supposed to defy the death god and save the world. Looking back, a number of things sunk this plot. I was working from not one but two high concepts (dark lord as hero/Christians bad pagans good.) I had a flawed main character, and not in the good way. I had set a task for poor Lucius that he was never going to be able to fulfill. He wasn't
the savior of the world. He was the god-damned dark lord! And fun as he was to write, in the end, the world must be saved, or blown up. Sure, you can end with a third option, if you want readers to rip off your head and spit down your neck, but satisfactory resolution is a must, and Lucius wasn't having any of it. Prince of Bones
was abandoned at the 35k word mark, although if I ever bridge the chasm of nothingness where a third act should be I may revisit it.
Attempt 2: Night Life
came from a crappy blockbuster movie. I, out of a misguided and foolish love for all things Hugh Jackman, journeyed to a movie theater to see Van Helsing
. The movie was terrible but I came away thinking, "Hey, it would be really cool to write a badass werewolf protagonist who fights crime! And stuff!" Night Life
was the exact opposite of Prince
. Luna, the character, came first and stood around poking me in the arm until I wrote her a world to live in. And the world did not
come easily. First, Luna lived alone, with no family except for a dead grandmother who had raised her. Then Luna became a private detective, not a cop, and had an obsessive-compulsive vampire partner. Then she was a cop again, only werewolves were a super seekrit society that no humans knew about. Then everyone knew. Then some people. At this point, I decided there needed to be magic. And demons. And a love interest who wasn't really interested in her at all in the first draft of the novel that eventually won me representation. The sole reason Night Life
came into being was because Luna would. Not. Shut. Up. Luna
had a plot. She knew exactly where she'd end up at the finale of the book. It was getting her there that was the bitch.
I learned from both projects. Prince
taught me that yeah, not outlining is all fine and good and freespirited, but you can't make a weak third act into a gripping climax no matter how cool your concept is. Details and concept must work in tandem, like those people movers at the airport, so that they don't trip over one another and result in small children getting sucked into the gears. If a concept just isn't working for me, I've been doing this long enough to realize that I probably need to tilt it at a different angle and/or leave the project be for a few days and rethink my committment. Night Life
proved the old adage that great characters do not a great story make. There needs to be some actual story
, and not just a generic Plot-o-Matic plot either. (There's one for every genre!) Again, the whole working in tandem concept comes into play.
One last thing about plotting...start writing. If you get an idea, try banging out the first few pages. I've ditched more crappy plots this way than I could tell. If the writing isn't fun, if it doesn't flow out of you (even if it's crappy) you have a clunker concept behind it. Save yourself the pain and do a practice first page when that germ of a seed of a thought pops into your noggin. If you're totally OCD and outline everything first, writing a nice narrative-style outline serves the same purpose.
And just in case anyone was wondering where my ideas generally come from...everywhere. Movies. Songs. Other books (usually nonfiction.) Paintings and photographs. A lot of them happen while I'm in the shower or vacuuming or doing some other mundane task that frees my brain from immediate worries. Sometimes I'll have moments of "Wouldn't it be cool if..." and boom, a story idea springs from that.
Here endeth the evil plots.